Call me a stubborn creature of habit or a dedicated fan, but throughout the winter months there is only one food I consistently crave: soup. I may swoon over warm, cheesy casseroles, steaming mugs of cocoa and other cold-weather staples. But whether it’s brothy and filled with noodles, or thick and rib sticking, when it comes to selecting a dish to take to my proverbial desert island (or in winter’s case, deserted icecap), I would choose, without hesitation, fragrant, soulful soup.
Fortunately global Jewish cuisine — which is as much defined by cooks’ desires to nourish as by the kosher laws — has no shortage of long-simmered soups to cure whatever ails. Chicken soup, while certainly the most iconic example, is just the beginning. From Greece and Iraq to Ukraine and Asia, Jewish communities around the world understood the value of tucking into a bowl of something warm and savory in both good and troubling times. Is it any wonder that Yiddish culture contains the saying “Worries go down better with soup than without”?
The collection of Jewish soups below is ranked according to my personal taste, with Lagman being the hands-down winner. The list eschews (until April, anyway) summery soups that are typically served cold, like schav, or sorrel soup, and pureed fruit blends. It also nixes hearty dishes like cholent and goulash that drift decidedly into the stew category. Instead, it favors Jewish cooking’s slurpable soups — both world renowned and lesser known — that, taken together, tell the story of Jews’ love affair with the ladle.
In the fleysh-heavy cuisine of the Bukharian Jews from Central Asia, soups, like most dishes, come enriched with meat. They also come peppered with the influences of surrounding cultures. Take lagman, for example. The brothy, coriander-spiced soup is flavored with small hunks of beef or lamb and filled with chewy, hand-stretched noodles akin to those found in nearby China. (Lagman, food historian Gil Marks writes, is the Bukharian word for “noodle” and is linguistically related to lo mein.) Lagman can be found in restaurants in Israel and Queens, N.Y., where the majority of the world’s Bukharian community currently lives. Wherever you find it, it is savory and eminently slurpable — a delicious mix of cultures jumbled into a bowl.
Click here for the Lagman recipe.
2. Goldene Yoykh
As former New York Times dining critic Mimi Sheraton’s cookbook attests, “The Whole World Loves Chicken Soup.” Indeed, you can find chicken-based soups all over the globe, from the Caribbean’s spicy chicken pepper pot to Thailand’s coconut milk-infused tom kha gai. Jewish culture is no exception: Chicken soup, or goldene yoykh (Yiddish for “golden broth”), is an enduring cornerstone of Jewish cuisine. It’s an elixir and a cure-all — nourishing enough to be referred to as “Jewish penicillin.” A bowl of chicken soup is warm and soothing, dotted with softened carrots and even softer bites of chicken, and clouded with glistening fat. Depending on the day (or holiday), Jewish chicken soup comes swimming with noodles; kreplach (dumplings); mandlen (soup croutons); matzo balls or, as author Maurice Sendak famously wrote, “Each month is gay, each season is nice, when eating chicken soup with rice.”
Click here for the Goldene Yoykh recipe.
Centuries before the ruby-colored soup we know today emerged in Ukraine, Slavs made a similar soup out of a parsniplike root called borschtsh. In the 16th century, farmers began to cultivate the bulbous red beetroot, and before long it became a pantry staple. According to Marks’s “Encyclopedia of Jewish Food,” beets were inexpensive and easy to grow, and as a result, “beet soup quickly spread throughout much of Eastern Europe to become the quintessential Slavic dish.” Despite the switch in base vegetable, the original name stuck. Like their non-Jewish neighbors, Jews enjoyed adding meat or bones to their borscht when possible, but they also developed a meatless version that could be topped with the traditional sour cream. Borscht traveled with Eastern European Jews to America, where it remains popular today. It can be served either warm or chilled, but the winter cries out for hearty, hot borscht perfumed with garlic and stained the color of Dorothy’s slippers.
Click here for a Borscht recipe.
