As the country digs itself out from one of its biggest snowstorms, Moment digs in to discover the comfort food people turn to when the going gets rough: Chicken Soup.
Although Egyptians originally developed chicken husbandry, the animal was largely absent from the Middle East until the Romans reintroduced it centuries later. Poultry made sense for both desert and urban cultivation, given the birds’ catholic food tastes, their minimal need for grazing and living space and their tolerance of hot weather. In Rome’s colonies, “Jews ate them more than gentiles, who also ate pork in large quantities,” says Ken Ovitz, culinary historian and author of The Israel Seder Haggadah.
After the fall of Rome, chicken remained central to the diet of Eastern Jewry but dropped off the European Jewish menu for a few hundred years. Chicken soup “first came to prominence in Ashkenazic circles after the revival of chicken raising in Europe in the 15th century,” says Gil Marks, author of The Encyclopedia of Jewish Food. In a nostalgic account of his Polish-Ukrainian shtetl Podhaitse, Alexander Kimel recalls that “food was cheap…a sack of potatoes was 75 groshen and a live chicken cost 75 groshen.” Wealth in the Old Country was measured by how often a man could afford a chicken for Shabbat.
Eastern Europeans are not the only connoisseurs of chicken and its soupy golden broth. Mimi Sheraton writes in her book, The Whole World Loves Chicken Soup, about its many geographic variations. While Eastern Europeans threw in egg noodles, root vegetables and matzo balls, Colombians incorporated capers, avocado and sweet corn. Moving East, traditional Korean chicken soup combined dried jujube fruit, ginger, garlic and glutinous rice with chicken stock, while evaporated milk is added to Filipino chicken soup for richness of flavor.
As for its medicinal properties, chicken soup was already touted as a curative in the writings of the 11th-century Persian physician Avicenna, and the 12th-century Jewish scholar and physician Moses Maimonides. Soup made from fowl, wrote the Rambam in his Medical Responsa, “has virtue in rectifying corrupted humours,” and is especially effective for convalescence, emergent leprosy and asthma. He even offered some (fairly obvious) cooking tips—advising, for example, against using a scrawny bird. By 1500, chicken soup with noodles emerged not only as the first course for Friday evening Ashkenazic dinner, according to Marks, but “a tasty way of dealing with colds.”
Curious to see if the soup was truly a universal panacea, modern scientists recently conducted a study, published in the medical journal Chest. They found that compared to cold water and hot water, chicken soup was more helpful in battling colds. Chicken broth, it turns out, contains an amino acid that thins mucus and unclogs stuffy noses. Other studies have shown that chicken soup acts as an anti-inflammatory providing some sinus relief.
No double-blind trial has tested the effectiveness of the so-called “Jewish penicillin.” “However, we feel that sufficient observational and anecdotal evidence has accumulated over the centuries to make the requirement for such a trial superfluous,” write Doctors Abraham Ohry and Jenni Tsafrir of Tel Aviv University’s Sackler School of Medicine. Their 1999 letter to the journal of the Canadian Medical Association contends, not entirely facetiously, that chicken soup meets World Health Organization criteria for classification as an “essential drug,” based on 2,000 years of “evidence-based” results.
The elixir may never undergo a randomized clinical trial, they argue, not only because it would be too difficult for scientists to settle on a definitive recipe but chiefly because “depriving the control group of chicken soup would, in our opinion, be unethical.” As to adverse effects, the physicians conclude, “while you might choke on a chicken bone, the anecdotal evidence advocating the benefits of chicken soup far outweighs that describing its shortcomings.”
—Adapted from the Moment article by Mandy Katz