In celebration of the holidays, why not try making chicken and matzo ball soup, otherwise known as “Jewish penicillin”, an unparalleled comfort food credited with quasi-magical healing properties. Served with matzo balls, it forms part of the Jewish calendar’s most important celebration. 

What is it? 

Seder, the ceremonial Passover meal, celebrates the freeing of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt (as told in the Book of Exodus), and much of the food on the Seder table is deeply symbolic. Matzo recalls the unleavened bread the Jews ate as they made their hasty escape – there was no time to wait for the bread to rise. It’s thought that the famous dumplings, called knoedel or knoedela by Ashkenazi Jews in Germany and Poland, were dubbed “matzo balls” by US vaudeville performers. 

Ingredients (serves 6) 

For the stock
1 whole chicken, about 2kg (4lb 4oz)
6 large carrots, peeled and sliced
6 celery sticks,
sliced 1 brown onion, skin on, quartered
handful of fresh parsley handful or fresh dill
2 tsp black peppercorns
2 bay leaves
kosher salt, to taste

For the matzo balls
3 large eggs, beaten
3⁄4 cup matzo meal
1⁄4 cup melted schmaltz (chicken fat) or grapeseed oil
1⁄2 tsp baking powder
1⁄4 tsp kosher salt

To assemble
4 small carrots, peeled and diagonally sliced
2 tbs chopped fresh dill
kosher salt and ground black pepper, to taste 

Woman cooking matzoh balls
Making traditional matzo balls for Passover © JodiJacobson / Getty Images

How to cook 

For the stock
Step 1:
Cover the chicken with 3L of cold water. Bring to a boil over a medium heat and simmer for 15 minutes, skimming foam from the top.
Step 2: Add all of the other ingredients, reduce the heat and cover (allowing a vent). Simmer for around 2 hours.
Step 3: Remove the chicken from stock and when cool, shred the meat into bite-sized pieces.
Step 4: Strain the stock into a large saucepan – you should have about 2L.

For the matzo balls
Step 1: Combine all of the ingredients in a large bowl (with finely chopped dill if desired).
Step 2: Cover and chill for an hour.
Step 3: Using a spoon or ice-cream scoop, gently roll into 2 tbs–sized balls.
Step 4: Drop carefully, one by one, into a pot of simmering water, cover and simmer until cooked through, 20–25 minutes.

To assemble
Step 1: Bring the chicken stock to a boil, add the carrots and season to taste. Reduce the heat and simmer until the carrots are tender, 5–7 minutes.
Step 2: Add the reserved meat and matzo balls to warm through.
Step 3: Sprinkle with chopped dill and serve. 

Tasting note

Fundamental to the sustaining properties of the soup is the quality of the broth – it should be rich and golden, with the silky mouthfeel of the melted chicken fat that glistens on its surface. About this, there's no argument. Where we get into hot water is the consistency of the matzo balls – the most contested question in all of Jewish cooking. Should they be light and fluffy (“floaters”) or dense and chewy (“sinkers”)?

Each family has their own tradition and their own preference, forged through years, and generations, of celebrating the meal together. Along with matzo ball soup, the Seder meal might include gefilte fish (poached fish dumplings), potato kugel (a latke-like casserole) and tzimmes, a stew of sweet root vegetables and dried fruit. 

Have you recreated any of the dishes featured in this series so far? Share your pictures with us on Instagram by tagging @lonelyplanet.

Want more recipes like this? Check out Lonely Planet’s best food and drink e-books. Get more travel inspiration, tips and exclusive offers sent straight to your inbox with our weekly newsletter.

This article was originally published in April 2020 and updated in December 2020. 

This article was first published April 2020 and updated December 2020

Explore related stories