Making my Yiayia’s soup helped me reconnect with my Greek roots


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The other day I learned my Yiayia was a fraud. I was on the phone asking my mom if she could dig up my grandma’s Greek soup recipe, a thick rice and lemon concoction I was convinced could heal the pangs in my broken heart.

“You mean the lemon egg soup?” my mother asked when I begged her to flip through her recipe index cards. “That’s easy, you just boil the chicken to make broth—”

“Um, can’t you buy chicken broth,” I cut her off.

Yes, you can. But my mother’s comment made me do a quick Google for Greek chicken soup, just to see if there were any variants of her recipe out there that didn’t require me to deal with a whole chicken. Plot twist: Avgolemono soup, aka Greek chicken soup, is the go-to comfort food of an entire culture, not a Margaret Garis original. I’m not sure if that makes me a bad Greek or a bad granddaughter. All that mattered was that I was craving that connection, and I wouldn’t feel okay until I mastered the meal for myself.

My relationship to my Greek heritage is weird and fragmented. I’m only half Greek, yet my most formative childhood memories were forged in that strong cultural pride. (My Big Fat Greek Wedding? Totally accurate.) My grandparents basically ran the Staten Island Greek Festival, and I loved all the sights, sounds, and tastes that came through it. It’s one of the few things I’ve retained about that side of the family.

I lost Yiayia before I reached my teens, and with it, a large part of my connection to that heritage. Now, at 28, she feels phantom and fading fast. But recently I found photo booth shots of her circa 1950⁠—she looks like me except, you know, hottest-girl-at-St Nicholas’-Greek-Orthodox-Church beautiful. In the pictures, she has bouncy dark hair, a swan neck, fearless eyebrows, and a smile that’s… well, as familiar as my own. Finding the pictures made me realize that there’s still so much I wanted to know about her, and so much I just can’t remember.

I thought I would start with her soup, because I remember the soup. I was one of those Nightmare Toddler picky eaters, and someone would have to feed me my meal spoonful-by-spoonful. “One more bite for Yiayia! One more bite for Papou!” Yet avgolemono soup wasn’t something that needed to be airplaned into my mouth. I was soothed by the simplicity, delightful flavor of the lemon, the warming smell of the soup. Smell is so connected to memory, which is why I shouldn’t be surprised that the last few years I’ve made trips to Astoria (a historically Greek neighborhood in Queens, New York) for a Mediterranean culinary fix when I’m feeling lonely. But schlepping to Queens wasn’t a long-term solution; I wanted to bring my grandparents into my kitchen, and I can’t do that unless I commit their recipes to heart.

“But the soup is literally just like, the gold standard Greek chicken soup, I can’t believe this,” I tell my dad later after asking for a status report on the recipe later that night. “My entire life I thought it was just, like, her recipe.”

“You mean Avgolemono soup?” he asks.

“Av-glo-manano soup, I can’t pronounce that, sure.”

“It literally means egg lemon.”

It does literally mean egg lemon, because that’s what gives the soup its thicker, almost porridge-y consistency. And in case your curiosities are at all piqued, Greek chicken soup is more than just soothing when you’re missing your home country; it’s pretty good for you, too.

“You get the creamy-like, thick texture, but without all the calories and fat you would get in a ‘cream of’ soup, since there’s no fat added like butter or cream,” says nutritionist and Mediterranean diet expert Elena Paravantes, RD. “The only fat you are getting is from the chicken broth and the eggs. You can also use egg whites only and reduce the fat even more. The chicken along with the egg provide a good dose of protein, making this soup quite filling.” According to Paravantes, this is a very simple and pliable recipe. “By adding a few vegetables like carrots and celery, you basically have a complete meal with protein, carbs and vegetables,” she says.

So, with Marvelous Mrs. Maisel in the background and one of my of my Yiayia’s pale blue scarves holding my hair back, I beat the eggs and lemon. I chopped the carrots and celery. I looked at the “one fowl chicken” necessary to make chicken broth, read that you’re supposed to fist a chicken to get giblets out, and cried for many minutes. I don’t know who needs to hear this, but if your dietary restrictions or ick-levels can’t handle plunging your hand deep into the body cavity of a chicken, buying a broth is literally fine. (“It was never really about the chicken,” my dad said, and I agree.)

And there it was, in the pot, Yiayia’s avgolemono soup. I dipped my ladle straight in to taste test if I did her recipe justice. Yup. That’s it. Smelling like a house filled with flat-nosed icons of Jesus and mini Venus de Milos, tasting like I remembered. That night, the avgolemono soup took me on a sensory throwback to family, heritage, and a feeling of belonging to something.

…and every night for the next week. My Yiayia was married by the time she was 22, a mother by the time she was 26, and this soup serves six. I guess that’s a major way in that we differ, a way that I, culinarily-challenged, and grotesquely scooping spoonfuls of citrus rice, am not characteristically Greek. I’m solo. There’s only me left.

But I don’t feel alone. Not really.

Avgolemono Soup Recipe

Ingredients

  • 1 whole chicken, giblets and innards removed
  • About 4 pounds and 2 quarts water or 2 quarts low sodium chicken broth
  • 1 small onion, sliced
  • 1/2 cup chopped celery
  • 1/2 cup carrots
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 cup rice or 3/4 cup orzo
  • 4 eggs (at room temperature)
  • 2 tablespoons cold water
  • Juice from 1 to 1 1/2 lemons

1. Slice your onions and chop carrots and celery.

2. If using chicken: Cover fowl with water and heat with onion and celery. Cook on low heat for about 1 1/2 hours, adding salt when half done. Remove chicken from pot; save for future meal.

3. If using canned broth: Heat with onions, celery, and carrots until vegetables are tender.

4. Bring broth and vegetables to a boil. Stir in rice, then cover and simmer over medium-low heat until rice is fully cooked through (about 20 minutes). Salt to taste.

5. While the soup cooks, separate egg yolks from egg whites. Beat egg whites in a medium bowl until stiff.

5. Stir in egg yolks into the egg whites, then add water and lemon juice, beating until thick.

6. Add a small amount of hot broth to the egg mixture. Stir rapidly to bring the eggs up to temperature without cooking them.

7. Pour the egg mixture into the soup and stir until combined. Serve at once.

Eggs are nature’s multivitamin. Just ask a dietitian:

Learn more about how to tell fortunes with Greek coffee cups. Or read about how the Greeks have seven different words for each kind of love. 

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