A World of Chicken Soup

Across cultures, generations, and recipes, chicken soup is the universal cure for what ails you
January 29, 2020 Updated: January 29, 2020
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Turns out your grandmother was right. When you’ve got a cold, a lingering case of the blues, or just the chills and misery that come from a winter-weather commute, the best balm for body and soul is a steamy bowl of chicken soup

Whether you’re slurping chicken noodle, matzoh ball, avgolemono, or pho, chicken soup is the universal warm blanket of foods, the culinary hug that makes everything all better. 

Of course, no two batches of chicken soup are exactly alike. Each ethnic group, each region, each generation has its own “classic” chicken soup. The dish draws ingredients from the tried and true staples of different ancestral palates, as well as the local bounty of the neighborhood and the serendipity of the pantry. Individual cooks flourishes weigh in with their own flourishes, making each dish a signature bowl of comfort. 

Your favorite chicken soup might get sinus-clearing properties from green chilies or curry paste, while your neighbor looks to the gentle aromatics of fresh thyme and dill. Across the street, the chicken soup is a hearty affair with dumplings or thick potato slices. Regardless, each bowl brings a measure of warmth and… well, it just makes you feel better.

What the Doctor Ordered

You might be tempted to attribute all that healing coziness to the love stirred in by your Bubbe, Abuela, Oma, or Granny. However, the fact is, there’s more to it.

Over the past few decades, researchers from venues as disparate as the University of Nebraska to Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami Beach have found evidence that chicken soup—in whatever form—can reduce inflammation, help increase the movement of nasal mucus, improve cilia function, and provide cell-strengthening antioxidants.

No one is sure exactly what aspects of the soup bestow health benefits beyond sustenance, and honestly, no one seems to be in a big hurry to find out. It’s enough to say that the elements of poultry broth laced with vegetables, herbs, starch, and protein are good for you.

Perhaps that’s why home cooks in nearly every culture and country have cherished chicken soup recipes, handed down from generation to generation, that are occasionally tweaked and modified, but always served with conviction. 

Campbell condensed Chicken Noodle soup
While nothing beats homemade, don’t discount the power of a can of Campbell’s soup in a pinch. (Shutterstock)

Origins

The first recognizable soups were likely prepared in Asia some 20,000 years ago. Harvard archeologists found watertight ceramic pots, some with flame scars, dating to that era in caves in Eastern China and in coastal settlements in Japan. South American cooking pottery appeared a few thousand years later. 

The process of boiling fish, fowl, or other ingredients in the pots resulted in a flavored and fat-rich broth that likely would have been shared. We can imagine that ingredients that had been hunted or gathered—including wild fowl—fell into those early soup pots. 

With the tradition of soup firmly in place, we can surmise that the first honest chicken soups would have arrived on scene 7,000 to 10,000 years ago. That’s when the first chickens were domesticated in Southeast Asia and India. International trade, migration, and conflicts brought chicken to points around the world, and as domesticated chickens proliferated, so did soup recipes. 

Chicken Soup Lineage

In the United States, most homemade chicken soup recipes owe a nod to Scottish, Jewish, Polish, and German settlers. From their countries of origin, they brought broths rich with root vegetables, chicken pieces, herbs, and noodles or dumplings. 

Cock-a-leekie soup from Scotland is recognizable as chicken-rice soup with leeks. Jews contributed matzoh ball or kreplach soup—translucent broth with different types of dumplings—while Polish settlers contributed the concept of a rich broth augmented with turkey and beef bones. Thick, chewy kluski noodles are a Polish flourish. Germans contributed both free-form spaetzle dumplings and thin egg noodles. Root vegetables, including carrots, parsnips, potatoes, and celery root, can be traced to Eastern European influences. 

A proliferation of Chinese restaurants in major Western cities popularized wonton and egg drop soups as the go-to, easy-to-find and easy-on-the-pocketbook chicken soups for students and young adults, while noodle shops introduced various types of Japanese ramen, Vietnamese pho, and coconut milk-laced Thai chicken soups. 

In cities with large Italian populations, meals often begin with an intensely flavorful clear chicken broth dotted with jewels of stuffed tortellini or gnocchi. The French contributed cream-laced chicken soup and veloutes, while Greeks added tart lemon juice and North Africans gave us spicy renditions with additions such as peanuts and okra. Chicken tortilla soup, which ostensibly originated near Mexico City, has become a fast-casual restaurant staple. 

Mixing and Matching

Claiming your own chicken soup recipe is a pretty simple affair. Line up a list of herbs and aromatic vegetables that give you pleasure, decide if you want a thick or thin soup, then begin adding and subtracting flavors. The following recipes will offer authentic chicken soups from around the world, which you can make as is or use to guide your own explorations. 

The only essential is that every chicken soup must begin with a strong, fresh, flavorful pot of chicken broth. Make your chicken broth a day or two before making soup, strain it, refrigerate it, and allow the fat to rise. If you don’t have your own favorite broth-making process, use the one here.

Louisiana native Belinda Hulin Crissman writes cookbooks and food articles from her adopted hometown of Atlantic Beach, Fla. She’s the author of five cookbooks, including “Roux Memories: A Cajun-Creole Love Story with Recipes.” When she’s not writing, you’ll find her scoping out old and new culinary delights. 

RECIPE: Basic Chicken Broth

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RECIPE: Italian Wedding Soup

RECIPE: Chicken Tortilla Soup