A friend’s grandmother, a holocaust survivor, recently turned ninety-five. Surveying her life, she gave the following advice to young women: “be happy every day, eat, wear a scarf and don’t marry a schmendrick.” It seemed like a good idea to heed her tip-off, and make Jewish chicken soup the second ‘chicken soup from around the globe’ to be cooked in our Comfort Food Cafe…
Besides, it felt cowardly to postpone it any longer, it being the chicken soup argued by so many to be the classic, the iconic and the original. And with some justification. It seems to have been a twelfth century Jewish physician named Maimonides who began the entire ‘chicken soup as medicine’ phenomenon. In his book, On the Cause of Symptoms, he claimed that it can contribute to the curing not only of asthma but also, more boldly, of leprosy as well generally serving to “neutralise body constitution.”
So I wrapped myself up in a shawl, paused to smile in the hallway mirror, and hit the streets of Stamford Hill.
Unlike cooking avgolemono last month, I didn’t have to hunt for a recipe. As soon as I announced that I would be cooking Jewish chicken soup this time round, I was inundated with people’s family versions – memorised methods dissected into 40 character communications, culinary heirlooms typed into emails and the scribbled, stained pages of notebooks photographed and imessaged.
Chicken soup—or ‘Jewish penicillin’, or ‘goldene yoich’ (golden broth) because of the amber globules of fat floating on top—is a staple of the Ashkenazi culinary tradition. Around the world, amongst observant and secular Jews, it is eaten at the start of Friday night suppers to mark the beginning of the Sabbath.
As a result, by the time I buckled up for the drive to the shops, I felt like I had two dozen grandmothers packed into the car with me, each whispering contradictory advice insistantly in my ear: “Parsley!” “NO HERBS!” “vermicelli!” “No, RICE!”
So. No shortage of advice. But the question was: where to get the ingredients? There are small kosher sections in almost every major supermarket these days. But heading for Tesco didn’t seem very… authentic. And besides, they don’t stock everything. I’d read that one traditional garnish was ‘unlaid chicken eggs’, extracted from a hen and boiled in the soup. While I was drawing a line at that, I had been instructed by a friend to track down a kosher boiler chicken, promising that the taste would genuinely be affected.
Which is how I and my imaginary carload of bickering grannies found ourselves pulling up in Stamford Hill – a north London neighbourhood that is home to more than 20,000 members of The Haredi community – strictly-Orthodox Jews who trace their ancestry to 18th-century Eastern Europe.
They are characterised as one of the most close-knit, insular and private communities in Britain.
I parked behind Berry's kosher village. It was raining and a group of ringleted men hurried back and forth through the rubber curtain of an inauspicious looking warehouse door, blue plastic bags covering their wide-brimmed black hats.
Tentatively, I followed their lead and, like Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole, suddenly found myself inside a conventional, strip-lit aisle of a supermarket. Conventional, that is, except for its stock: everything was kosher, the packets and the brands all unfamiliar. There were a hundred different kinds of matzah meal, a thousand different packets of lokshen noodles.
And then there were the shoppers. I was the only person not dressed head to toe in black. The only woman not wearing a wig. I cursed my bright yellow raincoat as I approached a bearded assistant and asked for the ‘telma chicken stock’ that my friend’s scribbled recipe specified.
He looked at me blankly and I was fifteen again, lost on a French exchange trip. I must have pronounced it wrong. He said something in Yiddish. I drew a breath and prepared to try again when a kind lady swooped down on me and my incompetence and began to bustle us into order.
Once I’d explained that I was attempting to make chicken soup, she immediately overruled half the items on my list, dropping different brands into my basket, a different thickness of noodle and finally adding a traditional challah bread before depositing me at the till. Outside, she stood in the street, shouting and gesticulating as I dithered over her directions to the kosher supermarket.
I may have gathered the wrong brands of everything but I had acquired an Orthodox Fairy Godmother alongside my boiler chicken and I was ready to get to work.
The guest list
Rachelle—the most glamorous, heavily pregnant woman in London, whose mother, Valerie, contributed one of the two chicken soup recipes finally selected for my version to be based upon.
Camilla—currently in charge of programming the first Radio Times festival, she brought a defrosted, zip-lock bag of her aunt’s own chicken soup for us to conduct a taste comparison with.
Rebecca—a civil servant who, earlier this year, was recognised for her services to women in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours list.
Tanya—jewellery designer, silversmith, goldsmith and gemmologist behind the company Foxgloves London.
Mal—journalist, brave (and only) man at the table.
Back in my kitchen, boiling a chicken as before, everything started to feel comfortingly familiar.
The ingredients around me were similar to last month’s too - no lemon, sure, but carrots instead. No rice, but noodles. If it wasn’t for the dreaded matzah balls I’d have been beginning to feel quite cocky.
The house started to fill up, guests munching on smoked salmon, and I was grateful to my Fairy Godmother’s challah for preoccupying them while I muttered expletives over a sticky mixture of matzah meal, chicken fat and ground almonds that was supposed to metamorphasise, magically, into a light and fluffy dumpling.
First up was Camilla's aunt Susan’s soup - a clear consommé, without the hunks of vegetables and chicken pieces that mine would be laden with. "My aunt makes big batches and delivers them to family members,” explained Camilla. “It's a big deal, you save it for emergencies like illness or catastrophe. Everyone in the family has some in their freezer."
We served shots of it in tea glasses and espresso cups. It tasted pure and sweet and incredibly wholesome. It seemed miraculous that ingredients that were so few and so simple could tap directly into the mainframe of human wellbeing.
