On the Jewish food scene: Jewish soups

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Google the words “Jewish soup” and recipes for chicken soup pop up. That soup has also been called Jewish penicillin because some people claim it cures the common cold – or, at least, that it makes them feel better. That folk wisdom actually has some basis in fact: scientists have proven that the soup actually has healing qualities. 
If you went by the first page of the Google search, you might think that the only Jewish soup is chicken soup. However, when I think of Jewish soups, that’s not the one that comes to mind. The staple winter soup from my childhood was one my mother called sauerkraut soup.
Before you make a face about putting sauerkraut in soup, you should remember that sauerkraut is just a pickled form of cabbage, which is an ingredient in many different soups. The version my mother made had tomatoes, sauerkraut and flanken (which is beef, although I have no idea what its name is the non-Jewish cooking world). She also added sugar so it had a touch of sweetness. We never ate the soup the first day it was made. It sat at least one day so we could scrape the fat off the top. The flavor then improved each day, so it tasted better on the third day than the second, and better on the fourth better than the third, etc. (that is, if there was any left by then).
In later years, we stopped making soup from scratch for a variety of reasons. However, that didn’t mean there was no soup to be had. The main staple of any meal – summer or winter – when my younger brother Larry visited each week was a simple version of tomato soup. I know my mom added canned mixed vegetables to a regular can of tomato soup. There were spices added, although I don’t remember which ones. Knowing my mom, there would have been garlic powder and onion powder, but there was also a different flavor I’ve never able to duplicate. If I search my memory, I vaguely remember some butter being added at some point, which makes sense since my mother loves butter. (Butter is so important to her that she refused to give people a recipe for a particular kind of cookie – sorry, can’t remember which one – unless they promised to use butter, not margarine, when making it.)
Are all or any of these Jewish soups? The question becomes how we define Jewish: does there have to be some integral connection to Judaism, or does it just mean that the soup is made by someone Jewish? I don’t recall much mention of soup in the Bible, except for the lentil stew/soup for which Esau sold his birthright to Jacob. Why did I write stew/soup? Because if you do an Internet search, you’ll discover that some people consider it a stew (and offer a recipe, https://toriavey.com/toris-kitchen/jacobs-lentil-stew-2/) while others call it a soup (here you have your choice of recipes, www.myjewishlearning.com/recipe/lentil-soup/ or www.myjewishlearning.com/recipe/lentil-soup/). That is not something I’ve seen discussed in commentaries on the Bible, but maybe someone will produce an anthology of Bible study based on the foods eaten in each parasha. (If that does happen, or if anyone knows of such an anthology, please let me know. I’d love to review that book.)
However, the debate of whether or not stew and/or chili are soups is probably best left to food historians and grocery stores. (If we were to go by one major local grocery store, then chili is soup because it’s located in the same area of the food court.) Maybe in the warmer climate of the land of Israel, soup didn’t play a major role in the cuisine of ancient times. In our far cooler surroundings, soup makes perfect sense, no matter what kind of soup you make. 
Does anyone have childhood memories of a particular soup? Share your thoughts by e-mailing them to treporter@aol.com with “Jewish soup” in the subject line and we’ll print some of them in a future issue.