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September 24, 2020
Can Chicken Soup Save Us?

Great versions exist around the world, but it’s not the only soul-satisfying tonic in the pot.

At Ix Restaurant in Brooklyn, chef Jorge Cardenas gives away free shots of chicken broth to anyone who would like it. It’s a French-inspired consommé that he simmers and strains for six hours, repeating the steps with a fresh infusion of bones and vegetables three times. The crystalline amber broth is topped with a few snips of cilantro before handing it over, piping hot, in a paper espresso cup.

“In Guatemala, you cook the whole chicken, and that takes just two hours,” Cardenas explains of the less laborious cooking process popular in his homeland. Growing up, his mother would toast broken spaghetti pieces in a dry pan before adding chicken broth for an even simpler, yet no less satisfying, soup. But, having lived in Europe for 17 years, Cardenas loves to blend global influences from France to Korea and Japan in his restaurant’s pre-Columbian-inspired caldos and recados, or stews thickened with seeds and whole grains. The ultra-concentrated chicken broth forms the base for many.

“Everybody should drink one shot of this broth every day—also in the summer, not just in the winter,” he suggests. “You’ll feel better. It’s also delicious. It’s for your soul.”

Long before bone broth became a wellness trend over the past decade, chicken soup has been synonymous with soothing nourishment in the United States. Affectionately known as “Jewish penicillin” and popularized with the ’90s-founded “Chicken Soup for the Soul” media empire, it is notably just chicken soup, rather than a beef consommé, vegetable noodle, or any other type of warm broth, that holds this title. The association is so pervasive, and so well established in the States, that it’s easy to ascribe this theory of chicken-soup-as-cure-all to just about every other meat-eating culture in the world.

“It’s a frugal, humble soup that is kind of the cornerstone of a lot of different types of cuisine,” says Jenn Louis, chef and author of The Chicken Soup Manifesto: Recipes From Around the World. She thinks this has much to do with the fact that chickens are a more accessible type of protein than others, like beef and pork. “They’re less expensive among nations that have livestock, and chickens are often running around,” she says.

As a Jewish American, Louis was raised on her mother’s chicken soup with matzoh balls. In her book, she draws many parallels throughout the chicken soup examples from around the world. “There’s a Romanian recipe that’s really similar, but they make their dumplings out of semolina, and I swear, these things are like little clouds of heaven,” she says of supa de pui cu galuste de gris.

It’s easy to ascribe the theory of chicken-soup-as-cure-all to just about every other meat-eating culture in the world.

At its heart, she says, chicken soup is about using scraps to make a filling meal, so a broth made with bones and studded with bread crumb dumplings or leftover grains characterizes many.

“I save every bone—I scrape all the bones out of people’s plates. It’s something that you feel good about using every bit of that chicken for; nothing’s going to waste,” says Ruth Reichl, food writer and former editor of Gourmet magazine.

She says that chicken stock is one of the real building blocks of the kitchen, and the more concentrated, the better; it takes a lot of chicken to make a great stock. Reichl says this was something she has learned about since she was 16 and began working as a waitress in New York City. “In those days, when you walked into a kitchen, there was a pot of stock on the stove, so I’ve always thought of it as something that you can’t cook without,” says Reichl. And unlike other meat- or seafood-based stocks, she thinks that chicken stock has a cleaner flavor that’s more versatile—“the little black dress of the kitchen.”

But, most important, Reichl finds that making chicken stock, with the obligatory aromatics of onion, carrot, celery, and bay leaf, produces the most comforting smell there is. “During days when everybody’s nerves are jangled, it just makes everybody feel taken care of,” she says. “There’s something universal.”

Look around the world, and you will indeed find many beloved varieties of soup or stew made from chicken, or a similar commonly eaten fowl from the region. Many of them are associated with fortifying one’s health during cold months or helping to heal a common cold. You might find them laced with other ingredients known for their medicinal effects, too—like ginseng and jujubes in an herbal Chinese chicken soup, or Korean samgyetang. The superfood moringa (or malunggay) leaves feature in the Filipino tinola, a chicken and green papaya soup, and turmeric stains a Persian soup e jo. There are limes in the Yucatan Peninsula’s sopa de lima, for a tart and delicious dose of Vitamin C. With rice or noodles, tortillas or meatballs, put together, these examples might make chicken soup look like a global ambassador for human health and, well, hygge. But look beyond the bird, and there are many other soul-soothing, soupy traditions that we can benefit from, especially where frugality and health are concerned.

For instance, Japan has one of the most objectively healthy cuisines in the world, by many metrics: Its citizens enjoy the lowest rates of heart disease and obesity in the world, and one of the highest rates of life expectancy.

“The role of soup and broth is very special in Japan,” says Elizabeth Andoh, author of several cookbooks on Japanese cuisine, including Washoku: Recipes From the Japanese Home Kitchen. There, a meal isn’t considered complete without a soup or broth: “It’s comforting, it’s expected, it makes you feel good, and it’s not necessarily made from chicken.”

Look beyond the bird, and there are many other soul-soothing, soupy traditions that we can benefit from, especially where frugality and health are concerned.

Some of the most comforting soups in Japanese cuisine are rice porridges, such as ojiya, ozosui, or okayu. The default soup base for them is a katsuobushi-based dashi, which is made from dried and fermented fish shavings and kombu, or dried kelp. These concentrated, dry ingredients are incredibly umami-rich, practical, and economical (you can even reuse the kelp to make a relish after it has been used to make the stock). Nowadays, Andoh says, people might incorporate chicken into their fish- and kombu-based broths. But eating chicken and meat is more restrained in Japanese cuisine overall, where they are typically used in small portions to stretch a long way with vegetables.

