My acupuncturist  takes a quick look at my tongue. “You’ve got a low blood count,” she says. 

I smile with admiration: my GP had to draw blood, bruise my arm and have the lab process the sample for a whole week before working that out.

The acupuncturist carries on her diagnosis with remarkable accuracy.  As part of her list of suggestions, she advises me to have chicken soup. 

“I very seldom eat meat – I haven’t liked it since I was a baby,” I reply.

“Well, try it,” she says, “and see how you get on.  Only make sure you boil a whole chicken, to get all its goodness.”

“Dearest, will you make us some chicken soup, please?” I say to Howard – a meat eater – as soon as I’m back home.

Once he’s processed his surprise at my request for meat and my explanation for it, he stares at me, his eyes momentarily blank behind his glasses.  “Why can’t we just buy some ready-made?” he suggests, clearly trying to be helpful.

“Because this is supposed to be for my health, so not something from a plastic tub, full of additives and preservatives.  In fact, we’d better get an organic chicken.  So will you make us some chicken soup, please? You keep talking about the one your mother used to make, with Kneidel –”

I don’t know how to make chicken soup!”

It’s my turn to look blank, then I reply, “Your family were Ashkenazi Jews from Poland – how can you not know how to make chicken soup?!”

“My mother was the one who made it.”

“And didn’t you ever watch her in the kitchen and learn?” I say and immediately realise the futility of my question when addressed to a man.  I remember, not without resentment, the hours spent – under duress – in our family kitchen.  My Armenian grandmother would say, in a self-satisfied tone, “Watch, Katia.  Watch and learn.”  Being a girl can be so unfair.

“Where can I buy an organic chicken?” I ask no one in particular.

Howard gives a constructive shrug.  He’s too much of a gentleman to point out that I couldn’t make filo pastry if you paid me, even though I am of Armenian heritage.

“Okay, I’ll go and find one – and a recipe – but I’ve never handled raw meat, so you’ll cook it, right?”

Howard nods with deliberate obligingness.

Before my irritation degenerates into an accusatory rant, I grab the shopping bag and venture to the largest supermarket.

An hour later, there’s a small, allegedly organic chicken on our kitchen counter.  I’m on the phone to my friend Sue.  

“Now whatever you do, don’t wash it first,” she says.

“Oh, but my grandmother always used to wash meat thoroughly before cooking it.”

“So did my mother.”

“Then why?–”

“They’re now saying it’s safer not to.”


“Yes.  They tell you to cover every surface with clingfilm, and if any raw chicken touches anything at all, then make sure you clean it with anti-bacterial detergent.”

I suddenly remember stories of the extraordinary precautions taken by my mother, when giving me the polio vaccine when I was a baby.  Holding my hands to prevent me from putting them in my mouth.  Boiling or burning any contaminated bibs, towels or kitchen utensils.

“Why do people eat chicken if it’s so dangerous?” I inevitably ask.

“Oh, it’s perfectly safe.  They just tell you to be very careful because of the bacteria.”

“Who are ‘they’?”

“The experts.”

After half an hour on the phone, I read out all the health and safety instructions to Howard. “Oh, yes, everybody knows that!” he says, casually.

I briefly consider hurling the chicken at him, then remember that, at all other times, I do love my husband.

I watch him at work.  As he cuts the string that holds the dead bird together, its limbs suddenly pop apart.  I gasp and jump back.  Perhaps I should leave the kitchen… No, I’d better watch and learn.

We take our largest pot but even that doesn’t look big enough to contain the chicken.  Howard stuffs it in with difficulty.  I hear something crack and feel nauseous.  I struggle to remember why I suggested all of this in the first place.  We cover it with water.  As it starts boiling, some disgusting-looking froth forms on the surface.  Neither of us knows what to do with it, so we take the executive decision of skimming it off with a spoon and throwing it down the sink.

Then something unexpected and terrifying happens.  The chicken, the dead chicken, slowly starts to move of its own accord.  It spreads its wings, its legs rise over the edge of the pan, and the whole carcass floats up.  

“What the hell is that?” I say, wondering if I should reach out for the rolling pin.

Howard is very calm.  “I don’t know,” he replies, “but I definitely think we should add some pearl barley.”

An hour later, the flat is heavy with the smell of fat, the sick ward in a hospital, the sour, musty smell of a second-hand clothes shop.  We sit down to eat.  I stare into the swirls of fat forming paisley patterns in my bowl, stir the slippery barley, keep telling myself this is good for me.  I finally muster the courage to lift the spoon to my lips.

Howard beams as he wolfs down his second bowl of soup and reaches out for a third helping.  “Mmm… Just like the soup my mother used to make,” he says, dewy-eyed.  

I push my bowl away.  The yellowish, viscous liquid has gone cold. 

I go and raid the kitchen for bread, cheese, olive oil and olives. 


That was seven years ago.  We have since perfected the science of chicken soup to a version we both enjoy thanks to mushrooms, which both like, and a leafy green plant that often provokes strong disagreements in our household: spinach.  I could eat it morning, noon and night.  Howard dislikes it intensely unless its flavour is toned down by other ingredients.  The following chicken soup is our current happy compromise.



❧ Chicken broth 

(I make ours by boiling leftover bones and skin after Howard has made his superb  roast chicken.)

❧ Spinach

❧ Mushrooms

❧ Haricot beans

❧ Butter

❧ Salt, pepper

❧ Oat (or dairy single) cream

Soak the haricot beans overnight, then boil in salted water until soft.

Wash the mushrooms thoroughly, cutting off the very ends of the stalks, slice them, then fry them gently in a little butter, adding salt and pepper to taste.

Wash the spinach thoroughly, drain the excess water, stew for a few minutes until wilted, then cut into tiny pieces with a knife and fork (or put into a blender).

Add the cooked spinach, mushrooms and haricot beans to the chicken broth, bring to boil and simmer gently for a little while (I usually leave it for 20 or so minutes), to allow the soup to come into its own.  

When serving, add cream to taste.

I like to make this soup the day before I need it, because I find that it always tastes better the next day (needless to say, this soup has to be kept refrigerated once cooled).  I sometimes add potatoes or a little brown rice, to make it thicker.

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  1. Christine Hartelt says:

    Your description of the first time you two made chicken soup made me laugh out loud as the chicken floated up in the pot. That’s happened to me too! A study published in the medical journal Chest in 2000 found that chicken soup has some antiinflammatory properties. Thanks for extolling the benefits of chicken soup, the healthy recipe, and another essay that was a joy to read.

  2. Your soup sounds delicious! I’ll have to try it. I still remember my mother’s chicken soup, which I make much the way she did, and her advice to add some type of acidic juice to the water and bones to leech all the important minerals from them. I can’t recall what she used—but I have tried many different acidic juices—lemon, tomato, orange, and even pineapple—in my stock, depending on how the stock will be used in the end. For me, soup is the ultimate comfort food. Thank you for sharing yours!

  3. Silvia says:

    Thanks for the idea, Katia! And the story is so nice to read, as always in your blog…double thanks

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