Chicken Soup ... A Home Remedy That Crosses All Cultures

April 8, 2010
Written by Eun-Joo Park in
The Welcoming Table
Login to rate this article
bowl of chicken soup

Tis the season to encounter white folk, black folk, brown folk, olive folk, red folk, yellow folk, all sniffling and coughing away. The common cold has no issues with color or continent when bestowing misery. Thankfully, chicken soup is just as colorblind and global in bringing comfort. ~JSE

It begins in the black heart of winter. Our bodies, besieged by frigid temperatures outside and lung-scraping dry air inside, and our spirits are discouraged by colorless landscapes and hectic schedules. A sudden chill, a tickle in the throat, a cough, a fit of sneezes and boom: Another household felled by Acute Viral Nasopharyngitis, otherwise known as the Common Cold.

One by one, the family members succumb. Restless nights of hacking coughs, soggy days propped up in bed, the floor a minefield of balled-up tissues, and in the youngest children, seeming weeks of runny noses.

But never fear. Relief is just a soup pot away.

For hundreds of years, the traditional remedy for the common cold has been hot chicken soup, followed by a nice long nap. Sometimes called the “Jewish penicillin,” chicken soup has been recommended by moms and doctors since the days of 13th century philosopher and physician, Moses Maimonides— and probably long before him.

What’s more, studies show that chicken soup lives up to its reputation as a common cold slayer—although the active ingredient contributing to its potency remains in dispute. Some scientists claim that any benefit is due simply to the congestion-clearing action of the steam. Others credit the known tonic effects of onion, celery and garlic—chicken soup’s usual aromatic base. Recently, a study revealed a potent anti-inflammatory property in the chicken itself that helps reduce congestion on a molecular level.

With the recent Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) recommendation to ban children’s cold medications on the grounds of inefficacy and possible harmfulness, it’s a better time than ever to return to natural remedies. Gargling with salt water or green tea as they do in Japan, drinking plenty of hot liquids including ginger lemon tea with honey, getting lots of rest and fortifying yourself with hot, hydrating chicken soup are all suitable options.

The version we think of as the classic American chicken soup starts with a base of onion, celery, and garlic; a thickener such as noodles, rice or matzo balls; and can be brightened at the end with a squeeze of lemon and a sprinkle of fresh dill. Chicken soup with rice is soothing on a tender tummy and easy for kids to eat. If they need more motivation, star-shaped pastina or alphabet noodles work wonders to perk up interest.

In China, people swear by an herbal version of chicken soup. In this recipe, a whole chicken is stuffed with rice and simmered with garlic and ginger. The Korean version, called Sam Gye Tang, adds a knob of Korean ginseng. If you live by a Chinatown and feel adventuresome, packets of ready-mixed herbs (usually containing astragalus, lotus seed, red date or jujube, among others) can be bought at many Chinese acupuncturist offices, herbal apothecaries or groceries.

My personal favorite cold remedy is the sour spicy Thai chicken soup called Tom Yum Gai. The sourness of the lemongrass and lime juice and the spice of the cayenne clear my head, the spicy heat warms my system and the Vitamin C from the lime and cayenne restart my immune system. I’ve sat down to a big bowlful a sick and lifeless woman and walked away beaming and rosy. Unless you regularly cook Southeast Asian cuisine, most of these ingredients will have to be procured from an ethnic grocery. You can wheeze on over to one yourself, entreat a loved one or let your fingers do the walking. I’ll admit I’ve never even contemplated making Tom Yum Gai myself, as for years I was lucky enough to live just upstairs from a wonderful Thai restaurant.

Nowadays when I’m sick, I send my husband out to the local Thai place to buy it by the vat. You can even plan ahead and freeze it right in the plastic take-out containers. Just pop it out into a saucepan, heat for five minutes, and you’re in business.

Actually, you can do that with any of these soups. Make, or buy, a double batch ahead of time and freeze in serving-size containers. They’re all just as good warmed up and who feels like cooking when you’re sick? With winter here, it’ll feel like gold in the freezer. You never know when the dreaded cold will strike your family, but this time you’ll be ready.

Chinese Herbal Chicken Soup

1 whole chicken, 2-3 lb.
1 C. short-grain Japanese rice
5 to 7 cloves of garlic
½ inch piece of ginger, chopped
1 bay leaf
1T. salt, to taste (preferably sea salt)

½ inch piece of ginseng
2 medium sticks of dried astragalus root
splash dark roasted sesame oil, to taste (garnish)
green onion, julienned (garnish)
2 small chili peppers (Thai or jalapeño), julienned (garlic)

Rinse the chicken well under cold water and stuff the cavity with rice. Place in a large soup pot and cover with cold water. Add garlic, ginger, bay leaf and ginseng and astragalus, if you so choose. Bring to a boil, lower heat and simmer for one hour or more, adding more water as necessary, until chicken is tender and broth fragrant. Season to taste with salt. To serve, remove chicken to chopping board and chop into six pieces. Place a section with rice into each bowl, and ladle broth over. Top with preferred garnishes. Serves 4-6

Tom Yum Gai - Thai Hot and Sour Chicken Soup

4 C. chicken broth
2 stalks lemongrass, cut into thirds and lightly crushed
1 or 2 small fresh chilies, lightly crushed
1/2 t. crushed red pepper (cayenne)
Note that the fresh chilies may be omitted and more crushed red pepper added, to taste
3 kaffir lime leaves, torn into pieces
3 slices galangal, lightly crushed
3/4 lb. boneless chicken breasts cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 small tomato cut into 6 wedges or 6 cherry tomatoes, halved
3-4 T. fish sauce, to taste
1 t. sugar
1/2 C. canned peeled straw mushrooms, drained
1/4 C. lime juice
1/4 C. lightly packed Thai or sweet basil leaves
1/4 C. lightly packed cilantro leaves (optional garnish)

In a medium pan add broth to lemongrass, lime leaves, galangal and crushed cayenne pepper. Bring to a boil; reduce heat, cover and simmer for 20 minutes. Add chicken, tomato, fish sauce, and sugar; simmer for 10 minutes. Add mushrooms and cook for 3 minutes. Add lime juice and basil and cook for one minute. Ladle soup into bowls and garnish with cilantro.

* Note that the lemongrass, lime leaves and galangal are not edible. The chiles are up to you!

Recipe adapted from Asian Favorites by Martin Yan (Ten Speed Press)

The Welcoming Table