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Here's why Chinese chicken noodle soup is the best way to warm up as the temperature drops

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At the Tang in New York City, the herbal chicken noodle soup calls upon Chinese medicine for an irresistible take on the classic cold remedy. (Photo: Emily Faber, Sinclair Broadcast Group)

NEW YORK CITY (SBG) — Is chicken soup an essential drug?

In a 1999 edition of the Canadian Medical Association Journal, two doctors raised that exact question and argued in favor of classifying the popular cold remedy as such. The article cited a study in which either the aromatic quality of chicken soup or an undetermined mechanism relating to its taste was found to lead to an increase in nasal mucus velocity, which meant that eating chicken soup was indeed beneficial in alleviating acute rhinitis, or a stuffy nose. It also referenced the time-tested history of chicken soup, reasoning that centuries of anecdotal evidence was a sufficient substitute for randomized controlled trials.

"We think the popularity of chicken soup, as evidenced by observational data and the experience of generations of patients and healers, shows overwhelmingly that patients value and prefer this remedy for a number of conditions and ailments," wrote Dr. Abraham Ohry and Dr. Jenni Tsafrir.

Whether or not you're inclined to classify chicken soup as an essential drug, it's likely that you've tried a bowl at some point during your life to soothe a sore throat or remedy a runny nose. But while your basic Campbell's may have done the trick in the past, a noodle bar in New York City is serving up an herbal variation based on Chinese medicine that'll keep you from ever reaching for the canned stuff again.

One of the principles of an essential drug is flexibility, and Ohry and Tsafrir noted that there are, in fact, limitless possibilities when it comes to the formula for chicken soup. The specific recipe that they suggested in their article was a Jewish version of chicken soup, made with carrots, celery, and matzo balls. It was an appropriate choice, given that chicken soup's reputation as a form of medicine within the Jewish culture dates all the way back to a philosopher's 12th century recommendation and is now so prevalent that a Google search for "Jewish penicillin" delivers the Wikipedia page for chicken soup.

But a comprehensive look at the history of chicken soup will find that a belief in its therapeutic properties spans numerous cultures, each with their own unique twist on the dish. The Greek add avgolemono, an egg-lemon sauce that has Sephardic origins, to cure colds, while the Vietnamese utilize ginger and rice noodles. Hungary's take, called "becsinált leves," was designed to use up chicken giblets, but for a truly sick person, an entire chicken goes into the soup. And the Italians have "minestrina," a soup with small noodles and chicken broth, to help you feel better.

Many cultures claim chicken soup as their own, and they can certainly take pride in their traditions and the development of the dish to their exact specifications for ensuring good health. But although the nearly worldwide significance of the dish as a therapeutic tool is undeniable, the earliest recorded evidence of chicken soup being used for medicinal purposes appeared in an ancient Chinese medical text from the second century B.C. called the Huangdi Neijing.

The Huangdi Neijing, which translates to "The Yellow Emperor's Classic of Medicine," introduces guiding principles of Chinese medicine and serves as the foundation for many practices that have persisted into the present day. Within the text, dialogue between the Yellow Emperor and his advisors rejected the previously held notion that shamanistic magic was an effective treatment for common ailments. Instead of attributing illness to demonic forces, the work described the more rationally understandable factors that bring about disease and the necessity of balancing the body's energy to stay healthy even into old age. Specifically, the Huangdi Neijing presented yin and yang as the "fundamental principle of everything."

Although the yin-yang symbol has universal recognizability, the role that the two opposing forces play within Chinese cuisine and medicine is less widely known to those unfamiliar with Chinese philosophy. Traditional Chinese medicine, with a basis in the Huangdi Neijing, views food as a tool for healing, believing that the proper diet could bring a person's yin and yang energy into balance. According to TCM, specific foods can be classified as either yang or yin; the former generates warming energy within the body, while the latter brings about cooling energy. As maladies, dependent on their symptoms, represent a deficiency in yin or yang, eating the correct food can thus restore equilibrium within the body.

In the Huangdi Neijing, chicken soup is classified as a yang food, and subsequent generations have embraced this categorization through the frequent consumption of the dish for the purposes of both recovery and prevention. The belief that the soup can revitalize the body is so ubiquitous in Chinese culture that even pandas have been given a home-cooked bowl to reduce stress levels. For humans, the precise ingredients beyond the chicken and the broth can vary from one household to another, but all of the recipes call upon a medley of herbs to boost not only the flavor but the healing properties of the soup, in accordance with TCM.

At the Tang in New York City, the menu offers fresh takes on nostalgic Chinese menu items that go beyond the limits of strictly traditional cuisine to better reflect what people in China are eating today. The bulk of the restaurant's clientele at the original East Village location was comprised of Chinese students who were studying abroad in the city and missed the classic flavors of their home country, but a growing interest in Chinese food, as well as the power of word-of-mouth recommendations for truly delicious and unique food, has expanded the Tang's customer base at the current Upper West Side address.

A staple of the menu from the restaurant's opening in 2016 is the herbal chicken noodle soup, which consists of a flavorful broth simmered for a total of six hours and a whole chicken thigh. The dish has proved to be incredibly popular. When the Tang reopened in September after a temporary coronavirus-related closure, the soup was not part of their more limited menu; the thinking was that there wouldn't be as much demand for it in the warmer weather. But a plethora of customer requests demonstrated that the appetite was there and led to the soup's return to the menu later that same month.

The combination of herbs utilized within the Tang's chicken noodle soup creates a broth that is positively bursting with flavor, and while taste is undoubtedly important, Chinese medicine asserts that the true value of the ingredients lies in their therapeutic potential. The Tang's recipe includes herbs such as codonopsis root, an adaptogen that is said in TCM to invigorate the lung and the spleen, and astragalus, a root that has been promoted as a way to strengthen the immune system. Dates are one of the more recognizable components; the fruit acts as a sweetener but is also a common antidote in TCM for a cold, given its warm nature.

Among the other ingredients in the broth are: angelica root, viewed as an important blood tonic; straight ladybell root, used to moisten dryness in the lungs and throat; Polygonatum odoratum, believed to reduce fatigue and coughing; and Chinese wild yam, thought to replenish the body's vital energy. There's also the chicken itself, which, in the perspective of Chinese medicine, provides the body with warming energy that's indispensable in fighting off a cold.

A strong basis in Chinese medicine may be the reason why herbal chicken soup has been a go-to remedy for centuries, but you don't necessarily have to prescribe to these ideas to experience all of the benefits of the Tang's variation, nor do you have to agree with the proposed classification of chicken soup as an essential drug. Only an appreciation for the depth of flavor created by a thoughtful recipe combined with an unhurried cooking process is necessary to enjoy each bite of their tasty soup. It's the perfect choice of a meal to warm your body on a chilly fall or winter day. And perhaps, no matter which type of chicken soup you grew up eating, the dish can provide you with a bit of childhood comfort the next time that you fall ill.