Chicken soup is America’s teddy bear. When we’re sick, or just cold, or very, very upset, we turn to it for solace. It has earned the nickname “Jewish Penicillin” and even spawned the scarily popular self-help series “Chicken Soup for the Soul.”
Everyone has a favorite version of this dish, and no one can take that away. But what if you had grown up far from the land of traditional American/European chicken soup? Here are a few international alternatives to get you through the next cold—or just a crap-day.
Sul Long Tang On a normal night at the Koreatown restaurant Gahm Mi Oak, opaque white soups are delivered to every table in big, deep black ceramic bowls ($7.85). Sul Long Tang, described as “snowy white ox-bone soup” is the first item on a very short menu and the specialty that draws an extremely loyal clientele. The dish is incredibly common in Korea, but rarely done right elsewhere. The bones are boiled for many hours and then removed from the broth when it is white and gently flavored. Soft white rice and noodles are added, and a few thin slices of brisket are draped on top. Sul Long Tang holds a special place in the hearts of many Koreans, but is not something that would be served at a dinner party. This bland, comforting concoction is the homiest of home cooking (and a popular snack after a long night of drinking.) At Gahm Mi Oak, bowls of salt and chopped scallions and a pepper-shaker sits on each table for flavor-adjusting.
Ash The word “ash” can conjure different images to Persians depending on where they’re from, but to all it is some kind of thick, hearty soup, and perfect comfort food. At the restaurant Ravagh on East 30th Street, there are two versions: Ash Reshteh and Ash Mash (both $4.50 for a bowl). A friend had recommended the former as her ideal comfort food, the dish her mother would have made her after a bad day or a bad cold. It could be called minestrone-esque, with chickpeas and kidney beans in a thick broth and homemade noodles. But instead of acidity from tomato, the broth delivers brightness in the form of lemon juice. It is thickened with greens that have been cooked to the point of disintegration, and a blob of tangy yogurt on top mixes in to further the effect. Ash Mash is nothing to scoff at, either. It’s a rather thick, tasty, and more straightforward lentil soup with hunks of potato.
Nabe If you want to stray, but not too far, from familiar chicken soup, the Japanese dish (or category of dishes, really) known as Nabe or Nabemono is very similar. Nabe means “pot,” nabemono is roughly “pot of stuff,” and the process is almost exactly how Mom makes chicken soup, but it happens at the table. The most basic versions consist of chicken stock and chicken meat, and noodles are usually added just before eating. But, like any home cooking, nabemono can become as elaborate as the chef’s tastes allow, and often includes root vegetables, eggs, tofu, cabbage, etc. This dish is easy to recreate at home (especially with an electric hot pot right on the table). Ebisu in the East Village has nabe on the menu as a special during the winter and the house specialty at Menchanko-tei is a version of the dish, cooked in individual cast iron skillets.
Congee In recent years, the restaurant Congee Village has become surprisingly popular with non-Chinese New Yorkers. The specialty of the house is exactly what a Chinese parent might make for an under-the-weather kid. (Versions of the dish exist all over Asia, including “okayu” in Japan.) Congee is rice porridge, very simply made by boiling the bejesus out of white rice and then adding some last minute flavor and nutritious proteins. Although a sick person would have it plain, at Congee Village some of the options include sliced fish and lettuce, sliced pork and preserved egg, salted chicken, and dried scallop congee. A bowl of the plain stuff is $2, and the most extravagant versions, like abalone and frog, are $7.75.
Feijoada The national dish of Brazil is the kind of hearty stew that cooks all day long, while family members visit and hang out. Feijoada means “beans,” and black beans are the foundation of the dish, but various types of meat add the bulk of flavor. At Rice ‘n’ Beans, in midtown, a particularly good version is offered for $15.95—if you don’t want to spend the whole day tending to the stove yourself. Humbler incarnations of the dish, which is said to have originated from slaves on Brazilian farms, would feature whatever meat trimmings were available, like pig’s ears or salted beef tongue. But at Rice ‘n’ Beans, pork loin, sausage, bacon, spare ribs, and stewing beef are used. If that weren’t enough, the thick stew is served with rice and collard greens, and flavored with roasted yucca flour, farofa, orange slices, and hot sauce. It’s luxurious but hearty home cooking, and a study in balancing complex flavors.