Sunday, November 14, 2010

Canja - Brazil's Cure-all Chicken Soup

What culture doesn't prescribe curative properties to hot chicken soup (preferably prepared lovingly by mother - jewish or not)? My guess is most likely only those cultures that have no culinary contact with poultry at all - like traditional Inuit. Otherwise, it seems to be a universal truism that when one is run-down, suffering from a cold or the flu, or even just a bit downhearted, a bowl of chicken soup is just the ticket for a quick recovery.

Brazil is not exception to this rule, and when a Brazilian child needs a restorative broth to get him or her out of bed and back to school and play Mamãe (Mommy) will make a homemade chicken soup with rice called canja. Made from a whole chicken, some vegetables and white rice, canja is enjoyed by practically everyone in Brazil, sick or not, and if there is soup on the menu, one of the choices is almost always canja.

The recipe for canja, and its name, came to Brazil from Portugal, where canja is also a universal remedy. But neither the basic idea or the name originated in Portugal - they arrived there from Asian shores during the early days of Portuguese exploration of the Far East. In fact, the name canja probably comes from the Malay word kenge or kenji, meaning hot and salty broth. The Malay word travelled back to Portugal on board Portuguese caravels returning from Malacca, and also travelled in the other direction to China where it became congee.

Although scientists have yet to firmly establish the specific restorative properties of chicken soup, at the very minimum it is a strong example of the placebo effect, and there is some anecdotal evidence that it actually does promote healing. Interestingly, in Portuguese and Brazilian folk culture, canja is prescribed as a treatment for both constipation and diarrhea. And also for coughs, colds and influenza, just like everywhere else.

The next post on Flavors of Brazil will include a typical recipe for Brazilian canja.

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