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Soup and the Sniffles
(e-SoupSong 33: January 1, 2003)
ONCE UPON A TIME I lay in a small bed in a darkened room. Groggy. Hot and sweaty. Coughing. Then, footsteps on the stairs. The door opens a crack. Mom.
And not just Mom: Mom with a tray that's set with a napkin, a silver spoon, a plate of buttered toast points, and a small porcelain bowl of chicken-rice soup.
I whimper. She blots my forehead with a cool cloth. I sniffle. She gives me a kiss, sits me up, plumps up the pillows. Sets the tray on my lap. Suddenly I'm hungry.
How much sweeter could life be than this? I'm so happy to have the memory. It was the early 1950s on Hilspach Street in Philadelphia, city of brotherly love. My older sister was off at school; my brother yet unborn. Dad was putting in long hours at the Mill and longer ones at night school, still catching up from a youth stolen by B-29 missions in World War II. And I had a young, beautiful mother who brought me chicken soup on a tray when I was ailing.
I bet you have a memory like this too--even if the details are a bit different. Think sick; think soup. Universally.
And there are good reasons for it.
Historically, broths made from chickens and other creatures were prescribed as remedies for ills as far back as the 2nd century AD by Greek physician Galen--and his teachings (with those of the earlier Hippocrates) were carried forward by word of mouth for a thousand years by local docs. Also, starting in the 9th century, Arab physicians began translating and using these old texts in their communities. Al-Dakhwar in his Damascus bimaristan, for example, was reported by a student to specifically prescribe chicken soup for a feverish patient.
It was in 1190, though, that Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides, serving as physician to Saladin's court in Cairo, wrote a scientific treatise on asthma for his royal patient, 40-year-old Prince al-Afdal, in which he advised "the soup of fat hens is an effective remedy in this disease." Maimonides also collected and codified the old Galen prescriptions in some 1500 aphorisms that included Galen's advice to use chicken soup to treat leprosy, migraine, constipation, "black humours," and chronic fevers.
Fast forward nearly a thousand more years and we've finally figured out, more or less, why and how chicken soup is good for respiratory ailments.
In 1978, pulmonary specialist Marvin Sackner, Mt. Sinai Medical Center, published his study that demonstrated chicken broth specifically promotes the flow of air and mucus in nasal passages and clears up congestion better than control liquids of hot and cold water.
In the 1980s, Dr. Irwin Ziment, UCLA school of medicine, identified cysteine as an animo acid released in cooking a chicken that actively thins the mucus in the lungs--and he demonstrated increased efficacy when chilies, garlic, and spices are added to chicken soup as they loosen phlegm and act as expectorants.
Then, in October 2000, Dr. Stephen Rennard of the Nebraska Medical Center published his study on the ability of Jewish chicken soup with matzo balls (a family recipe from Lithuania) to inhibit neutrophil chemotaxis--that is, could it stop the inflammation associated with colds? Emphatically yes, it turns out. Colds happen when viruses infect the mucosa of the upper respiratory tract...provoking the release of white cells (nuetrophils)...which in turn rush into the tissue and kick up piles of mucus in your lungs and stuffy head. Enter chicken soup, which chemically stops those nuetrophils in their tracks...without reducing the body's ability to fight the infection.
Tired of all the talk about mucus? There're other benefits too. All that liquid, for example, washing those pesky viruses down to the stomach, to be destroyed by its powerful digestive acids--not to mention all that liquid preventing dehydration. Then, too, the intangibles of warm, aromatic comfort food administered by a loving hand. And what about the goodness and power of all the other ingredients in soup?
Eileen Behan, in Cooking for the Unwell, notes that clear broth soups (like "beef tea" and chicken bouillon) may settle an upset stomach, but patients need protein, vitamins, and calories to actually get well. That means adding eggs, bits of meat, flu-fighting garlic, starches, and vegetables into the soup.
Ah me, so many traditional "convalescent" recipes to choose from, chicken soups alone: Jewish "Penicillin," Filipino Arroz Caldo at Manok (with rice), Korean Kyesamt'ang (with ginseng), Provenšal L'a´go boulido (masses of garlic), Puerto Rican Sopa de Fideos y Pollo (noodles/rice/potatoes), Italian Stracciatelle (egg, bread, and Parmesan), French Soupe de Fides (noodles), and Thai Kao Tom, to name just a few.
Then there's that sovereign beef tea/l'Essence de Boeuf, those Chinese soups that balance off-kilter yins and yangs, Egyptian Ful Nabed bean soup, and Armenian yoghurt-rice soup. And I don't want to forget that waspish Alexander Pope versifying a "Receipt to make Soup" in 18th century England for his ailing friend Jonathan Swift--his own nostrum that included veal knuckle, vegetables, and herbs.
Feel a scratching at the back of your throat? Already in full-blown snot misery on this first day of 2003? Let me tempt you with two of my favorites.
ITALIAN STRACCIATELLE, for 1 or 2
* 1 egg
Garnish: a piece of basil, parsley, or crossed chives, just for looks, and more Parmesan on the side.
Bring the stock to simmer in a saucepan. Then, in a separate bowl, beat the egg with a fork and continue beating as you add the cheese and bread crumbs--and finally, a half cup of the simmering stock.
Bring the remaining stock to nearly a boil, scrape in the egg mixture, and whisk it feelingly, even emotionally, with a fork for 3-4 minutes. When you stop beating, let the soup come just barely to a boil--its creaminess will then break into plump, lacy custards. Serve immediately, with an extra sprinkling of Parmesan topped by a single piece of herb. Sit down with it. Breathe it in deeply. Get better.
THAI RICE SOUP (Kao Tom), for 2
* 2 cups light chicken stock
Garnish: 2 teaspoons finely minced fresh ginger root; 2 teaspoons minced cilantro; 1 minced green onion; 1 teaspoon golden friend onion flakes (which you can make by tossing dried onion flakes in an oil slicked frying pan); and 1/8-1/2 teaspoon dried red chilis, minced
In a saucepan, bring the stock to a boil and add the ground pork, stirring to break it up. Reduce heat to a simmer, stir in the cooked rice, and simmer for 2 minutes. Season with the fish sauce.
When ready to serve, bring the soup back to a medium boil and carefully break the eggs into it. When the eggs are poached, transfer each to a bowl, then ladle the soup on top. Garnish with ginger, cilantro, green onions, onion flakes, and as much chili as you think your sick chicks can handle. Cover the bowls with lids, let sit for a minute to let the flavors blend, then serve.
There, now: feeling better?
Best regards...and wishing you a healthy and happy 2003,
* * *
NEXT MONTH: Proverbially Soup