February 17, 2019

Broth of a nation

When you're tired, sick, and grumpy, coughing, sneezing, with a stuffy head and scratchy throat, there's nothing more comforting than a hot, steaming bowl of homemade chicken soup. 

There must be something to it because chicken soup is common fare worldwide. The poor, who can't often afford more expensive cuts of meat, can usually afford chicken. In agrarian societies, chickens take little space – not like cows or other larger animals. 

In the West, chicken soup is often associated with Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine. In the poor Jewish shtetls of Eastern Europe as well as among poor Ukrainian and Russian peasants, chicken was the only affordable meat. Every part of the chicken was used in a host of creative dishes. Soup was made by boiling chicken parts or bones with water with vegetables and flavorings, often adding noodles to the finished dish. Parts of the chicken cooked for soup could be re-used in other traditional dishes, such as knishes. The soup dish even made it to traditional holiday feasts, like chicken soup with matzoh balls for Passover. 

Throughout the world, chicken soup is believed to help overcome the general malaise of colds and flu. This “Jewish penicillin” is also “Belgian penicillin.” In Greece, avgolemono, a soup with chicken broth, rice, eggs, and lemon juice is served at the first sign of the sniffles. Chicken soup is a common cold remedy in Portugal, Brazil, Eastern Europe, the United States, China, and Korea, where it is made with ginseng, garlic, and ginger it is believed to prevent illness, not just cure it. 

Soup provides warmth to a feverish, chilled body; offers easily absorbed nutrients, and hydrates too. Steam from the hot liquid relieves sinus pressure, acting as a natural decongestant, and warm soup creates mucus that soothes the throat. While there is no conclusive proof that chicken soup helps when you're sick, sitting on the couch wrapped up in a soft, warm blankets and sipping salty chicken broth does make you feel better. 

Historical records show that chicken soup has been used by cold and flu sufferers for millennia. In the 10th century, the Persian physician Avicenna described its curative powers. Two centuries later, the Jewish scholar Maimonides recommended it for convalescents and wrote that it “has virtue in rectifying corrupted humours”.

Our grandmothers knew the benefits of chicken soup as good medicine, and today, modern medical research is validating these claims. Researchers at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami, Florida confirmed that soup does, indeed, relieve nasal congestion better than plain hot water. Other scientists believe that the curative power of chicken soup comes from cysteine, an amino acid in chicken skin.

Probably the most conclusive study to date, however, comes from Nebraska, where Dr. Stephen Rennard, a pulmonary specialist at the University of Nebraska's Medical Centre, tested chicken soup and found that it significantly reduced inflammation in the throat and nose due to colds or flu. Titled 'Chicken Soup Inhibits Neutrophil Chemotaxis In Vitro,' his research was published in the Oct. 17 2000 issue of Chest, the journal of the American College of Chest Physicians. 

Although they're not yet completely understood, we know that colds and flu result from viral infection that causes inflammation in the upper respiratory tract. 'Chicken soup might have an anti-inflammatory activity, namely the inhibition of neutrophil migration,' says Rennard. Neutrophils are the white blood cells which defend the body against infection. 

While the specific ingredients that make soup an effective cold remedy have not been identified, scientists believe a combination of ingredients is responsible for soup's curative powers. 'All vegetables and the soup had activity I think it's the concoction,' says Dr. Rennard 

Nutritious, easy to digest, simple to prepare, and relatively inexpensive, chicken soup can be a simple broth or a hearty meal. Accompanied by wholegrain bread and salad, chicken soup has enough substance and protein to make a healthy supper meal. There are a myriad of variations: chicken noodle, chicken rice, or chicken vegetable, each seasoned with an assortment of herbs and spices. The French serve consomm seasoned with bay leaves, garlic, fresh thyme and dry white wine. Ginger, garlic, scallions, soy sauce, rice wine and sesame oil make a Chinese soup; dill, parsley and root vegetables bring Eastern European flavors; cumin, laurel and rice make Portuguese canja; Colombian ajiaco includes corn, avocado, capers, potatoes and the herb guascas, and is served with a dollop of sour cream.

Some recipes are quick and easy to prepare; others demand longer cooking and are suitable for crock pots. It is best to bring the soup to a boil, then lower the heat to a simmer and cook a little while. Longer cooking times allow more calcium and other minerals to leach out of the bones, but vegetables cooked too long can become tasteless and soggy. This is why I find it best to cook the meat and seasonings for a while, then add vegetables shortly before serving. Fresh herbs should also be added at the end for maximum flavor. For a lower fat version, chill the soup and skim the layer of congealed fat from the top. This also results in a clearer broth. 

Chicken Soup 


1 quart water or broth

1 – 2 pounds chicken pieces (wings, necks, backs, thighs)

1 teaspoon salt 

3-4 whole grains allspice

3-4 peppercorns

2 bay leaves 

2 potatoes

2 carrots 

2 stalks celery

1 wedge cabbage

1 turnip

2 onions

1 clove garlic

1 teaspoon thyme

1 teaspoon sage

1 teaspoon rosemary

1/4 cup fresh minced parsley


Bring water with chicken pieces and seasonings (salt, allspice, peppercorns, bay leaves) to a boil; lower heat to simmer. Cook about one hour or longer, until meat is falling off the bones. 

While broth is cooking, prepare vegetables and cut into desired lengths. Remove chicken. Add vegetables and cook until tender; do not overcook. 

Remove bones, cut up the chicken meat and return to the soup.

Season with herbs and adjust seasonings, adding salt and pepper to your taste. 

Serve with a dollop of sour cream or some grated cheese on top, if you wish, or with croutons sprinkled in, or just “as is” with wholegrain bread and a salad.

Option: omit potatoes and add cooked pasta or rice at the end. 

Oriental Chicken Soup 


1 quart chicken broth or stock (preferably home-made) 

1/2 cup rice wine or cooking sherry

1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger

1 clove garlic, minced

1/8 teaspoon crushed red pepper

1/2 cup rice

1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts

2 teaspoons cooking oil 

4 ounces shitake mushrooms

1 bunch scallions (white and light green parts) – 6 or 7

1 small head Napa cabbage (about 3/4 pound), coarsely shredded

1/3 pound Chinese pod peas, trimmed and sliced diagonally into thirds

1 cup trimmed bean sprouts

2 – 3 Tablespoons soy sauce

1 – 2 teaspoons sesame oil

Lime wedges and freshly sliced red chili, to serve


In a large pot, combine chicken broth, wine, ginger, garlic and red pepper; bring to a boil over high heat. Add rice and chicken; return to the boil, lower heat to simmer, cook about 10 minutes or until chicken is cooked through, turn off the heat. Remove the chicken breasts and set aside to cool slightly. 

While broth and soup is cooking, prepare the vegetables. Remove root ends from scallions and slice thin. Wash and shred the cabbage. Trim and slice the snap peas and trim the bean sprouts. 

Heat oil in skillet until hot; reduce heat to medium, add mushrooms; cook 3-4 minutes until tender. Add shredded cabbage half the scallions, cook and stir for about a minute more. Add to soup, along with the snap peas, bean sprouts, sesame oil and soy sauce. Simmer just half a minute more and remove from heat. Shred or dice cooked chicken and return to soup pot. Adjust seasonings; you may wish to add a bit more hot pepper, powdered ginger or garlic powder. Sprinkle with remaining sliced scallions and serve immediately. Serve with fresh lime and chili on the side.