On a cold winter’s day, we crave something warming and comforting, and our minds turn to soup. Traditionally, soup has always been part of Jewish culture. The mess of potage given by Jacob to Esau was first mentioned in Genesis.
Then, all cooking methods were primitive. Water was added to pieces of meat, chicken, fish, lentils, vegetables and grain, all of which was then simmered in a clay pot over an open fire to tenderise the ingredients. Archaeological evidence reveals that since prehistoric times, communities in Asia, Africa, Polynesia and Europe have cooked capons and tough birds who were no longer laying by simmering them slowly in water. This process tenderised the parts such as the gelatinous feet, carcass and giblets, which would otherwise have to be discarded. Gradually the liquid became as important as the contents.
When the rabbi, philosopher and physician, Maimonides (1135- 1204), recommended chicken soup as suitably nourishing for invalids, the belief that chicken soup had magical powers was born. Evidence from the University of Nebraska in Omaha substantiates some of these theories. Home made soups contain high levels of fibre, protein, calcium and zinc.
Jewish communities adopted the chicken as the focus for their Shabbat meal as it would tolerate an overnight simmer on a constant flame. Friday night soup was extended with knaidlech, lokshen, rice or barley, the giblets, neck and feet cooked with the bird so every edible morsel could be removed. Later it became customary to serve chicken soup at wedding as the yellow fat “eyes” were said to be symbols of money and thus prosperity.
However not all traditional soups included chicken. In fact the poor Jews of Eastern Europe created a soup called ‘soup mit nisht’ (soup with nothing) containing neither fat nor meat. Usually they were made with a base of cabbage, potatoes or beetroot. Although borscht is hallowed by those yearning for a taste of their past, a diet of beetroot soup or cabbage soup extended with bread must have been monotonous and inadequate.
Many of those poor Jews fled the pogroms and travelled to London, where the Soup Kitchen for the Jewish Poor in Spitalfields was founded in 1853 to relieve their situation and provide a simple soup meal.
Again, during the Second World War in Krakow, a public soup kitchen was established to feed penniless Jews. Today, that desire to comfort though soup is seen in the Los Angeles Jewish Aids Services’ Project Chicken Soup, which has been providing nutritious kosher meals to people living with HIV/Aids in Los Angeles County “in observance, of the Jewish commandment of tikkun olam — healing the world”. And sadly, in Israel soup kitchens have been established to provide for a new generation of hungry people.
6 substantial portions:
125 g (4 oz) pot barley i.e. (barley with the husks left on and higher in fibre)
25 g (1 oz) dried mushrooms, soak in 750mls (1 ½ pints) hot water
1 large onion peeled and chopped
2 carrots peeled and finely chopped
2 celery sticks cleaned well and finely chopped
1 medium potato, clean but leave skin, chop the same size as other vegetables
1 dessert spoon olive oil
1.2 l (2 pints) of vegetable stock
25 g (1 oz) fresh parsley chopped
Freshly milled salt and black pepper to taste
Cook the barley with the stock – the easy way is to place the barley and stock in a glass dish with a lid and microwave for 50 mins. Then chop dried mushrooms.
Sweat onions in oil in a large soup pot. Combine onions and mushrooms plus their soaking liquid with the almost cooked barley and vegetables.
Add the rest of the liquid and simmer for 15 - 20mins or until vegetables are tender.
Add more stock if necessary, plus parsley. Season with salt and pepper. l Variations include adding soured cream for a milky meal or a beef bone, cooked meat or beans for a more substantial soup.
Depending on your preference, serve with rye bread and pickled cucumbers.