Comfort Food for the Ailing

It’s that time of year: The wind is cold, the frosts are here, and everyone’s talking about H1N1. Unfortunately, no matter how well you take care of yourself, you or someone you know will inevitably get sick. Though you probably crave the same comfort foods with which you grew up, here are some easy flu-fighters to put a new spin on those tried-and-true recipes.

Ingredients for our Thai Chicken Soup — including lemongrass, serrano peppers, Three Bells curry powder and fish sauce — can be found at most Asian grocery stores. Even metro-area Cub Foods carry several of these ingredients. Makrut leaves are trickier to find, though many Asian stores carry them as well — I buy them at Shuang Hur Oriental Market. I tend to keep a supply of lemongrass, serranos, and makrut leaves in my freezer to minimize extra trips to the grocery store… which are entirely too much work when you’re sick. If you’re truly lazy, switch to boneless skinless chicken — you’ll lose some of the flavor, but you’ll shave off plenty of time and work.

Jerry Ingeman
Jerry Ingeman

Whenever I was sick as a child, this soup was my family’s go-to comfort food — if you double the recipe, you’ll have a big pot of soup that lasts a few days. Lemongrass, the herb that lends a delicate citrus flavor to many curries, stir fries, and soups like tom yum, is key in this recipe. Its antipyretic and antimicrobial properties fight fever and infection, while in a more concentrated form (essential oil) it can ease pain and inflammation. An added dose of vitamin C from the serranos and lime juice helps to strengthen your immune system, and chicken broth provides the warm, familiar comfort reminiscent of a down-home Midwestern chicken noodle soup.

Thai Chicken Soup

Serves 4-6
Original recipe from Thai Home-Cooking from Kamolmal’s Kitchen by William Crawford and Kamolmal Pootaraksa, adapted by Jerry Ingeman

3 stalks lemongrass, bottom 3-4 inches sliced in half lengthwise and crushed with a pestle
4 c chicken broth or water
3 makrut (kaffir lime) leaves
1 lb chicken thighs
8 oz button or portabella mushrooms, sliced
¼ c + 2 tbsp fish sauce
¼ c + 2 tbsp lime juice
3 serranos, sliced crosswise
½ c cilantro leaves


Bring the broth or water, lemongrass, and makrut leaves to a boil. Boil, covered, for five minutes. Add the chicken, mushrooms, and fish sauce and boil around 15 minutes or until the chicken is done. Remove the soup from heat. Shred the chicken, removing the bones and skin from the soup. Add lime juice and serrano peppers. Serve over rice and garnish with cilantro.

Jerry Ingeman
Jerry Ingeman

Congee is one of the fastest and easiest comfort foods imaginable: Add some leftover rice to a pot of boiling water and you have a basic, if a bit bland, congee. This version comes comes from my great-aunt Lek, whose Thai cooking typically captures the salty-sour-spicy flavor complements for which the cuisine is prized. Congee, however, uses these contrasts in a different way: garlicky, peppery balls of ground pork lend a burst of flavor to an otherwise mildly flavored rice soup.

Rice Soup with Pork Balls (Congee)

Serves 8-10
Original recipe from Chalong (Lek) Carlson, adapted by Jerry Ingeman


8 c water, boiling
3 c cooked rice
½ lb ground pork
2 tsp garlic, chopped
1 ½ tbsp soy sauce
1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
½ + ⅛ tsp salt
3 tbsp Tianjin preserved vegetables
green onions, thinly sliced (for garnish)


Add the cooked rice to the boiling water and return this mixture to a boil. In a mixing bowl, combine the ground pork, garlic, soy sauce, black pepper, and ⅛ tsp of salt. Using a teaspoon, drop small balls of the pork mixture into the simmering water and rice. Add the Tianjin preserved vegetables and remaining ½ tsp of salt. Simmer the soup for about five more minutes. Serve garnished with thinly sliced green onions.

Jerry Ingeman
Jerry Ingeman

The following recipe comes from the Heavy Table’s Soleil Ho, who describes it as “classic comfort food for sick immigrants’ kids.” Easy to make, this curry boasts a pleasantly spicy-sweet flavor with plenty of starchy root vegetables and tender chicken.

Ca Ri Ga (Chicken Curry)

Serves 4-6
Original recipe from the Heavy Table’s Soleil Ho


1 shallot, chopped
sambal pepper sauce or Sriracha to taste
3 tbsp Three Bells curry powder
One 2-3 lb chicken, skinned and broken down (you can use the wings, neck, and backbone to make stock)
2 c chicken stock
3 tbsp fish sauce
1 lb of waxy potatoes, diced
1 lb of carrots, cut into  1 ½-inch chunks
1 15-oz can of coconut milk
1 large onion, cut into wedges
salt to taste


Heat vegetable oil in a big pot over medium heat. Stir in the aromatics — shallots, chili sauce, and curry powder — until fragrant. Add the chicken to brown it. Then add the liquids — stock, fish sauce — and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat. Add the potatoes and carrots first and cook for 10-15 minutes. Then add the coconut milk and onion and cook until the potatoes are fork-tender. Add salt to taste. Garnish with cilantro and serve with a baguette.


  1. April King

    That looks delicious! For the Thai Chicken Soup, is there any particular rice that you recommend, or will your standard medium-short grain sticky rice (I generally use Nishiki) made in a rice cooker work okay?

    My favorite cold-weather, feeling-crummy food is Nabeyaki Udon, a traditional Japanese udon soup dish. Very yummy and nutritious – looks like this:

    Served in a hot pot, you can feel the strength seeping into your bones.

  2. Maja Ingeman

    I’ve always used jasmine rice, but Nishiki should work… you can serve it on the side or in the soup according to your preference.

    I’m also a little addicted to chopped lemongrass, fresh ginger, and honey steeped in hot water — delicious and soothing at the same time!

    Mmmm, udon — that looks delicious! Any recommendations of a good bowl of udon around here? I tend to get clear broth or sushi when I go for Japanese… but now that you mention it, I could really go for some noodle soup other than pho :)

  3. April King

    In MSP, discussions of good Japanese noodle places usually start and stop at Tanpopo. Which, in my opinion, is a crying shame – the Japanese themselves eat way more donburi, udon, ramen, soba, omuraisu, tonkatsu, onigiri, etc., etc. than they eat sushi, and yet all we get here is more or less a big heaping pile of mediocre sushi places.

    Okay, it’s not that dire, but it sure feels that way sometimes. I mean, c’mon – it shouldn’t be that hard to get some delicious takoyaki.

    Anyways, can’t wait to try out the Chicken Soup recipe – will have to stop by United Noodles tonight and see if they have some makrut leaves. Thanks!

  4. artsy

    that is interesting April that the Japanese diet isn’t really accurately reflected in all the sushi. I don’t know what tokoyaki is but you’re making me want some! And I have to say sushi is an ok idea except for when I know too much about the quality of today’s fish, including so-called ‘sushi grade’ , to want to eat much of it raw or cooked, alas. But soup, last time I checked, was not yet fatal………..especially with some wheat-free noodles or rice! :)

  5. April King

    I agree; it’s very interesting how, of all the wide and interesting options in Japanese cuisine, the ones that made it here to Minnesota are perhaps the least viable and least sustainable options possible.

    Sushi and sashimi require fresh ocean fish to be flown into the cities at a great cost to our environment. And of course, even then, the fish that get served are not nearly as flesh and safe as what you would get if you lived on the coast. And worse, the fish that get used are often endangered predator fish that have high levels of heavy metals and what not.

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