A man walks into a restaurant and orders a bowl of soup. The waiter brings it over. A moment later the man calls to the waiter: “Come, taste the soup!” “Is there something wrong with it?” the waiter inquires. “Taste it,” the man replies. “Is it too hot?” says the waiter. “Taste it!” the man insists. “Is it too cold?” the waiter asks. “Just taste the soup!” the man cries. “Alright, alright!” the waiter relents. “Where’s the spoon?” “Aha! Aha!”
So goes an old Jewish joke. The soup in question was surely chicken, goldene yoich, golden broth, the answer to all of life’s joys and heartbreak. The Jews weren’t the first to make chicken soup. But we have made it our own. Friday night dinner, the start of the Sabbath, traditionally begins with chicken soup. It’s a common way to break the fast of Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. And it’s widely known as Jewish penicillin – there is some evidence that it has anti-inflammatory properties, and that it might alleviate the symptoms of respiratory infections. My husband occasionally bemoans the quantities of chicken soup stashed in our freezer. But in frightening times it’s a comfort. And if it’s not, well, it’s like giving chicken soup to a dead man: it can’t hurt.
Variations abound. If it’s true that where there are four Jews, there are five opinions, there are surely as many soups. But certain things remain constant. Chicken soup is brothy, never creamy. It is bitty, with pieces of chicken, carrot, celery, noodles, knaidlach (matzo balls). The golden hue comes from the globules of fat – schmaltz – floating near its surface. If you must skim it off, at least use it to make dumplings.
Yet it’s deceptively hard to get real flavour into chicken soup so leaving the fat – the source of the savouriness in so many dishes – may be wise. A knob of ginger will bring some extra warmth. The final addition of some herbs should help; dill or parsley will raise few eyebrows. And, of course, you can always cheat by adding a stock cube. Just don’t forget to serve it with a spoon.•