The Chinese, Marilyn Monroe and Golda Meir

A Brief History of Chicken Soup, the ‘Jewish Penicillin’

Way before Campbell’s iconic cans, Jews around the world prepared the savory broth. We take a closer look at its unique origins, just in time for Yom Kippur

Traditional chicken soup
Matan Shoufan

Chicken soup is the undoubtable symbol of Jewish cuisine. But the hot broth — made of scarce and expensive fresh meat — was not always readily available in every Eastern European Jewish community.

However, there was one day a year when every family, rich or poor, prepared the soup: Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement.

“At night, the people of the village [Cycow in Poland] would wave fluttering chickens above their heads for the atonement ceremony called kapparot, and right after the ceremony people marched in droves to the slaughterhouse,” recalled Shmil Holand in his book “Schmaltz.” A few hours later, the village was filled with the aroma of fresh chicken soup, which was then served before the Yom Kippur fast.

Much has changed since the days of shtetl life in Poland. In American popular culture, though, chicken soup remains the quintessential Jewish comfort food and a symbol of homemade Jewish cuisine that members of the community long for.

So much so, it’s easy to forget that the origins of this Jewish staple are actually found in ancient Greece and China. The Greek version evolved over the centuries into avgolemono, a broth that is seasoned with egg and lemon and sometimes cooked with a little rice. In her “The Book of Jewish Food: An Odyssey from Samarkand to New York,” Claudia Roden suggested that this combination is likely to be Spanish or Portuguese, and that it was brought to Greece by Sephardi Jews who fled the Spanish Inquisition.

The Chinese chicken soup is usually seasoned with ginger and scallion, but their main claim to fame in the chicken soup department is the addition of noodles. The Chinese actually made the first chicken noodle soup — which they referred to as noodles in broth rather than soup — centuries before Campbell’s produced its ever popular version in that can.

Soup with matzo balls.
Tomer Appelbaum

However they chose to serve it, the Greeks, Chinese and Jews all agreed that chicken soup has mysterious therapeutic qualities. It has been renowned for relieving colds and nourishing pregnant women, and has even been said to cure asthma and leprosy — as the 12th century Jewish philosopher and physician Maimonides claimed in his book “On the Cause of Symptoms.” Hence the well-earned nickname of “Jewish penicillin.”

Good enough for Golda

Chicken soup arrived in America as early as the 16th century thanks to European immigrants, mainly Jews, Mennonites and Amish. The latter made an all-American combination by adding dry and fresh corn they adopted from Native Americans. Chicken soup became so popular that by the middle of the last century, grocery stores’ shelves were stocked with a variety of instant soup mixes and canned soups.

And what’s a Jewish chicken soup without the fluffy and savory matzo ball? The simple dumplings made of matzo meal, fat and egg take center stage on menus of every deli and many diners in the United States. The 1903 “Settlement Cook Book,” a collection of recipes from European Jewish women, includes a recipe for a soup very similar to the one used nowadays, with onion, celery and celery root, and suggests serving it with dumplings called matzos kloese (now known as matzo balls). Interestingly enough, those are prepared not only with matzo meal but with crumbled soaked matzo as well. The late American food writer and historian Gil Marks wrote in the “Encyclopedia of Jewish Food” that using crumbled matzo was the common way of making matzo balls before store-bought ground matzo meal became available.

Even Israel’s fourth prime minister Golda Meir, who grew up in the United States, made similar matzo balls in the small kitchen of her apartment in Jerusalem. Meir combined crumbled matzo and matzo meal, just as described by the classic recipe.

Mainstream American cuisine may have embraced matzo balls, but at least one famous lady wasn't a big fan. “When Marilyn Monroe was married to Arthur Miller, his mother always made matzo ball soup,” wrote Ann Barr and Paul Levy in "The Official Foodie Handbook."

“After the 10th time, Marilyn said, ‘Gee Arthur, these matzo balls are pretty nice, but isn’t there any other part of the matzo you can eat?’” they related.

A less popular, but just as tasty, Jewish soup dumpling is the kreplach: This is a type of filled dough, similar to pierogi or ravioli, stuffed with minced meat, chopped liver or potato. The dumpling, which is prepared in an arduous process, was traditionally meant to be served only on holidays. More specifically, kreplach were supposed to be eaten when “beating” was required, just like the filling of the kreplach is “beaten” (or ground, which is the same word in Yiddish). This means that kreplach were added to the chicken soup three times a year: On Yom Kippur, when people beat their chest to atone for their sins; during Sukkot, when the leaves of the willow are beaten; and at Purim, when Jews recollect how Haman was beaten.

My grandmother added a fourth occasion: When the meat you cooked turned out bad and all you could do is disguise it in the kreplach.

Vered Guttman

Pho-chicken soup with kreplach dumplings

You can make the soup up to three days in advance, and the dumplings a day in advance.

Wonton wrappers (dumpling wrappers) are available in the fridge or freezers of any Asian supermarket.

For the dried mushroom you can use any variety, including those found in the Asian markets (do not use porcini though, their strong flavor will overpower the soup). Star anise is available in some health supermarkets, and in any Asian market.

Serves 10

Ingredients

For the soup

4 lb. chicken legs, thighs or wings

3 quart water at room temperature

2 parsnips, peeled

3 carrots, peeled

1 large onion, peeled

6 inch ginger piece, skin on, cut in half

1 oz. dried mushrooms

6 star anise

2 four-inch cinnamon sticks

1 teaspoon black peppercorns

Kosher salt to taste

For the kreplach

4 tablespoons duck fat or schmaltz (or vegetable oil)

1 large onion, chopped

1 lb. chicken liver, cleaned

¾ teaspoon kosher salt

¼ teaspoon ground black pepper

1 pack wonton wrappers (thawed overnight in the fridge, if frozen)

For serving

Bunch snow peas, cut to 1 inch sections

½ cup basil leaves

½ cup chopped green onion

Olive oil

Directions

1. To make the soup, wash the chicken, put in a large pot, cover with 3 quart water at room temperature and bring to boil over medium-high heat. Once the water has boiled, skim the foam on top, add the rest of the soup ingredients (except the salt), bring back to boil, lower heat to low, cover and cook for 2 hours. Remove all chicken, veggies and spices from broth (you can either strain through a colander or use a hand strainer). Salt the broth to taste. Save mushrooms, parsnips and carrots to serve in the soup. Cool the soup and refrigerate overnight.

2. To make the kreplach, put duck fat in a nonstick pan over medium-high heat. Sauté onion until golden, 6-8 minutes, then add chicken liver and cook until fully cooked, stirring regularly for another 10 minutes. Add salt and pepper, mix, remove from heat and let cool for 15 minutes. Chop in a food processor.

3. Prepare a glass with cold water and a small brush. Line a wonton wrapper on a work surface. Spoon chicken liver filling at the center. Using a very lightly wet brush, or your finger, wet the wrapper all around the filling (not just the edges of the wrapper, but the whole surface of it, to make sure it’s sealed well). Fold over the filling into a triangle, then tightly attach the two triangle corners together (see photo). Put on a large tray. Continue with the rest of the wrappers, until you finish the filling.

4. Wrap the dumpling tray with a few layers of plastic wrap and keep in the fridge until ready to serve.

5. Before serving, remove soup pot from fridge. Skim the fat accumulated at the top of the soup, then reheat the soup, adjust seasoning and add snow peas. Slice the mushroom, parsnips and carrots you kept from making the soup and divide between the soup bowls.

6. Just before serving put soup on medium heat to simmer. Add dumplings, cook for two minutes and serve with basil and green onion on top. Drizzle with a little olive oil and serve.