How My Bubbie Taught Me to Make the Ultimate Cure-All — Jewish Penicillin

Matzo ball soup is often touted as Jewish Penicillin, and ask anyone who has had or made it — it does have medicinal properties. Here's why (and how to make the soup).

matzo ball soup in a stockpot on a stove
Photo: Meredith

"Chicken soup is good for the soul" is not an uncommon phrase. In fact, a whole series of inspiring books was based on that mantra, and many cultures have their version of this soul-satisfying dish: chicken soup with wontons from China, avgolemono in Greece, and matzah ball soup for those that are Jewish.

Being Jewish, matzah ball soup was always a part of every holiday. It would also be promptly served at the start of any sniffling. My Bubbie (Yiddish for grandmother) was the master of matzah ball soup in our house, a distinction common for the matriarch of the family.

She passed away when I was in my 20s, leaving behind handwritten recipes. I had never been keen on learning how to make this magical tonic while she was alive — because how could I replicate it? But for the first Jewish holiday my then boyfriend (now husband) and I hosted, I made it my mission.

One problem — I made dishes with more than five ingredients quite infrequently.

The Art of Matzah Ball Soup

Creating the actual soup, or chicken stock, is now not a complicated feat, but at the time, it seemed an insurmountable goal. Ask anyone who ever made chicken soup — the key to a good soup is patience as you aim to build flavor. And it seems that's where the medicinal magic happens too. It is said that the 12th century Jewish philosopher Maimonides claimed that the soup relieved colds, nourished pregnant women, and even possibly cured asthma and leprosy.

He wasn't too far off on the cold part. A study done in 2000 revealed that there is some anti-inflammatory benefit to chicken soup. See, grandmas do know best. My friend's mom swears by feeding it to her dog when he's under the weather.

The Stock

Poll 100 Jewish grandmothers, and you'll get a different variation of the same soup. My husband's aunt always adds sugar, some rely on a bouillon cube for added oomph, others add in shallots and garlic instead of onions. This recipe uses turnip.

But the real beauty in these recipes is this: Most of them have been passed down from generation to generation, with everyone adding their own tips and tricks.

To get the chicken soup broth right, you'll want to make sure to skim the fat. Nobody likes an oily soup. Be patient, too. The flavor builds slowly so you'll want at least one hour to 90 minutes of time for the whole, three- to four-pound chicken to boil.

Keep in mind that some chickens end up more flavorful than others (I have no idea why!) so the seasoning is very much to taste. There are times when I add a ton of salt and pepper, other times where I barely add any.

The Vegetables

Once that chicken is ready to be taken out, add in your vegetables. For my Bubbie's version, it's carrots, celery, onion, parsnip, and a good handful of dill.

I like to give it another hour or so with the vegetables. They'll get mushy, but if you like carrots and celery in your soup, you can swap in fresh ones a little before you are ready to serve.

The Seasoning

Here is where I start my seasoning. I prefer not to use any powdered mixes to add flavor, although my mom does. But if you find yourself with lack of flavor, feel free to add bouillon slowly (too much too fast can be a disaster) or even boxed chicken stock.

Once you get the hang of it, making the soup is like an art, which is probably why it's so magical. Sometimes you'll need a little more of one thing and a little less of another. Perhaps that's the secret of why it's so healing — it's truly a dish made with time, love, and attention.

Rolling the Matzah Balls

Matzah or matzo balls go in the soup in place of noodles (although some people do both), and they are Kosher for Passover, as they don't contain anything leavened. You'll see this soup as a starter to most Jewish holiday meals, but it's not limited to that.

Since they're so important, I expected a complicated procedure. After all, my Bubbie's matzah balls were the best. So I was flabbergasted to read in her recipe to "FOLLOW THE INSTRUCTIONS EXACTLY" on the box of Manischewitz or Streit's mix.

So, that's how I make them, adding eggs and vegetable oil to the mix, refrigerating for 20 minutes and then adding them to boiling water. If you do want to make them from scratch, this is a hotly contested area of the right way as well.

For light and airy matzo balls, my cousin adds club soda. This recipe uses vodka, a trick I have never seen.

The one thing my Bubbie did note is to boil those matzah balls in more than just plain water. I will add a bit of chicken stock or the broth from the soup into the boiling water to build flavor. Think of it like adding salt to your pasta water.

Maybe It's Not the Soup at All

I have no doubt that a hearty serving of chicken broth and vegetables has healing properties, but what if it's not the soup that's the true penicillin? What if it's the memories, the stories, and the traditions that really helps us feel better when we are down?

For me, I like to think of it as a hug in a bowl, so much more than just a meal or start to a holiday dinner.

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