4 Healing Soups To Boost Your Immune System

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.

chicken broth
Wenshan Steampot Chicken Broth

This fragrant chicken broth comes from Yunnan province, in southwestern China. It is traditionally made in a red clay Yunnan steam pot, a cooking vessel that acts like a double boiler, cooking ingredients slowly with indirect heat, but also has a built-in funnel to let steam into the ingredients. The soup can also be made with a regular pot as long as you keep the heat low so that the soup simmers slowly. Goji berriesginseng, and dried Chinese yam can be found online or at Asian supermarkets.

Yields about 1½ quarts (serves 4-6)
Total Time: 2 hours 10 minutes

1 whole chicken (about 3 pounds), cut into 2-inch pieces
4 long pieces dried Chinese yam slices (also known as dioscorea, shan yao, or huai shan), broken in half
2 tablespoons dried goji berries
4 teaspoons dried ginseng (whole pieces or slices)
1 teaspoon kosher salt, more to taste

1. In a 5- to 6-quart pot over medium-high heat, add the chicken, yam, goji berries, ginseng and 6 cups of water. Bring to a boil, lower heat to a bare simmer and cook for 2 hours.

2. Stir in 1 teaspoon salt until completely dissolved. Taste the broth, and add more salt, if necessary. Strain the soup through a cheese cloth-lined strainer and serve just the broth with some of the goji berries, yam slices, and ginseng floating in it. For a heartier soup, shred some of the chicken into the broth.

If using a traditional Yunnan steampot: Halve all the ingredients. Put the chicken, goji berries, yam, ginseng and three cups of water into the steampot and set it over a medium pot ½ full of water. Bring the water in the lower pot to a boil over high heat, turn the heat to low and allow the ingredients in the steampot to cook slowly for 2 hours. Check the water in the lower pot during cooking and add more if necessary.

bone broth
Tibetan Bone Broth

Tibetans use many kinds of soups to improve health and ward off illness, including a variety of bone broths, from sheep to yak—the kind of bone prescribed will depend on the patient’s constitution. Broth made from beef bones, like this one, is considered neutral and is beneficial for nearly everyone. It is good for strengthening the blood and helping ground patients who feel anxious and can’t think straight. Unlike Western bone broths, this version doesn’t include vegetables or aromatics like onion or garlic unless those ingredients would be helpful for the patient, but it can include black pepper and black cardamom, which is good for the spleen and imparts a subtle citrus-like flavor. In Tibet, this soup is often left on the stove all day, and as people take broth from the pot, the cook adds more water to keep the soup going. Most butchers and supermarket meat counters, will carry marrow bones—or ask around at your farmer’s market.

Yields about 1 gallon (serves 16)
Total Time: 4 hours 45 mins (minimum)

2 pounds beef marrow bones, cut into 2-inch lengths (they can have some meat and fat clinging to them)
1½ tablespoons Kosher salt, more to taste
½ teaspoon whole black peppercorns
1 black cardamom pod (optional)

1. Heat an oven to 450 degrees. Rinse the bones briefly in cold water and spread them out on a large rimmed baking sheet. Roast the bones until beginning to brown and sizzling, about 20 minutes.

2. Put the roasted bones in a large pot with about 1½ gallons water, 1½ tablespoons salt, the pepper, and cardamom if using. Cover the pot, bring to a boil, lower the heat, and simmer the soup until rich and beefy, 4-6 hours, skimming off any scum that forms on top (but not the dense fat from the bone marrow). Season to taste with more salt, if necessary.

ayurvedic daal
Ayurvedic Daal

Masoor dal, or red split lentils, break down into a smooth, creamy texture when cooked, transforming into a thick, comforting lentil soup that’s excellent for regulating digestion. The cumin alleviates stomach pain, nausea, and loose bowels; the fenugreek prevents constipation; and the turmeric maintains intestinal flora and reduces gas. You can make this recipe using yellow lentils instead of red, but they cook more slowly, so they should be soaked overnight and rinsed before they’re added to the pot. Once the soup is done, you can leave it on the stove and eat it for two meals in a row, but according to Ayurvedic tradition, you should not put this soup in the refrigerator, which would add unwanted “cold” elements.

Yields 5 cups (serves 4)
Total Time: 1 hour

2 cups (13 ounces) masoor dal or red lentils, rinsed
2 tablespoons ghee or coconut oil
½ medium onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, peeled
1 tablespoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon fenugreek seeds
2 teaspoons ground turmeric
Kosher salt
Lime wedges
Cilantro (for garnish)

1. In a medium pot, combine the lentils and 5 cups water and bring them to a boil, skimming off any foam that forms on top of the water. Reduce the heat to low and cover the pot. Meanwhile heat the ghee or oil in a pan over medium-high heat and cook, stirring, the onion, garlic, and cumin until the cumin begins to brown, about 5 minutes. Stir in the fenugreek and cook 1 minute. Stir in the turmeric and cook for another minute.