Back in the kitchen, I dropped my matzah ball mess into the soup and sent up a prayer to my Fairy Godmother. Ten minutes later, I served it up. The first plate was sent straight back – “Too many gubbins,” said Rachelle, firmly. It should be about 70% clear soup with just a spare scattering of chicken pieces and veg, I was told.
The ratio readdressed, everyone settled down to eat. None of the guests had ever met one another before, but the comfort food seemed to have an effect on the table - conversation flowed as easily and casually as it might at a family meal.
We talked about the seemingly amazing fact that, while the Jewish diaspora has scattered Jews across the globe, the recipe for chicken soup remains almost exactly the same across different families and different corners of Europe and America.
Someone at the table turned this on its head: recipes that belong to minority cultures that either are threatened today, or have been threatened historically, perhaps aren’t effected by the new countries into which they are transplanted, because their owners have learnt through bitter experience to congregate in insular communities.
And, too, if you have been forced to abandon possessions, homes and land, you might cling to less tangible inheritances, like recipes, to summon up your identity and history.
Plus, someone else suggested, the ingredients are simple and cheap - easy to access wherever your refugee status takes you.
And finally, we turned to the really important topic: my soup. It was “really pretty good”, according to Rachelle and Camilla, our resident experts. My matzah balls couldn’t quite be described as fluffy but they did, at least, put on a semi-convincing show of puffing out in the soup, which, while it didn’t have the glossy glamour of avgolemono, tasted more candidly wholesome – like it was out and proud about the curative role it's playing.
Mal summed it up thus: “Bloody lovely! ... So very flavourful. I’d liken it to a chicken ramen broth but with that notable hint of added sweetness - from the onion, celery and carrot - which balanced the seasoning. Clear not cloudy, which is a mark of pure goodness, I think. Plus, those mini Matzah balls were deliciously light and fluffy and I enjoyed having to use a knife and fork which, for a soup, is different. The perfect balance. Good. Clean. Tasty. Food. I had two generous helpings for a reason...”
Note to recipes: There are two different recipes included for both soup and matzah balls (one typed, one photographed). My version is a mix of the two, in each case.
Nancy Honey's recipe for chicken soup
Nancy is an award-winning photographer who grew up in San Francisco but is now firmly settled in London.
My recipe for Jewish chicken soup is from my very down to earth maternal Gramma Simon. When my sister and her first husband were in their twenties, they lived with her for a time while my brother in law was studying furniture design in Providence, Rhode Island. When he asked her for her recipe, she said, “recipe, schmecipe, I just put it all in!” I never compared notes with my other, very posh Gramma Kenner's version, but most of the versions I have tasted vary a little.
- In a very large pot put in a whole raw rinsed chicken. An old farmyard hen is best, but harder to get these days. I surround that with about 6 scraped carrots cut in half, topped and tailed, and about the same amount of celery, including some of the leafy bits. Then add about 3 large onions, traditionally white, but I often use red, cut into halves. I used to never put in garlic as I don't think Gramma did, but recently after consulting that same sister, she said she always adds it, so now I put in about 6-8 whole peeled cloves. Gramma put in only parsley as far as I know, but I used the whole bouquet garni of thyme, rosemary, parsley and bay leaf in a big bunch tied up with thread. I usually add about 6-10 whole black peppercorns as well.
-Add masses of cold water to cover everything almost to the top of the pot, as a lot will boil away. Bring to the boil and simmer VERY slowly (almost not boiling) for about 3 hours, turning the contents occasionally. I like to do this with the pan uncovered, but you can partially cover if necessary.
- You should let the water boil away until it tastes quite chickeny, but we will improve the flavour in a moment. Let the whole thing cool thoroughly - might have to be about 3 hours or overnight.
- When cool, prepare to be making a mess with some old newspaper and a couple of clean, large bowls. Remove the whole chicken and take all the meat off the bones and discard bones, skin and any gristle.
- Discard the bunch of herbs. Remove the veg from the broth and put aside.
- Taste and improve the liquid by boiling down, adding stock cubes (I swear by Marigold powder) or what I found out my super foodie brother does — boil the liquid down a lot and add clear chicken stock. You may be such a super duper person to have this to hand as part of your cooking cycle as in traditional times, or do as my brother does and buy some!
- When the broth is nice and chickeny, add back the chicken meat and veg and serve with either rice or noodles in the soup, but cooked separately. Gramma always gave us the choice as children.
Now, when I make this soup, which I do a lot, I divide it into portions without the rice/noodles and freeze in tupperware for quick, delicious dinners. Just cook the rice and add it fresh.
Nina Love’s recipe for kneidlach (matzah balls)
A theatre producer, Nina used to run the young writers programme at the world famous Royal Court Theatre but has recently opened a brand new theatre in her East London neighbourhood – the Hackney Showroom.
- Put a couple of cups of matzo meal into a bowl. You can get it from any supermarket in the kosher section, but get the medium not fine stuff. Stir in an egg and lots of salt and paper — LOTS. Stir in a few tablespoons of your soup stock. Taste, and add more salt and pepper if needed.
- Roll the mixture into small balls and drop them into the soup.
- They will be ready in ten minutes, when they’ll puff up and float up to the surface.
Tastes differ though, some people like them firm, others soft. So if you want yours fluffy, add more stock. If you like them like bullets, don’t.
Here are the recipes for the soup and the kniedlach as PDFs.
Join us in the next article to test a new chicken soup. Get in touch with suggestions of all sorts via Twitter: @hattiegarlick