Can a goy make proper chicken soup? For a dish so steeped in legend, the recipe is amazingly simple. The big problem is finding the right kind of chickenby Alex Renton / October 25, 2008 / Leave a comment
A treat during this year’s dull Edinburgh festival was hearing Steven Berkoff ramble on Jewishness and food. Drawing on his memoir My Life in Food (ACDC Publishing), Berkoff made a case for Jews being closer to their food than most races, and more influenced by what they eat than any other. Interesting stuff, although we weren’t entirely convinced by Berkoff’s claim that the design of the Large Hadron Collider was deliberately modelled by the Jewish physicists at Cern on the shape of the bagel.
Berkoff told the audience about his east London childhood: the tastes, the smells, the people and the chickens. “The Jewish people dropped the lion as a symbol of their race, and the chicken became a Jewish god. And so, just as people who love cats become feline and the British upper class look and talk like their dogs, the Jews became more chicken-like: look at the nose, the cluck-cluck-cluck of their talk, slightly neurotic, slightly shrieking. The east end was full of people who had taken on the characteristics of chickens.”
Berkoff—who has the characteristics of a well-fed but menacing bear—delivered this with a brio that made his claims hard to argue with. He then rhapsodised about the apotheosis of the Jewish relationship with chickens: chicken soup, “Jewish penicillin,” the Proustian biscuit of any European Jewish childhood. “Unctous, golden, life-enhancing, reaffirming,” said Berkoff. And so, goy though I am, I had to make some.
Proper Jewish chicken soup is amazingly simple to cook. I dug out four or five different recipes and they all pretty much agreed: take one whole chicken, cover it in water, chuck in celery, an onion and any other available root vegetables, and boil, for at least three and as many as seven hours. Then strain the liquid and cool it to remove the chicken fat, called shmaltz in Yiddish (and the origin of the term “schmaltz”). For the full Friday family supper experience, serve hot with vermicelli and matzoh balls lurking in the golden-brown depths.
There’s not much more to it than that. On the internet there’s lots of talk about special ingredients: ginger, grated yam, nutmeg, cloves, sugar, a pinch of curry powder, a glass of Marsala. Most authorities agree on the necessity of dill. Leaving the onion’s skin on will enhance the colour. One “secret” ingredient is so commonly cited in the recipes it does not deserve the…