x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Soul food

Colds and coughs call for home-made, hearty, nourishing meals.

Chicken soup is packed with minerals making it perfect for people suffering from colds. iStockphoto
Chicken soup is packed with minerals making it perfect for people suffering from colds. iStockphoto

"I'm lobbying for throat lozenges to be named the next food group," I joke to the pharmacist. She ignores me while ringing up my decongestants and half a dozen bags of zinc-fortified herbal cough tablets, available only in flavours that reinforce my Pavlovian gag reflex, triggered by the merest whiff of mentholated "cherry" or anything co-starring honey and lemon.

Some things taste sickly by association; through no fault of their own, I never go near them unless I'm sick. Tea with honey and lemon is one of these things. With sickness comes sedation, and this frees my usual presence of mind to ponder a few critical mysteries: why hasn't anyone yet invented a cough drop that can be sucked on all day long without leaving the roof of your mouth in shreds?

I can think of other things I'd rather do with my nose, recently broken from a close encounter with a glass door, than constantly jab at it with tissues. But according to my doctor, swamped sinuses, a throat that feels like sandpaper, and the nagging sense that an invisible sumo wrestler is straddling my ribcage, are all normal signs of a garden-variety virus wreaking havoc across the region. In other words, I have a cold, and I'm not alone.

Being home alone and in worse shape than I've been in a long time has reminded me how important it is to have a few fallback, low-effort recipes on hand that can be assembled with minimal co-ordination and also won't be embarrassing to serve to friends who aren't sick, should any of them be brave enough to swing by to see if you're still breathing.

Ironically, there is often no more crucial time to feed your body with comforting, nutrient-dense foods than when you can't taste, can't swallow, and have no appetite. You may have been taught to "starve a fever, feed a cold", which is fine if you also subscribe to the medical folklore promising that "an apple a day" is the fountain of youth. It's true that loss of appetite is a natural defence mechanism for fevers, but it's an instinct best overridden, even if only with fluids and soup.

Though warm and hot foods and fluids are more beneficial for symptom relief and recovery, don't write off the contribution of cold treats, which can help temporarily soothe the inflammation and irritation of a sore throat. Next time I feel a sore throat coming on, I'll alert friends to buy stock in popsicles, which are comforting like nothing else, and which make avoiding dairy when sick a little less painful.

Cold and flu remedies are more common, timeless and mutable than the viruses themselves. Is longevity any indication that a remedy works, or is it a self-fulfilling prophecy? People are opinionated about what to feed an ailing person. What we were fed when sick as children, and how we feed ourselves and our loved ones now, can reveal a lot about how we were raised, and how we perceive and provide care and comfort.

If the placebo effect plays a role in recovery, then surely our cultural frame of reference does, too. Take chicken soup, a known anti-inflammatory and decongestant, and a general cure that dates back to the 12th century, when a doctor ostensibly first prescribed it. Bone broths, especially nourishing, mineral-rich and easily digestible chicken stock, freckled with savoury, golden chicken fat, has long been believed - and proven - to have a unique blend of healing properties that are particularly restorative to the ailing and exhausted. Generations of parents have fed chicken soup to their sick kids.

The Chicken Soup for the Soul inspirational book series has released more than 200 titles since its founding in 1993, and is so successful that there's even a pet food line produced under its brand name. Many of the books are directed at specific groups of people, such as Chicken Soup for the Soul: NASCAR, Chicken Soup for the Soul: Arthritis, Chicken Soup for the Chocolate Lover's Soul, and Chicken Soup for the Prisoner's Soul. In China, however, many people refuse to eat chicken soup when they have a cough because it's believed to exacerbate the condition. Do effective remedies really exist, or do we just think ourselves back to health while the virus runs its course?

My fallbacks are so simple that they barely need recipes. The idea is to use items that you always keep around the house, so that you're never unprepared for a viral ambush. There are infinite variations of chicken soup, and I aspire to try them all, but you'll need one or more members of the allium family for it; garlic, for sure, but onions, leeks and shallots are also welcome. Perhaps you usually have lemons or limes in your fruit bowl, or maybe you're more likely to find a can of coconut milk and some Thai fish sauce at the back of the cupboard. There's almost no excuse, short of being poorly stocked (and/or out of stock), for being unable to make yourself a bowl of soup, however ordinary, when you need it.

Soup is the best possible reason to keep homemade stock around- and perhaps the best use for a freezer, besides ice. If I don't have any homemade chicken stock in the freezer, I use organic free range chicken stock that contains only ingredients that I would use at home, namely water, chicken, onions, carrots, celery and sea salt. You don't need all these ingredients to make a decent stock; I've added garlic and skipped the celery more than once.

I'll often sub the noodles in chicken soup with rice and add fresh grated ginger, sweet potatoes and parsnips to my usual base. But best of all, I love making a spicy chicken soup with roasted chilies, garlic, onion and tomatoes, then garnishing with chopped coriander, thin slices of red chilli and a juicy, squeeze of lime. If I'm feeling sturdy, I'll eat soft, warm corn tortillas alongside.

Although I was first introduced to milk toast while feeling fit enough to develop a mild obsession, it might be the perfect food, not for someone who's sick, or lactose-intolerant, for that matter, but for someone who has recently recovered from a cold or flu and hasn't yet reacquired their usual vigour. The food writer MFK Fisher called milk toast a "warm, mild, soothing thing, full of innocent strength".

I've read of people eating this with sugar instead of salt, but I think that misses the point. The version I love is equal parts puerile and austere, and needs no added sweetness besides good, sweet butter and steaming milk. To make milk toast, you simply toast thick slices of excellent bread while heating milk to a gentle simmer, and then break the toast into pieces and place in a deep bowl. Pour the hot milk over the torn bread, sprinkle with sea salt, and eat at once with a large spoon.