For centuries, chicken soup has been called “Jewish Penicillin”: a potent remedy for the flu and nasty winter colds. Now research has proved what Jewish cooks have known for centuries: chicken soup contains a myriad of health benefits, from making us feel better when we’re sick to helping prevent colds and flu in the first place.

One way chicken soup keeps us healthy is by improving the function of cilia, the tiny little hairs located on the inside our noses, which repel contagions from entering our bodies. Chicken soup also clears up runny noses, reducing the amount of time that viruses spend in contact with the linings of our nasal passageways, and decreasing the likelihood of infection.

Other warm liquids also can help clear a stuffed nose, but there seems to be something special about chicken soup that makes it uniquely effective. Researchers from Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami tested chicken soup against water, dividing a group of volunteers into three categories: they asked one third to take a drink of cold water; one third to drink hot water; and a third drank chicken soup. Those drinking chicken soup experienced the most improvement in congestion.

The biggest chicken soup breakthrough came in 2000, when Dr. Stephen Rennard, of the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, decided to test his wife’s grandmother’s chicken soup recipe as a cure for the common cold. He cooked up a batch of the broth, then brought it into his lab for tests. Dr. Rennard found the soup reduced nasal inflammation by preventing the movement of neutrophils, immune system cells that contribute to the body’s inflammatory response. White blood cells are important – they’re our bodies’ defense against viruses – but in nasal passages they cause swelling and irritation, leading to the unpleasant cold symptoms that go along with that, including stuffy heads, coughs and sneezing.

Dr. Rennaud wasn’t sure what it was in his wife’s family recipe that produced this amazing anti-inflammatory effect. His soup contained chicken and a whole host of vegetables including onions, parsnips, celery, turnips, parsley, and even sweet potatoes, any of which might have produced the crucial chemical reactions. So he conducted his tests again, both with hot water only, and with a range of store-bought chicken soups. His results were consistent: chicken soup repelled the neutophils, resulting in less nasal inflammation, and it didn’t much matter the particular recipe: all chicken soups had an effect, and some store-bought cans of soup even produced a better result than his wife’s family recipe.

Recently, scientists have identified one crucial compound – carnosine – in chicken soup, which has an added benefit: helping our bodies’ immune systems fight the early stages of the flu. Carnosine is derived from chicken, and the slow simmering of chicken soup releases this chemical’s medicinal value. Scientists warn, though, that carnosine is quickly released from our bodies, so in order to take advantage of the flu-fighting benefits of chicken soup, it’s best to drink chicken soup often.

Chicken Soup Recipes

Luckily for anyone wishing to tap into the Jewish genius with chicken soup, there are as many wonderful recipes as there are Jewish families. My own chicken soup recipe is simple, and I make it every week for Shabbat first thing Friday morning. I put an onion (peeled and sliced in half), 5-6 carrots (washed), and about 2 ½ lbs. of chicken bones in a large soup pot. I fill with enough water to completely cover all the bones, add a dash of salt and pepper, bring the soup to a boil, then turn the stove down to low and let it simmer all day long: at least several hours. Before Shabbat, I strain the soup, discard the bones and vegetables – and serve the golden liquid with matzah balls and noodles.

Here are three Jewish variations on classic Jewish chicken soup. As they say in Israel, B’teavon (“Bon appétit”) and L’briut! (“To your health!”)

Traditional Chicken Soup

This recipe is from Evelyn Rose, the doyenne of British Jewish cooking.

  • A whole or half chicken or fowl with wings and giblets and feet (if available)
  • 2 t salt
  • Pinch of white pepper
  • 1 large onion
  • 2 large carrots
  • Leaves and top 2” of 2 sticks celery
  • 1 sprig parsley
  • 1 very ripe tomato

Put the bird, feet, wings and giblets in a large, heavy soup pan with 7 ½ cups water, salt and pepper. Cover and bring to the boil. Remove any froth with a large, wet metal spoon.

Peel onion and carrots, cut in half and add to the pan with celery, parsley, and tomato. Bring back to the boil, then reduce the heat so that the liquid is barely bubbling. Cover and continue to simmer for a further 3 hours, either on top of the stove or in a slow oven (300 F / 150 C) or until the chicken feels very tender when a leg is prodded.

Strain the soup into a large bowl; reserve giblets and carrots in another container. Cover and pit in the fridge overnight.

Next day, remove any congealed fat and return the soup to the pan. Add the cooked giblets and the carrot (cut into small dice) and reheat slowly before serving. Serve with noodles or matzah balls.

Adapted from The New Complete International Jewish Cookbook by Evelyn Rose (Robson Books: 2000).

Iranian Chicken Soup with Chickpea Dumplings (Gondi)

This is a delicious, exotic version enjoyed for centuries by the Jewish population in Persia.

  • 1 small roasting chicken
  • 2 medium onions
  • Salt and pepper
  • ¼ t turmeric
  • 3 dried limes or juice of 1 lemon, or to taste
  • 8 oz lean ground beef
  • 1 cup chickpea flour
  • ½ t ground cardamom

Put the chicken in a large pot with 3 quarts of water. Bring to the boil and remove the scum. Add one coarsely chopped onion, salt and pepper, the turmeric. (If you have dried limes, add them too, pricked in several places.) If using lemon juice, add it just before serving.

Simmer for 45-55 minutes, until the chicken is tender.

Make the meatballs: mix the ground meat with the remaining onion, finely chopped or grated, and the chickpea lour and season with salt, pepper, and ground cardamom. Knead well with your hands until it binds together (you can put it all in a food processor, starting with the onion). Rub oil on your hands and roll the paste into little balls the size of a small walnut.

Lift the chicken out of the soup and drop the balls in. Simmer 20-30 minutes longer. Remove the skin and bones from the chicken, cut the chicken meat into pieces, and return to the soup to heat through.

Serve in bowls with plain basmati rice.

Adapted from The Book of Jewish Food: An Odyssey from Samarkand to New York, by Claudia Roden (Alfred A. Knopf: 1996).

Yemenite Jewish Chicken Soup

This recipe is by Tamar Horn, whose parents emigrated from Yemen to pre-state Israel in 1937. Her father supported eleven children by making mattresses, pillows and blankets. Here is her family recipe:

  • 4-pound whole chicken, cut up
  • 2 onions, peeled
  • 4 to 6 carrots, peeled
  • Bunch of leeks, whites only-save the green tops
  • 3 tablespoons fresh chopped parsley
  • 2 potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
  • 1 butternut squash, peeled and cut into chunks about 2 by 1-inch
  • 2 chicken bouillon cubes
  • Spices to taste including:
  • 2 to 2 1/2 teaspoons hawaj* (may be available in kosher grocery markets)
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • turmeric (not needed if using hawaj)
  • 1 bunch fresh cilantro, washed with stems removed
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Place chicken in a large pot and cover with enough cold water to cover plus an inch more. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium and as chicken cooks skim off scum. Cook for about 10 to 15 minutes, then add onion, carrots, leeks, and parsley.

Cover and cook for 20 minutes, then add potatoes and squash. Stir in bouillon cubes and spices.

Lower heat to simmer, cover, and cook until chicken is done, about 45 minutes. Add cilantro and chopped greens from the leeks, and cook another 10 minutes.

Remove chicken from pot, let soup cool and strain the broth. Keep chicken separate. Tear or cut into pieces and add to soup before serving. If needed, add salt and freshly ground pepper to taste.

This soup may be made ahead or frozen. Serves 8.

Adapted from Sephardic Israeli Cuisine.