During flu season, people often look to the kitchen, rather than the medicine cabinet, for relief.
Every culture seems to have its own healing ingredients. Some call for hot spicy sauces, garlic or ginger tea. But, for many, nothing comforts like soup.
Barley and noodle are just two of nine types of soups on the menu at Alborz, a Persian restaurant in Vienna, Virginia.
“The noodle soup is a real traditional Iranian dish," says chef Afsaneh Atash. "It’s basically a year-round dish, but you’re going to eat during the winter time though."
She serves her own version of her family’s traditional recipes; the basic ingredients are onions, carrots, cilantro, chicken broth and lemon juice.
“It has a lot of nutritious ingredients," she says. "It’s really good to eat it in the winter time because people are always getting cold.”
At DGS Delicatessen in Washington, D.C., chef Barry Koslow uses his grandmother's Eastern European recipe for chicken soup with matzo balls.
“Matzo ball soup is definitely a very traditional Jewish soup and you see many different variations of it," he says. "We start with a very rich chicken broth and we enhance that with onion, celery, carrots and garlic. We flavor it with a little bit of vinegar to bring a little bit of balance to the soup and salt and pepper.”
The centerpiece is the matzo ball.
“The highlight of the soup is, of course, the matzo ball, which is made with the matzo meal, eggs, schmaltz, which is chicken fat that’s melted," Koslow says, "and a little bit of baking powder to give it some airiness, seasoned with salt and pepper as well.”
The matzo ball soup is one of the restaurant's most popular dishes, according to manager Brian Zipin.
“Some people think that there is something in there that has healing powers," he says. "But like any great comfort food, you feel good when you eat it. You feel better, especially at this time of year, when it’s cold out.”
But does a bowl of soup have real medicinal qualities? For one customer named Mark, the answer doesn't really matter.
“My mother used to say even if it didn’t help, it certainly couldn’t hurt," he says. "And this is exactly the kind of thing that one needs.”
Dr. Gloria Addo-Ayensu, director of the Fairfax County Department of Health in Virginia, doesn’t believe soup can prevent the flu.
“Getting a flu vaccine is the single best way to prevent influenza," she says, but she understands the appeal of certain foods. “We all have had grandmother’s chicken soup when we were sick.”
She explains why we feel better after having a bowl of soup or a cup of hot tea with honey and lemon.
“Honey and a little bit of lemon in water, hot water, might soothe your sore throat, for example," Addo-Ayensu says. "Those kinds of things are more soothing than anything else.”
It could be a combination of warm memories and fragrant nose-clearing steam that is the real secret behind the healing power of a hot bowl of soup.