Soups are universal comfort food, and certain foods can heal you: there is no dish more indistinguishable from a remedy than a bowl of good chicken soup.
Lupita’s Chicken Soup
- 3 tbsp Olive Oil, divided
- 6 bone-in Chicken Thighs
- Salt and Pepper, to taste
- 1 large Onion (yellow works best), diced
- 3 medium Carrots, peeled and diced
- 3 Celery ribs, diced
- 8 cloves of Garlic, minced
- 3 tbsp Ginger Root, peeled and minced
- 3 medium Potatoes (yellow works best), peeled and diced
- ¼ cup Rice (white works best)
- 1 bunch Spinach, washed and chopped
- 8 cups Chicken Stock (there’s no shame in store-bought)
- 1 tbsp each dried Rosemary, Sage, Thyme (or use fresh, if you have it)
- 1 Lemon
- Season chicken thighs generously with salt and pepper.
- Heat 2 tbsp of olive oil in a large stockpot or dutch oven over medium-high heat. Cook chicken thighs in oil until golden (about three minutes on each side). Remove the chicken from the stockpot and set aside on a plate.
- Add remaining 1 tbsp olive oil to the stockpot and stir. Add chopped onions, carrots, and celery to pot and cook, stirring occasionally, until tender. (About 4 minutes.)
- Add garlic and ginger, stirring occasionally until tender (another 4 minutes or so). Add rosemary, sage, and thyme and stir until fragrant (about 1 minute). Season with salt and pepper.
- Whisk in chicken stock; bring to a boil. Return chicken thighs back to the pot and add chopped potatoes and rice. Reduce heat, simmering for 25 minutes.
- Remove chicken thighs again and set it aside to cool. Continue to simmer.
- Once chicken has cooled, shred it using two forks, paying special attention to remove all bones. Return shredded chicken to the pot and stir in spinach, stirring once. Remove from heat.
- Squeeze lemon juice over the soup and serve.
When we were growing up, my mother would make soup at least once every couple of weeks, even on scorching hot days when it was 35 degrees outside. Sometimes it was sopa de pollo, and sometimes it was sopa de rez. Every time we sat down to eat, the sopa was served with all of the necessary accoutrements: a wedge of lime, a chiffonade of fresh cilantro, and a hot, fresh tortilla, which we would break into our soups to absorb the caldo. Soup is a comfort food, and we always had a bowl to soothe the soul.
Salvadoran soups do not look like the soups prepared in the European cooking tradition. Our soups are not precious or pretentious. They are chunky and rustic, often with whole animal bones or entire drumsticks unapologetically peeking out of the bowl. The fresh squeeze of lime enhances the thin but flavourful broths, and there is no feeling more satisfying than when you manage to get a beef tendon out of the bone. Soups are universal comfort food, and certain foods can heal you: there is no dish more indistinguishable from a remedy than a bowl of good chicken soup.
When I had Gabriel, my family was broke. I had been living at home, and my father, a finishing carpenter, had just lost a significant amount of money. Just days before my son was born, the company who hired him did not pay any of their sub-contractors, and my parents found themselves in an especially difficult financial predicament. At that time, I was already a single mother, (the breakup had occurred when we found out I was pregnant,) so I had spent all of my money on things for the baby in anticipation for his arrival.
According to Salvadoran tradition, a woman who has just given birth gets a hearty sopa de gallina (not to be confused with sopa de pollo) to help her regain her strength. My mother had planned to buy a hen from the Hutterites just for the occasion, but when my dad didn’t get paid, priorities were shifted and we had a simple soup made from chicken hearts instead. I fondly remember that my mother who, despite being disappointed that all she could offer was a simple soup with chicken hearts and a few tortillas, lovingly crafted it for the arrival of her first grandchild, and had it waiting upon my return. It also happens that I love chicken hearts, too.
With that said, I know that it was the significance of the sopa de gallina that meant the most to my mother, and she had been denied the opportunity to participate in that ritual with me. These traditions aren’t always self-evident, and while the difference between a chicken and a hen might seem negligible to someone not of our culture, those of us who understand know that there is something ancient, if not transcendent, in our medicine. You see, dear reader, food is sacred, and when it is crafted with the intent to heal, food becomes holy. The physical dish nourishes your being, but the ritual nourishes your soul.
When I caught a cold recently, I found myself hungry in more than the physical sense: the pandemic has made it a challenge to be with my community and I find myself feeling alone. The world feels like it’s on fire, and I feel helpless and sick. I miss the smell of my mother’s sopa, the joyful satisfaction of breaking my tortilla into my bowl, and the promise of a warm belly and a grateful heart. I did not have any guizquil or pipianes to make a proper sopa like my mom used to make when we got sick, so I used what I had in my pantry. I was desperate to feel better and “heal myself” as best I could. Using ingredients I already had, I decided I would take the ritual into my own hands:
- Fresh ginger root and lots of garlic to improve my immune system
- Spinach to boost my iron (I am chronically anemic so iron is crucial)
- Chicken thighs, because the flavour makes all the difference (don’t @ me with chicken-breast nonsense)
- And finally, in keeping with the Central American tradition of squeezing lemon or lime into our soups, I decided to give it a generous helping of fresh lemon to add some brightness and a little much-needed vitamin C
The soup I prepared is not a soup my mother would have made, but having been limited to the ingredients I already had at home, it seemed to fit the bill. The soup turned out rich, beautiful, hearty, and warm. I added everything I could think of that could help make me stronger, I cooked with good intentions, and it came through in the soup. I cannot wait for mon Gabriel to try it, almost twelve years after my mother lovingly crafted her sopa de corazones de pollo in anticipation for our return from the hospital.
As I thought about how much I wished I could share my soup with my family, something extraordinary suddenly dawned on me: in the absence of my family, I could feed my community. Pekiwewin is always looking for donations of cash, clothing, and food, and this humble bowl of soup was a great way to answer that call. I called my best friend and told her that I wanted to gather friends, make more soup, and feed my people. Perhaps in so doing, I could calm the hunger I feel in my spirit. And so, brothers and sisters, if you can spare some time and want to try out a new recipe, please reach out to us and let us know you’d like to pitch in. I will contact organizers at Pekiwewin and arrange to take care of a meal. Perhaps our medicine can do some good for our community as well.