Ask a Jewish person what food they turn to when they feel down or ill or homesick or for a comforting family meal, and there’s a decent chance they’ll reply “Chicken soup,” with little hesitation.
The soup is a rich broth of chicken and often some vegetables, sometimes topped with matzah balls or “kneidlach” – dumplings made from ground-up Jewish flatbread. These can be either dense (“sinkers”), or light and fluffy (“floaters”), depending on your preference. This, like many other things, is a hotly debated topic in Jewish families. There are few things we – Jews in general and the four behind this column – love more than hearty debate and food, so the combination is irresistible.
Chicken soup is a mainstay of Shabbat meals, held on a Friday night, and many Jewish festivals. For example, it is traditional to have as the last meal before Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement and the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, as it fills, warms, and fortifies before the 25-hour fast. At this point Leah, our resident vegetarian who naturally likes to talk about vegetarianism, would like to add that in her opinion ‘chicken soup’ as a nostalgic icon of Jewish culture need not involve chicken. Instead, flavourful vegetable soup – miso is essential for that hit of umami – with matzah balls ticks the boxes just as nicely. Chicken is not an essential ingredient; comfort and community are.
The soup is considered by Jewish mothers and grandmothers everywhere to hold great restorative power – to the extent that it is widely referred to as “Jewish penicillin”. As far back as the 12th century, the Sephardic Jewish philosopher Maimonides wrote that chicken soup had medicinal properties and could even cure leprosy and asthma. Interestingly, studies have suggested that the amino acids released from chicken when cooked may be useful in fighting infections and reducing inflammation – so perhaps Jewish mothers do know best after all, though please don’t tell ours that.
We may take some of Maimonides’ claims with the pinch of salt stirred into our broth, but chicken soup is nonetheless a soothing balm for a troubled soul; even the smell of it simmering in the kitchen carries a certain calming power. It also has a long and noble history in Jewish culture; the venerable food writer and cultural anthropologist Claudia Roden has suggested that a version of it with egg and lemon originated from the Sephardic Jews of Spain and Portugal. They reportedly brought it to Greece after fleeing the Spanish Inquisition.
Closer to home, Jews and their chicken soup seem to have been around in Oxford for a long time. In medieval Oxford, despite Jews being forbidden from attending the University, there was a thriving Jewish population up until all the Jews of England were expelled by King Edward I in 1290. The medieval Jewish community in Oxford had such a significant presence that St Aldate’s actually used to be called Great Jewry Street. Archaeologists who performed a dig on the site of the old Jewish quarter in Oxford in 2016 found evidence from the rubbish tips and latrines that these Jews strictly observed kashrut, or kosher, and out of the 171 animal bones found on the site, 136 were from poultry. So, there is a good chance that Jews were eating chicken soup in Oxford nearly 1000 years ago.
Therefore, throughout history and to this day chicken soup has served as the rich, steaming, fragrant glue that binds Jewish communities together. It is served at JSoc and Chabad meals across the world, and has its place on thousands of Shabbat tables every Friday night. Making and eating chicken soup is for many a comforting routine, even a ritual, which can alleviate homesickness for Jewish students when they move away to university. The experience of walking into a JSoc Friday Night Dinner is something which can almost feel magical; there are a hundred people in the room, all joined together to form a community, with each bowl of soup feeling like home.
For Jews who have a non-Jewish parent, this chicken soup is often one of the essential, simple recipes taught by the Jewish side of the family to the non-Jewish side. Therefore, it can have even more meaning as a symbol of the cultural sharing involved in an interfaith identity. Recipes for the soup are often handed down within families, and everyone will tell you that their grandmother’s version really is the best. This is because each family’s recipe is distinct, infused with treasured memories, traces of stories, little additions and secret ingredients passed down from great grandparents we never knew. Tamzin remembers her mother teaching her how to make it for the first time, how it is often left simmering overnight, how each week her pride and joy would be the weight and density of her kneidlach. These memories and moments are sacred.
During the pandemic, some of us have come to measure out our lives in Friday night dinners and matzah balls. Every Friday, the house is once again filled with the warmth and the aromas of challah and chicken soup, as we are seated around a dinner table with the people we have been stuck with for over a year. Surrounded by the people that we love, chicken soup sits at the heart of the little sanctuary in the week that Friday night dinner represents.
The chicken soup tradition encapsulates Jewishness at its best; it is inviting, full of love, infused with rich history. Ultimately, whichever recipe is used, precise ingredients and proportions are mere pedantry; the important thing is that chicken soup is warm and delicious and eaten in the company of others and their conversation. We hope that this column can be your metaphorical chicken soup. We hope that it can be a source of visible community for our fellow Jewish students, and something which our non-Jewish friends also enjoy and benefit from. We may have disagreements over the density of our matzah balls, but when we tuck into our soup with mutual sighs of appreciation, we are united far more than divided. L’chaim to that.
Image credit: Sailko.