And Tom brought him chicken soup until he wanted to kill him.
The lore has not died out of the world, and you will
still find people who believe that soup will cure any hurt or illness
and is no bad thing to have for the funeral either.
—East of Eden, John Steinbeck
Grandmothers of the World Unite
I’ve always been intrigued by parallels in culinary traditions from far-removed places. For example, almost every cuisine seems to include some kind of dough filled with seasoned meat or vegetables—gyoza, pierogi, samosas, wontons, empanadas, bao, knishes, ravioli, pasties, shishbarak, and manti are all just variations on the same basic theme. Ditto for griddled batter-based breads, i.e. pancakes—there are Euro-American flapjacks, French crepes, Italian farinata, Indian dosas, Eastern European blintzes, Ethiopian injera, Chinese moo shu wrappers, Korean jeon, etc. Commonalities like those seem to point to universal imperatives or desires that form a sort of core or essence of the uniquely human act of cooking, like, for instance, the reliance of large, settled populations on grains and starchy vegetables as their dietary staples.
Chicken broth-based soup is another one of those near-universal foods, and what makes it unique is that not only is the soup itself basically the same wherever you go, but its use as a folk remedy is also seemingly universal. All over the world, whenever people are feeling under the weather, tradition dictates that the best thing to feed them is rice or pasta or potato simmered until very soft in a broth made from chicken bones, often flavored with some kind of alliums and aromatic herbs.
In Greece, it goes by the name avgolemno, for the egg and lemon that are traditionally included, and it’s prescribed as a remedy for colds and hangovers. In Korea, a chicken broth soup including ginger, ginseng, and rice called samgyetang is not just supposed to cure minor illnesses, but also to prevent them—a bit like the American “apple a day.” Chicken soup, often prepared with matzoh balls, is so often prescribed as a cure in Jewish families that it’s been referred to as “the Jewish penicillin.”
And soup’s reputation for healing and restorative powers may be best represented by its metaphorical invocation in the title of the bestselling series of collected “inspirational” writings whose many iterations also serve as a catalog of demographics that marketers see as “easy prey”:
2) People who identify as “animal lovers”:
3) People who are especially enthused about capitalism & mass entertainment, or captive audiences:
I think animal lovers win the “Biggest Sucker” prize because of the amazing co-branding that brings us Chicken Soup for the Cat Lover’s Soul Cat Food and Chicken Soup for the Dog Lover’s Soul Dog Food.
Chicken Soup Science
However, as the global omnipresence of the chicken soup-as-remedy suggests, it’s not just an old wives’ tale co-opted by the self-help industry. Clear broths may actually be one of the best ways to get water and nutrients into a sick body, and bone broths seem to be especially stomach-soothing and nutrient-rich because of their gelatin, collagen, and mineral content. Adding some kind of acid like wine, lemon, or vinegar to the water as the broth cooks, as many traditional home recipes do, increases the mineral content of the final product even more. Many of the classic starches, especially rice and potatoes, are generally tolerated well by distressed gastrointestinal systems that might struggle with or reject meat, beans, corn or dairy fat. And most versions of the soup are enhanced by other nutrient-rich foods like onions and garlic and carrots and ginger and mushrooms, which are all also generally easy to digest once they’ve been cooked thoroughly, .
In 2000, some researchers at the University of Nebraska set out to test whether or not chicken soup could actually alleviate symptoms associated with the common cold and flu—particularly those in the respiratory tract—or if the oft-touted restorative effects were just the result of hydration and placebo. They studied the effects of one kind of homemade chicken soup, using a recipe from the lead researcher’s Lithuanian grandmother, and 13 commercial brands on neutrophil chemotaxis, which is probably one of the main causes of the inflammatory response that causes sputum production and coughing. They found that chicken soup inhibited neutrophil chemotaxis, and that it did so in a concentration-dependent manner, i.e. the more watered down the soup, the less of an effect it had. The commercial soups varied in their effectiveness—some showed no effect on the neutrophils at all, and others out-performed grandma’s, although they don’t say what the distinguishing feature might have been.