Seaweed is also at the heart of one of the most comforting soups in Korea, according to Hooni Kim, chef of the Michelin-starred restaurant Danji and author of My Korea: Traditional Flavors, Modern Recipes. He says that chicken, and meat in general, were seen as luxury products until more recent decades, and even when he was a young child growing up in Korea, chicken wasn’t very accessible. “So there isn’t that history of mom being able to cook chicken at home,” he says.

Miyeok-guk, a seaweed soup, is one of the more traditional soups known for its restorative effects in Korea, he says—it’s the soup that is served to new mothers after giving birth. This soup features plentiful leaves of miyeok seaweed (also known as wakame in Japan), which are ingested rather than strained out in dashi-making; the seaweed is rich in nutrients ranging from antioxidants to omega-3, and it’s associated with various health benefits.

The other soup he thinks has a strong association with comfort in Korea is rice-based porridge, or juk. Though there are some chicken-based soups known for therapeutic qualities because they are infused with traditional medicinal ingredients, like samgyetang, these are more restaurant-based traditions than home-cooking ones, says Kim. That’s starting to change, though, and some people like to add chicken broth to their traditional soups, like miyeok-guk.

“Koreans are modern and have read about the whole magic of chicken soup and its healing powers, so that’s kind of new, and I’ve seen that,” says Kim.

Those curative powers might boil down to smoke-and-mirrors magic, as it turns out. The research is scarce, says Christy Harrison, MPH, RD, a registered dietitian and author of the book Anti-Diet. A peer-reviewed study conducted in 2000 found that chicken soup may have a mild anti-inflammatory effect that could account for its perceived benefits in healing the common cold, but this was conducted on lab rats, not humans. A very small study from 1978 found that drinking hot liquids in general helped nasal mucus drain more quickly, and that hot chicken soup was more beneficial than other hot liquids. So, in reality, the science behind chicken soup is really . . . thin soup.

“We don’t really know whether it’s because of cultural and emotional associations between chicken soup and being comforted and cared for, or because of any inherent properties in the soup,” says Harrison.

“Bottom line, in my view, is if you like chicken soup and want to eat it when you’re sick (or any other time), great—but if you’re more partial to other kinds of soups or other foods, that’s great, too. If you don’t like chicken soup, don’t feel compelled to eat it for perceived health benefits.”

When so much about food’s effects is emotional, rather than science-based, however, perceived benefits are intertwined with culture and upbringing. So it’s important to note that many cultures with incredibly healthful cuisines eschew chicken and meat-eating altogether—and many dishes don’t fit squarely into the American notion of a “soup.” Take the legume-based daals and rasams in India, which provide filling protein and potent flavors from plants. Or the rich and creamy groundnut stews or soups of West Africa, hearty and fortifying with or without the help of chicken.

“Peanuts are like wild marigolds in Ghana—everywhere—so peanuts and peanut butter are readily available,” says Zoe Andjonyoh, author of Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen, of nkat nkwan, the spicy peanut-based soup she was raised with. “The earthy depth of flavour, layered heat and satisfying fullness of each spoonful is something than can never be beaten for me.”

Furthermore, how and where a soup is commonly cooked surely factors into the feelings associated with it. Pierre Thiam, chef and cookbook author, writes in his recipe for “peppe’ soup” in Yolele! Recipes From the Heart of Senegal that this popular street food is enjoyed in West Africa from Nigeria to Senegal, where its spicy heat is known to help revive partygoers in the morning. His recipe features a fish-based broth, but a Nigerian pepper soup can be made with goat or chicken, writes Nneka M. Okona in this publication, where she notes that a key ingredient in Nigerian households for this specialty is a cube of Maggi seasoning. “This soup also makes an excellent remedy when you’re feeling sick or under the weather,” she writes.

If being economical with limited resources is a hallmark of comfort soup-making, then surely making do with fewer animal products is an admirable goal. And if having a flavorful broth at the ready to season any foods is desired, then pantry-staple ingredients, like katsuobushi and kombu, which don’t even require a refrigerator or freezer to store, are a plus—and so is not having to simmer for several hours. It’s natural to marvel at the similarities from one cuisine to another, and to draw connections that reinforce your worldview—for instance, that chicken soup is the ultimate comfort food. It’s more challenging to reach beyond familiar techniques, ingredients, and formulas to expand your definition of comfort and healthfulness. We might be better served by looking for the differences in other cuisines in order to find more practical ways to nourish, heal, and delight.

For Jorge Cardenas at Ix Restaurant, the most important part of making his Mayan-based recados is toasting whole grains and seeds like pumpkin and sesame seeds, which are blended into his broth.

“This is the biggest part of Mayan cuisine—much more than the meat you use,” he says.

Cardenas also makes a vegetarian stock in addition to his chicken stock, so that all the same menu items can be served entirely vegan.

“It’s also very healthy to have these whole grains and seeds,” he says. “It’s good to have, and the flavors are really great.”

Know Your Chicken. When America’s favorite protein crosses cultures and winds up on a sheet pan, it’s a winner chicken dinner. Cathy Erway is forever inspired by the chunky, funky poultry and wants you to put this in your oven and roast it. Her book, Sheet Pan Chicken, arrives this month.

Cathy Erway

Cathy Erway is the author of the cookbooks The Food of Taiwan and Sheet Pan Chicken, and the memoir The Art of Eating In. She co-wrote Win Son Presents: A Taiwanese American Cookbook. She hosts the podcast Self Evident, exploring Asian American stories. She has won a James Beard Award and IACP award for her writing at TASTE.