What is Jewish Penicillin?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

The slang term “Jewish penicillin” is sometimes used to refer to chicken soup. Chicken soup does not contain the antibacterial properties associated with penicillin, but it can be beneficial for people with mild colds and upper respiratory infections. However, in all fairness, it should be noted that almost any hot fluid appears to confer the same benefits.

Chicken soup is sometimes called "Jewish penicillin."
Chicken soup is sometimes called "Jewish penicillin."

Many people think of chicken soup as a comfort food. In the Jewish community, where food is a valued part of the culture for some Jewish people, people may cook for members of the family who are feeling poorly, and chicken soup is a common choice just as it is among gentiles because it is wholesome, unlikely to upset the stomach, and easy to consume. Some Jewish people associate chicken soup with their bubbeh or “grandmother,” a figure linked with food and comfort in many cultures.

People may refer to plain chicken soup as Jewish penicillin, and also to matzo ball soup, which consists of chicken broth with floating matzo balls, as a form of Jewish penicillin. Chicken and various chicken products such as schmaltz are associated with Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine, while Sephardi cuisine, which originated in the Mediterranean, features different ingredients. In the United States, where the slang term “Jewish penicillin” is often heard, it should not be a surprise to learn that much of the Jewish population is Ashkenazi in origin, thanks to immigration of Jewish people from Eastern Europe to the United States.

Consuming hot liquids has a number of benefits for someone with a cold. Any fluid will increase hydration, which can be beneficial for people who may be losing fluid as a result of their illness. Hot fluids also open up the nasal passages, promoting nasal drainage and making it easier to breathe. The heat appears to reduce inflammation as well. Studies have noted that consuming the fluid from an open bowl is important; drinking with a straw does not appear to be as beneficial.

It should be noted that despite the name, Jewish penicillin should not be used in lieu of antibiotics to treat an infection. While many people find that drinking hot fluids and resting helps them fight off minor infections and inflammations, if someone remains ill or the symptoms become worse, a doctor should be consulted for some more aggressive treatment options.

Many different chicken soup recipes can be used for Jewish penicillin. It is important to strain and clear the broth to reduce the fat content, and ingredients like cream should not be added, with the broth being kept as clear as possible. For people who want some texture, inclusions like noodles, shredded chicken, or softened vegetables can be added.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


For all the known benefits of chicken soup, there are some studies that have found that chicken soup also lowers high blood pressure.

Findings from the study conducted in Japan, have connected the lowering of blood pressure by eating chicken soup primarily made from chicken legs, and less so from chicken breast.

The conclusion was that collagen is the beneficial ingredient, and that is exactly why the soup is so beneficial, because it is made out of bony part that contain collagen.


3 cheers for matzo ball soup! I always keep some frozen in my freezer so I don't have to make it from scratch when I'm sick. Even though making it isn't terribly labor intensive, the last thing you want to be doing when your sick is cooking. Keep a little in your freezer box and just defrost when you need it. It'll cure ya right up, better than vitamin c!

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