They weren’t testing the soup on human subjects, but the in vitro effects at least suggest a mechanism by which chicken soup might actually make cold sufferers feel better (full published study available here).
Chicken Soup for the Congested, Nauseous, Aching, Hungover, Chronically Fatigued, Demoralized, Where Did September Go and Why Is It All So Hard Soul
Congee can be as simple as plain rice simmered in lots of water (usually at a 1:8 or 1:10 ratio of uncooked rice : water) until it’s basically the consistency of oatmeal. Like most grain porridges the world over, it’s typically flavored with either savory or sweet toppings and eaten for breakfast. However, the version made with chicken broth is nearly as common as the plain version, and is vastly more substantial and comforting. The rice is cooked until the grains begin to break down and release a lot of their starch, which makes the broth thick and creamy, almost like a loose risotto but without all the butter and cheese. If you’re ever in too bad a shape to do anything else, but you can manage to throw a half a cup of rice in a pot with 6-8 cups of broth and stir it from time to time, a couple of hours later, it’ll be a meal fit for an invalid. If you have a fuzzy logic-enabled rice cooker, it’s even easier—just put the rice and broth in the bowl and select the “porridge” option and then you don’t even have to stir.
I decided I wanted to make the most spectacularly healing soup I could possibly concoct, so I started with a basic mirepoix with some garlic and ginger, which also helps soothe nausea. If I’d been nursing a head cold I probably would have added a hot pepper, too. Once the onions were translucent, I added a splash of rice wine and then a big handful of finely diced shitake mushrooms. Then I added the rice—about 2 cups of leftover cooked short-grain rice that was 1/2 brown and 1/2 white—and 6 cups of chicken broth that had been hanging out in the freezer from the last time I had chicken bones. And then I threw in about 2 dozen knots of dried seaweed, which is also mineral-rich and supposedly helps boost immunity, and a bunch of chopped green onion to layer a brighter onion flavor on top of the cooked-onion base.
A couple of hours later, it was as thick as a cream soup and all the vegetables were completely soft. The mushrooms and seaweed make it richly umami and the ginger+garlic combination is as delicious as it is therapeutic. This is not some bland, insipid noodle broth, and really the only way to describe it is nourishing. Not a bad thing to have in your arsenal as the seasons change and winter approaches.
- 1-2 T. cooking oil
- 1 medium to large onion (or 2-3 leeks, white parts only, or 2 shallots)
- 2 large carrots
- 2 large celery ribs
- 1 thumb-sized piece of fresh ginger
- 2 cloves garlic
- 4 oz. fresh mushrooms (or dried mushrooms soaked in hot water for 15+ minutes)
- 2-3 T. rice wine or dry sherry
- 2 cups leftover steamed rice or 1/2 cup uncooked rice, white or brown)
- 6 cups chicken broth (or substitute any kind of broth)
- 1/2 cup dried seaweed (or substitute any other cooking greens)
- 3-4 green onions
- salt and pepper to taste
- 1-2 cups shredded cooked chicken (optional)
- fresh cilantro or basil (optional)
- chopped peanuts (optional)
1. Dice the onion, carrots, and celery ribs, mince the garlic cloves, and peel the ginger and cut it into 5-6 coin-shaped slices.
2. Heat the oil in a large pot until it shimmers, and sweat the vegetables until the onion is translucent (8-10 minutes). Meanwhile, mince the mushrooms.
4. Add the rice, broth, seaweed, and green onions. If using leftover cooked rice, take a minute to break up any large clumps before adding the broth.
5. Bring to a simmer and cook for 1 1/2-2 hours, stirring occasionally, until it’s the consistency of a thin oatmeal or porridge. You don’t need to stir much in the first hour, but as the rice begins to release it’s starch, you should give it a good stir it every 10-15 minutes to prevent it from adhering to the bottom of the pan and burning. You can add more water or broth or cover the pot if it starts to get too thick or stick to the bottom too much.
6. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Add the chicken, if using, and cook just until heated through. Garnish with cilantro or basil and chopped peanuts, if desired.