Medicinal soups are used in nearly every medical tradition around the world. Tibetans use bone broths to treat anxiousness; cooks in India make tambuli, a buttermilk-based soup fortified with Indian borage, to treat arthritis; Mexicans eat vegetable soups to combat high cholesterol and diabetes. And, of course, there’s chicken soup, the go-to cure-all of Jewish bubbes everywhere, which has been scientifically proven to reduce the symptoms of a head cold.
I was no stranger to the healing powers of chicken soup as a child, but it took a visit to China, where there is no real distinction between food and medicine, to open my eyes to the wide and delicious world of healing soups.
It was a cold fall evening in the small Chinese city of Kunming, and I was glad to come upon a bright, warm restaurant packed with families seated around distinctive red clay pots full of soup. I ordered some for myself, and a few minutes later I was sipping the most flavorful chicken soup I had ever tasted. Floating in the pot were slices of dried Chinese yam, tangles of ginseng, and bright red goji berries which not only added their distinctive flavors to the broth but also imparted medicinal qualities to the soup—the yam promoted energy, the ginseng stimulated the immune system and improved heart health, and the goji strengthened the liver. Taken together, the ingredients in the steam pot chicken soup were intended to ward off winter colds and the flu.
"Soup is a good way to deliver herbs,” says Nomi Gallo of the Ayurvedic Institute in Santa Fe, NM. "The warmth increases absorption, the liquid increases the digestible surface area of the ingredients, and the slow cooking method pre-digests the foods."
Because of these properties, certain health conditions are treated with soups across cultures: New mothers from Japan to Oman eat soups specifically designed to help with post-partum healing and breast milk production. And many traditions use soup to treat digestive illnesses, from the Maasai people of Kenya, who use broth as a digestive aid when feasting on meat, to Ayurvedic practitioners, who proscribe soups for slow or weak digestive systems.
While some soups are only eaten after a consultation with a doctor, the four that follow here collected from around the world, can be used as a regular part of a healthy diet to promote immunity and wellbeing. They’re the culinary equivalent of taking your daily vitamins, but with one major advantage—they’re also incredibly delicious. Or, if you like, refer to our glossary of healing ingredients and try incorporating them into a favorite soup.