This winter, with its bitter harvest of so many common colds, a bowl of hot chicken soup is more welcome than ever. Perhaps the oldest extant recipe for chicken soup is that of the Yemenite Jews. Separated from the mainstream of Judaism at least 2,000 years ago, they developed soups filled with fragrant herbs and spices, something we crave today—even though most of us were raised on European chicken soup with parsley and dill but no real bite.
This soup is infused with three spice components. Many people today serve it with just hawayij, the Yemenite spice combination for stews and soups. But you should also use z’hug—similar to the North African harissa but hotter, made from hot peppers, garlic, and cilantro—and hilbe, which means fenugreek in Hebrew. To be technically correct you should add all three to the soup, then eat it slowly, as the Yemenites do.
I first tasted this dish many years ago, sitting on the floor on pillows at the home of the late Jerusalem jeweler, rabbi, and patriarch Yosef Zadok. Then in his late seventies, Zadok had come to Israel with his family and thousands of other Jews from Yemen in 1948 as part of Operation Magic Carpet. If the good rabbi were still alive—he lived to over 100—he would sip a little soup and eat a morsel of bread. Then he would say, “Baruch HaShem. Thanks be to God … for this soup!”
Joan Nathan is Tablet Magazine’s food columnist and the author of 10 cookbooks including King Solomon’s Table: a Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from Around the World.