4. Marak Kubbeh
Iraqi Jews have their own delicious version of matzo balls: kubbeh. Instead of matzo meal, kubbeh dumplings are made from semolina and bulgur wheat (and therefore are not Passover appropriate) and are filled with spiced, chopped beef or lamb. Kubbeh, which are also popular in Syrian cuisine (where they are called kibbe), can be served fried as an appetizer. But they really come to life when simmered in a soup — either a tangy, lemon-heavy hamousta broth or a hulou broth, which brims with any combination of zucchini, beets, eggplant, garlic or squash. In Israel, dumpling aficionados head to Mordoch, a small Kurdish restaurant located in the Jerusalem shuk, or marketplace, where huge pots of soup simmer all day long and the kubbeh are rolled by hand.
Click here for a Marak Kubbeh recipe.
Naysayers might suggest that you cannot improve on perfection. But one bite of avgolemono — a thick, lemony chicken soup — may forever inspire you to alter your chicken soup regimen. The pale-yellow soup, which is enriched with whole eggs and filled with rice or orzo, is closely related to agristada, an egg-thickened lemon sauce used to top fish, chicken or vegetables. According to Matthew Goodman, the Forward’s former Food Maven, Turkish and Greek Jews broke their fast with avgolemono (literally “egg-lemon” in Greek). And in “The Book of Jewish Food,” Claudia Roden, who calls the dish by its Ladino name, sopa de huevo y limon, writes that it is “one of the most popular soups in the Sephardi world.”
Click here for an Avgolemono recipe.
6. Marak Temani
Any critic who complains that Jewish food has no taste has never tried marak Temani. Typically served for Sabbath dinner, this cilantro-scented beef (or sometimes chicken) soup gets an extra hit of heat and flavor from the Yemenite spice mixture hawaij, which combines cumin, turmeric, cardamom, cloves and coriander. As Joan Nathan writes in “The Foods of Israel Today,” the recipe for hawaij “varies from family to family,” allowing cooks to put their personal stamp on supper. Marak Temani (literally “Yemenite soup” in Hebrew), which can be kept warm for the Sabbath lunch and makes regular appearances during the week, is served as the centerpiece of the meal, along with pita or, more traditionally, a Yemenite flatbread called salouf.
Click here for a Marak Temani recipe.
When it comes to a good soup, taste far outweighs beauty in importance. Case in point: krupnik, or barley soup. Roden writes, “it looks very unappealing, but it is heartwarming in winter.” Krupnik’s swollen kernels of barley date back to biblical times (barley is one of the seven species of Israel mentioned in the Torah). And according to Goodman’s book, “Jewish Food: The World at Table,” the grain was among the most popular crops of Eastern Europe before potatoes were introduced from the New World. Krupnik’s name, Marks writes, comes from the Slavic word for hulled grains, krupa. The soup was, and continues to be, a homely porridge richly flavored with mushrooms and onions. Bones or stew meat can be added for extra heft, or the dish can be left pareve and crowned with a dollop of — what else? — sour cream.
Click here for a Krupnik recipe.
8. Kartofl Zup
Eastern European Jews loved their potatoes — largely out of necessity. As the famous Yiddish song “Bulbes” goes, “Sunday potatoes, Monday potatoes, Tuesday and Wednesday potatoes, Thursday and Friday potatoes. On Shabbat for a specialty a potato kugel! Sunday, once again, potatoes.” Not surprisingly, Eastern European cooks had to get creative with the ever-present root vegetable, and soup was one delicious way to do that. Kartofl zup (literally “potato soup” in Yiddish) came in numerous variations — with mushrooms or leeks, and thickened with either milk or boiled grains like barley or buckwheat. Served warm with a dollop of sour cream, is hard to imagine tiring of this delicious soup.
Click here for a Kartofl Zup recipe.
9. Lentil Soup
Would you trade your birthright for a pot of lentil soup? Esau did, according to the biblical story found in Genesis, changing the course of history and forever linking the tiny, round legume to Jewish cuisine. Since then, lentils have been used in numerous ways in Jewish cooking, particularly in Sephardic and Mizrahi dishes. But nothing quite matches Jacob’s original pottage, which so tempted his brother. Thick, aromatic and as nutritious as it is tasty, a bowl full of lentil soup — called sopa de lentejas by Sephardic cooks, and linzen by Ashkenazi cooks — is indeed a worthy prize. But keep the birthright and make your own.
Click here for a Lentil soup recipe.
Leah Koenig writes a monthly column for the Forward on food and culinary trends. Contact her at email@example.com