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The Jewish Penicillin: Cheryl’s Chicken Soup

December 1, 2010

by: Rev. Cheryl Hauer, International Development Director

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Granted, soup of any kind was considered restorative in many parts of the ancient world, believed to aid digestion and benefit the ill. The chicken just happened to be ideal for this style of preparation, with the boiling permitting fuller use of less appetizing parts, such as the bones, giblets, feet, and neck. The  liquid made the dish go further, added variety to the diet, and provided nutritional components that otherwise would have been lost. It also enabled the eating of older, tougher birds as was the custom in many parts of ancient Asia and Africa.  The healthy broth became a staple in Europe and the Mediterranean and eventually spread to other parts of the world through European exploration. The first recipes for chicken soup in America appeared in the early 1800s.

But there is no denying that chicken soup has become a traditional dish of the Jewish kitchen. It was the Jewish mother that elevated the preparation of chicken soup to an art form. And it was Jewish doctors who discovered the very real healing properties of chicken soup, prescribing it for a variety of illnesses with such effectiveness that it became known as “the Jewish penicillin.”

The 12th-century rabbi and physician Maimonides is one of the most influential figures in Jewish history. As physician to the great Muslim leader, Saladin, his fame as a wise and capable doctor spread throughout Spain and the Mediterranean region. But it is his treatises on various illnesses and their treatments that have helped to make his mark in history. In them, he covered 25 areas of medicine and such diseases as asthma, pneumonia, and stroke. And for all of them, he prescribed chicken soup. Maimonides even wrote on depression, its effects on physical health, and the benefits of treating it with the chicken soup as well. Perhaps, from this came the Jewish proverb, “Worries go down better with soup than without.” Current scientific research has proven the curative powers of chicken soup, validating Maimonides…and mothers throughout history who have served it to their sick loved-ones.

Cheryl’s Chicken Soup

Thoroughly wash a whole chicken, giblets removed. Put in pot with 2 large onions, coarsely chopped, and cover generously with water. Add salt to taste and season with herbs such as dill and parsley as desired (best to use fresh herbs, a small handful of each tied in cheesecloth). Boil slowly for 45 minutes, remove chicken and skim off any foam.

Peel and cube 4 large carrots, 2 medium potatoes, 2–3 medium leeks, 3 stalks of celery with leaves, and 1 large kohlrabi or turnip.  For the taste of traditional Jewish chicken soup, particularly if matzo balls are to be added, include 3–4 parsnips, peeled and diced. Bring broth to a boil and add vegetables; lower heat and simmer for 20 minutes or until vegetables are tender but not mushy.

As vegetables are cooking, remove chicken from the bone and cut into generous sized cubes. When vegetables are done, stir in chicken and season with additional salt, fresh cracked pepper, and, if desired, 2–3 tablespoons of chicken soup flavoring or bullion. Serve piping hot with fresh bread or biscuits, and remember, it’s even better reheated the next day.

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