Chef Sharad Dewan (Regional Director, Food Production, The Park Hotels) on what made this popular broth a literary synonym of comfort food and balmy goodness.

By Madhulika Dash; Picture courtesy stock images

It takes more than just worldwide popularity for a dish to enter the vocabulary corridors of the literary world. Chicken Soup or Broth however has been an exception. Used often to describe that homey feeling of comfort, care and love, Chicken Soup today is a metaphor in the world of literature applied regularly to express feelings, thoughts and even concepts that are either a combination of too many adjectives or even transcends beyond the power of the regular words. In fact, according to most literary heads, Chicken Soup is the perfect allegory for psychological comfort today – irreplaceable for any dish, irrespective of its culinary standing, for the next millennial to come. But ever wondered what makes Chicken Soup such an exception – not just in the world of words but food as well? Just think of it, as a rich broth it has aided the making of such fascinating version that today are a quintessential part of a culinary culture: be it paya in India, Morgh Zaferani in Persia, the Burmese Ohn-No Khao Swe, the Chinese Black Chicken Soup (Hot & Sour too), and the Georgian Chikhirtma to name a few.  

Which brings us to how and where did Chicken Soup, a broth that was likely to utilise the chicken as a meat, came to being? The story of Chicken Soup or Broth as we like to call it, says culinary revivalist Chef Sharad Dewan, “began around the time Chicken became famous – not only as a meat to eat but also as a bird that could be domesticated, which according to most historians is nearly 8,000 years ago when thanks to the Silk Route Chicken began reaching the other side from Asia both as a source of entertainment (cockfighting), sustenance and of course food. However, the realisation that chicken could be eaten and relished much the same way as beef, pork, venison, boar and more came quite by accident – as most great dishes are.

“Chicken soup was first made by the culture which knew how to work with chicken, or more so with their ancestors called the red junglefowl (Gallus Gallus) – a specie which according to Charles Darwin theory was a bird that absolutely mirrored the habits of the chicken. Back in the day, soup’s role was more like a broth that served as a medium to cook grains, lentils, and meat together into this wholesome one pot meal. And there is a good chance that chicken too went through the same culinary investiture ceremony initially. And one such place that excelled in utilising its biodiversity for its food was China. As an ancient civilisation, China by the time chicken reached the world had taken the lead not just in knowing how to use the bird – whose feet were used to create the first iteration of the hot & sour soup – but also using food in the medicine. In fact, when it came to broth making, especially clear, fragrant stock, China, thanks to their knowledge of medicine, was miles ahead from the other kingdoms that were just discovering the other benefits of having a pen other than an afternoon of drunken stupor and cockfights. According to ancient medical text Huangdi Neijing (The Yellow Emperor's Inner Classic) chicken soup was declared as the “yang food” – a warming dish – to which different therapeutic herbs can be added to cure variety of illness starting with common cold, abdomen pain and nausea. Such was the reverence for this soup as a medicine that can cure-all that it became one of the few things that every sailor, merchant, traveller, and soldier had to learn to be able to cross the borders into unfamiliar territory. That and the existence of the Silk Route became instrumental in Chicken Soup travelling the world, if not in the Chinese format that used a variety of herbs including the goji berry, roots, and cherry-flavoured Robitussin (a natural remedy for cold, cough and fever) to flavour their broth than in form of the knowledge to use the chicken. It was however not till the second century AD that Greece began putting chicken broth as a cure for migraine, leprosy, constipation, and fever too thanks to the Greek physician Galen, who called the chicken soup, a delicious antidote. However, the first recorded mention of chicken soup was under the name of Dioscorides, a Roman army surgeon who used the fat in the soup to sooth the pain and as a comfort drink that helped them feel better.