2. Pour the onion and spice mix into the pot with the lentils and stir to combine. Cook, covered, until the lentils are tender and the soup is thick, about 45 minutes. Using an immersion blender, puree the soup, or in batches in a regular blender, and season to taste with salt. Serve with lime wedges and cilantro to garnish.

garlic and chicken soup
Oaxacan Garlic and Chicken Soup

This soup, from cooking teacher and cookbook author Susana Trilling, is a combination of Oaxacan garlic soups, commonly made for people feeling sick, and Jewish chicken soups, which are beneficial for colds. The garlic kills off bacteria, while the heat from the dried chile opens your sinuses. Trilling’s original version uses squash blossoms and hierba santa, an herb with a licorice-like flavor, but zucchini and fennel make good substitutions. To make the soup heartier, Trilling often adds poached eggs to the soup just before serving.

Yields 10 cups (serves 6 to 8)
Total time: About 1 hour

3 tablespoons olive oil
2 heads garlic, cloves separated, peeled and thinly sliced
16 fresh squash flowers, cleaned, stems, and pistils removed, or 2 small zucchinis, thinly sliced into half moons
2 leaves hierba santa, ribs removed and cut into strips, or ½ cup thinly sliced fennel
8 cups chicken stock
1 dried chile de árbol or chile japonés
1 bay leaf
Sea salt and black pepper to taste
¼ cup finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
Gouda cheese, cut into ½-inch chunks, for garnish
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese, for garnish

1. In a large saucepan over low, heat the olive oil and garlic. Cook, stirring so it does not brown, until soft and translucent, about 15 minutes. Add the squash flowers or zucchini and hierba santa or fennel and cook, stirring and taking care not to break up the squash flowers, until beginning to soften, about 3 minutes. Add the stock, chile, and bay leaf. Bring to a boil, lower heat, and simmer, covered, until the vegetables are completely tender, about 45 minutes

2. Season to taste with salt and pepper and add the parsley. To serve, place cubes of gouda in the bottom of each soup bowl, ladle the soup over the cheese, and sprinkle with parmesan.

herbs and spices
Ingredients with Healing Properties

The following ingredients, herbs and spices do double duty in healing soups—along with flavor and aroma, they bring medicinal properties that can help you get over a variety of ailments.

Note: Make sure to consult a doctor before taking any herbs or supplements, especially if you are pregnant or nursing.


angelica root

Good forAngelica root supports women’s health, regulates menstruation, relieves menstrual pains.
Try it in: Chinese chicken herbal soup from Daily Cooking Quest


cardamom pods

Good for: Cough, breathlessness, nausea.
Try it in: Tibetan Bone Broth


chinese yam

Good for: Promotes muscle growth, good for kidneys, regulates blood sugar.
Try it in: Wenshan Steampot Chicken Broth



Good for: Sinus and bronchial congestion.
Try it in: Andrea Nguyen’s Vietnamese Beef pho noodle soup


coriander seeds

Good for: Helps reduce fever.
Try it in: Ramen with a lemongrass, coriander, and ginger broth


cumin powder

Good for: Stomach pain, nausea and diarrhea, and supporting the liver’s detoxifying powers.
Try it in: Spicy Cumin Lentil Soup


ginger root

Good for: Improves circulation, relieves congestions, helps break down blood clots, good for the common cold, cough, and breathlessness.
Try it in: Add a couple of tablespoons of shredded gingerroot to chicken soup.

Related: 7 Surprising Benefits of Eating More Ginger



Good for: Ginseng improves cognition, anti-inflamatory, good for erectile dysfunction, has possible cancer-fighting properties. Researchers at the Institute for Biomedical Sciences at George State University Atlanta found that red ginseng extract reduced inflammation in the bronchial and improved the survival of lung cells infected with the flu.
Try it in: Wenshan Steampot Chicken Broth


gogi berries

Good for: Goji berries improve eyesight and are beneficial for liver.
Try it in: Wenshan Steampot Chicken Broth



Good for: Helps relieve cough, induces sleep.
Try it in: Grate a sprinkle of nutmeg onto chicken soup, or tea. Be careful not to overdo it—nutmeg is poisonous in large doses.


pearl barley

Good for: pearl barley is traditionally used for stiff joints, warts, eczema.
Try it in: Lima Bean, Barley, and Vegetable Soup


tangerine peel

Good for: Aids digestion, sooths nausea. A study at De Montfort University in the United Kingdom revealed that salvestrol Q40, a compound in tangerine peel destroys an enzyme that spurs the growth of cancer cells.
Try it in: Sweet, nourishing adzuki red bean and tangerine peel soup from the Traditional Chinese Medicine World Foundation.



Good for: Turmeric helps digestion, reduces gas, maintains intestinal flora. Thanks to a compound known as curcumin turmeric also reduces inflammation and is believed to slow the progress of Alzheimer’s disease.
Try it in: Ayurvedic Daal

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