Japanese Chicken Soup for the Soul

Japanese chicken soup

When it’s cold and wet and dark outside, people in Japan long for comfort food just as much as we do, and this chicken soup will warm you right down to your toes. It’s comforting, but a little bit different, all at the same time.

Serves: 4-6

12 oz. (340g) marinated chicken pieces (recipe below)

For the broth:

6 cups (1.5 liters) chicken broth

1/2 cup (120ml) soy sauce

1/2 cup (120ml) mirin

1/2 cup (120ml) sake

Veggies: You can use whatever vegetables most appeal to you, but I like to use

5 carrots, peeled and sliced into coins

3 leeks, sliced into pieces

6 shiitake (or other favorite) mushrooms, stems removed, sliced

4 oz. (100g) baby spinach leaves (or large leaves, torn into smaller pieces)

1 package udon noodles (or other favorite pasta)

Raw vegetables cut in the Japanese way for hotpot nabe
Japanese-style cutting

Note: I’m going to give you directions for the way a Japanese mom would cook this, because the various ingredients take different amounts of time to cook perfectly, and Japanese moms are picky about that. But if you just want a quick and easy pot of soup, it will still be good if you throw everything in the pot and boil gently for 12-15 minutes, until the noodles are done. You can also skip marinating the chicken, if you’re in a hurry or want it to taste less “Japanese.”


Combine the chicken broth, mirin, sake and soy sauce in a large stockpot and bring it to a gentle boil.

Turn off heat, remove the chicken pieces from the marinade, and add them to the broth. Cover and let sit for five minutes. Take out one piece and cut it in half to see if it’s cooked through yet. If not, return it to the pot and let sit a few more minutes until chicken pieces aren’t raw in the middle. It’s okay if they’re a little pink, because they’ll be cooked for a few more minutes at the end. With a slotted spoon or strainer, remove the chicken and set it aside. (Note: Chicken can turn into tough little nuggets when boiled, so cooking it this way makes sure it stays juicy and tender.)

Chicken pieces cooked until slightly pink in the middle
It can still be this pink inside

Return broth to a boil. Add the udon noodles. Simmer for 7 minutes.*

Add the carrots. Set the timer for 2 minutes.

Add the leeks and mushrooms. Set the timer for 2 minutes.

Add the chicken. Set the timer for 2 minutes.

Turn off the burner and stir in the spinach leaves (they’ll cook instantly).


*If you’re using noodles that cook in less than 13 minutes, set your timer for however long they’re supposed to cook, minus six minutes.

Japanese-style Marinated Chicken

12 oz. (340g) chicken, cut into bite-sized pieces

1/4 cup (60ml) mirin

1/4 cup (60ml) sake

2 T. (30ml) soy sauce

1 t. (10g) sugar

Mix marinade ingredients together in a measuring cup and microwave it for a minute, so the sugar will dissolve. Pour it into a big baggie with the chicken. Refrigerate for 1-4 hours.

Marinated chicken in a baggie
If you close the baggie halfway, then slowly submerse it in a big pot of water to force out the air, sealing the last bit at the very end, your marinade will give the chicken maximum flavor.

If you have a nabe pot and table burner, the way this soup is traditionally cooked in Japan is to make it at the table and save the noodle cooking until last. When everybody has fished out all the chicken and veggies, bring the remaining broth to a boil and put in the noodles. Let them simmer until done, then everyone eats noodles until they’re full.

Sesame-miso nabe Japanese hotpot
The broth for this chicken soup is clear, not cloudy like the sesame-miso broth in this picture. If you’d like to try making it with the sesame-miso broth instead, that recipe is here.

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Jonelle Patrick writes mystery novels set in Tokyo, and blogs at Only In Japan and The Tokyo Guide I Wish I’d Had

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