Interestingly, for most of its earlier years Chicken Soup remained an integral part of the medicine, even as it began to evolve what the Latin country began addressing as the suppa, but when it came to the meal it was curiously absent as most still preferred a more flavourful beef, pork and boar to the lightness of chicken that needed carrots and herbs that rich taste – and of course was low in fat compared to other meat. But that did not stop cultures from adopting both the chicken and the chicken soup as part of their menu. It did serve as an extra meat option and was a pleasant change from the meatier beef or hunt meat, says Chef Dewan, who finds an uncanny semblance to the way Chicken stock is prepared across the world and believes that it was the stock that attracted more people to chicken in the early years than what we consider the soup today. In fact, one such soup that influenced the biggest advocate of Chicken Soup in history used the stock to make a richer version of original Greek soup and called it the avgolemono, a congee-style rice gruel that uses the chicken broth to cook the rice and is finally seasoned with egg and lemon. Little is known of Chicken Soup’s fate till about the 12th century when thanks to Jewish philosopher and physician, Moses Maimonides, it saw a revival again as a medicine, this time as an effective remedy for the weak and sick. In fact, many culinary anthropologists believe that it was the Jewish community that standardised the recipe of the stock that were to be used by other cultures including the French, who finally put the soup as part of the fine dine menu standard. The reason the Jewish community could popularise the Chicken Soup was because of this one constant tragedy that befell them, time and again, which made them run for sanctuary in different parts of the world. And the one meat that they discovered was available widely was chicken. The meat soon became one of the founding pillars to their cuisine. It was not until the late 15th century that the soup established itself as a food than just a homemaker’s remedy to feeling good, thanks partly to the rise of chicken as an acceptable meat that was now part of domestication across the world including the royals and powers-to-be, and also, adds Chef Dewan, “to the sublime quality and versatility of the stock. Unlike beef or pork stock that were rich but had this overpowering meatiness to it, chicken broth could be tweaked for purpose. It could be a white, mildly flavoured stock for soup and could be turned brown for a rich basting sauce for grilled meats and others. In fact, chicken soup big league entry into the French dining was as a consommé – flavoured, fragrant, and yet clear as dawn. The golden-hued broth soon became a standard of fine dining and led to some of the richest formats that were served under the course ‘soup’. One such fascinating masterpiece was Crème de poulet or Crème de Volaille, commonly known as the French cream of chicken soup that is still served across the world as part of any special sit down or chef’s table. While the French did give the humble and hearty chicken soup its time in the culinary sun in modern times, even standardising the chicken stock recipe used by chefs across the world, it was the hominess, says the European food specialist, “that was winning hearts and hearths across the world for the chicken and its broth including Italy where it created the family style Brodo di Pollo, and in Iran, the famous abgoosht, a light stew often had during winters and in the mainland of Georgia, Chikhirtma, a spicy, tangy, velvety version of Greek avgolemono.”

Incidentally, chicken soup popularity much through history was as a settler’s meal thanks to the migrating community, primarily the Jews, Armenians, Mennonites, and Amish, who were not only the first adopter of the soup but also the ones who introduced the world to the concept of a good, balmy chicken soup that could do much more than revive the sick – they could actually make a hearty meal. What worked for chicken soup, says Chef Dewan, “was that the meat had a rather pleasing taste, could take on flavours well (mild ones included) and once cooked, the meat could be repurposed including creating these amazing meatballs or as the Jewish called matzo meal. It was a sustainable food habit and was embraced effortlessly.”

The stock in fact, continues Chef Dewan, “worked as this secret sauce that could make simple meals delicious, and the fact that chicken remained – even during the world wars – an item that could be afforded added to the charm. Techniques like roux were developed to give the simple broth that interesting burst of rich mouthfeel and led to recipes that made chicken soup a part of a hearty meal when combined with toast and a few vegetables. Fascinatingly, even in its moment in the culinary limelight, what also helped chicken soup excel was its nutritive goodness. As a warming soup, Chicken Soup/Broth for long was known to help clear the air passage by freeing the lungs off the mucous (two studies done by pulmonologist experts Irwin Ziment and Stephen Rennard proves it) and thus fight cold, cough and to some extend fever too. Along with that, it was one of the few broths that could be fortified with herbs and spices that could help make the body feel better. Like in most Chinese soups there is a ready use of ginger along with garlic and onions, a trio that modern science believes works as a powerful antidote that cranks up the respiratory system by improving the functioning of lungs.”

Fascinatingly, concludes Chef Dewan, “it is this goodness that most traditional recipes have played on by accentuating it using their very own special bouquet garni. In fact, most chicken soup recipes across the world is prepared at two levels that begins with a basic stock, which is then elevated with vegetables, spices, greens or even chicken to get the desired placebo effect. How well does it do its work – which is often the sense of calmness and hug that washes all over – is what benchmarks a good Chicken Soup from the rest.”

And one such version that has worked for Chef Dewan is the signature brown stock soup which is made of a rich chicken stock that uses a whole lot of root vegetable and then finished simply with Tellicherry peppercorns and a single, fluffy, well-seasoned matzo ball. “It’s balminess personified.”