For Jenn Louis, few meals are as restorative as a bowl of chicken soup. The Jewish-American chef remembers her late mother, Isabel, serving a version cooked with matzo balls following Friday night visits to the synagogue. Her memory of the dish helped inspire her new book, The Chicken Soup Manifesto, which features over 100 recipes from around the world.
“My mum passed away seven years ago and the picture of chicken matzo ball soup in the book was taken her place – we would have it at Passover, Friday night at Shabbat dinner, maybe during High Holidays,” Louis, who used to run a modern Israeli restaurant in Portland called Ray, tells SBS. “My mum had made matzo ball soup, but instead of taking the matzo balls out, she left them [in the broth] and covered them. By the time we got home, it was perfectly cooked.”
To make chicken matzo ball soup, Louis says, you simmer a whole chicken, before adding carrot, onion, celery and bay leaves. “You let the chicken cook for an hour or two before straining the soup – you can keep the vegetables in or out. Mine is pretty simple, in a nice rich broth – it’s very comforting.” Matzo ball soup is traditionally made with schmaltz, or rendered chicken fat, embraced for centuries by Ashkenazi Jewish home cooks as a kosher alternative to butter or pork fat.
Although this chicken soup thrives among the Jewish-American diaspora, different versions exist across Eastern Europe, Israel and Yemen.
“There is a chicken soup in the book from Romania, but the matzo balls are made with semolina, they are so good – like delicious air,” she laughs. Chicken soup has long been known for its healing properties. The Jewish philosopher and physician Moses Maimonides prescribed chicken soup for the weak and the sick back in the Middle Ages. But chicken matzo ball soup also contains, in miniature, an old story of Jewish emigration and exile.
“Chicken pho came about because of the wartime restrictions,” says Nguyen. He adds that it was an alternative to beef pho or phở bò, which was conceived in Hanoi in the late 19th century and came about when the influence of Chinese chefs collided with the French colonial demand for beef. “There are still debates about it, but some historians believe that during the late 1930s, the government decided to limit the selling of beef – so chicken pho came about in that context.”
In 1954, Nguyen says, chicken pho moved south when over a million northerners left the region during the partition of the country. “Then when Vietnamese refugees came to foreign countries, there wasn’t any pho around, so they started to cook it themselves – you hear stories of Vietnamese refugees opening restaurants in their own kitchens.”
"Some historians believe that during the late 1930s, the government decided to limit the selling of beef – so chicken pho came about in that context.”
Phở gà, Nguyen says, fits into the Vietnamese philosophy of ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ foods – a belief, related to the Chinese yin and yang, that food is a source of both nutrition and energetic qualities.
“When your body is not well with a cold or fever, you wouldn’t eat food that is too ‘hot’ like a mango for instance,” says Nguyen, who explains that Madame Nhu simmers both chicken and beef bones, adds ginger, star anise and cinnamon along with vegetables like carrots and celery to make phở gà. “Phở gà is considered a neutral dish, so when you are sick, you avoid beef and you have chicken. Ginger is always essential, which is the Chinese influence – ginger and chicken always go together. Chicken soup takes on a healing role that is universal across different cultures.”
Maria Trian, the co-owner of Kafenes, a long-running Greek family restaurant in Sydney's Enmore, these qualities come together in avgolemono, a chicken soup, often eaten the night of Easter, made with egg, lemon and rice.
“Chicken soup is very popular in Greece. I make it at the restaurant, but it’s not on the menu,” she says and laughs. “I have one special client who, over the last 18 years, comes in on a Wednesday. She rings in the morning to order it and if I make it for her, she loves me to death.”
Recipes for avgolemono differ from family to family.
“I like to make my chicken avgolemono nice and creamy,” she says. “I beat the eggs with a lot of lemon, so it's fluffy, and put vegies in. When I make it for my family at home, I roast the chicken and keep the broth. When you’re sick, it makes you feel much nicer inside.”
"Chicken soup takes on a healing role that is universal across different cultures.”
Louis also explores soups like Sri Lankan kanjee, made with turmeric and tamarind and yakhni, a fragrant chicken broth found in Afghanistan and Pakistan. She says that chicken is also about finding “diversity in commonality” – even as it’s the product of complex cultures and pasts.
“People in America think of chicken soup as Eastern European chicken soup, but they are so many kinds and they have the same purpose in different countries,” she says. “[There] is such a breadth of ingredients and styles.”
Because chicken wingtips and feet have a high ratio of cartilage and skin to meat and bone, they are perfect for getting a rich, sticky broth.
The centres of the balls become a little chewy and the exteriors are soft and fluffy, just the way I like them.
Hanan's mum's advice is that the soup should only have a small handful of rice because the broth is most important, especially when someone is sick.
Sri Lanka’s kanjee can be made with chicken, seafood or vegetables, and sits in a comfortable spot between curry and soup.