Meet today’s writer, Lillian Chou: former food editor for Gourmet and Time Out Beijing; cook, writer, food stylist, recipe tester (for my friend Jim Lahey among others), photographer, and more. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter. Read on and enjoy her narrative. — Mark
By Lillian Chou
I don’t have chicken soup when I’m sick: Instead, I eat it to stay healthy.
My grandmother always made soup for our weekly family meals in my uncle’s Brooklyn public housing co-op. Her Cantonese meals opened with brothy soups full of bitter herbs and strange textures.
She was a practicing Buddhist whose altar to Guanyin, the goddess of mercy, announced her devotion to the feminine deity of compassion. There was always an offering of food with her prayers, usually a pyramid of oranges or apples. (After all, gods must be hungry too.) On special occasions, an elaborate spread including a whole chicken or fish with medicinal herbs filled the table alongside burning incense. Ever practical, my grandmother made it part of our family dinner.
Buddhism and Daoism are the most common belief practices in China, although the majority of Chinese do not practice any faith or religion. There’s a healthy medicinal logic attached to those beliefs, along with meditation and slow-studied movements like qi gong or tai chi. I began learning these movements in China and practiced with my parents when I stayed with them in New Jersey to help my father recover from cancer. He was weak and ate very little. I was trying to stimulate his appetite and calm his anxiety as he healed.
As a cook, I have focused on cooking healing foods — especially during my father’s recovery, when I learned these practices are not so much about faith as they are a way of living. Our diet affects our body, much the way the French epicure Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin said, “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are.”
Although Chinese medicine is intermingled in Buddhism and Daoism, healing requires physical practice and a certain mindset. The patient is responsible for the maintenance of their health and discovering underlying root causes. Spiritual belief is not required to practice or heal with Chinese medicine, but there is a deep understanding of these concepts that follow Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) where treatment includes acupuncture, manual therapy, and a prescribed diet with healing ingredients that include botanicals and odd things like donkey gelatin, various roots, barks, and less commonly, dried creatures like dried centipedes or scorpions.
A prescription of herbs is determined by the doctor and they are measured out by weight in a pharmacy then wrapped into bundles. The herbs are simmered slowly in an earthenware vessel. The decoction is usually bitter, to be drunk several times a day for a period of time. Because of convenience and to avoid pungent smells, common formulas are also manufactured into pills and chewy pastes. I still like making my own medicine at home and know it is good feng shui for my kitchen.
Old Chinese medicine texts included recipes or combinations that were handed down through imperial ranks and practiced by emperors and scholars. The concept of feeding a body to heal ailments and nourish vulnerabilities according to the seasons and circumstance remains a powerful practice today. Western medicine is slow to accept these precepts because they haven’t been subject to large-scale clinical trials, but aspects of Chinese medicine, like acupuncture, have been more accepted in the U.S. since 1971, when a journalist was treated with acupuncture following an emergency appendectomy during Nixon’s visit with Mao Zedong. Many elders in China still practice Traditional Chinese Medicine, but it’s being forgotten at an alarming rate as younger generations push ahead to catch up with the modern world.
My grandmother was a great cook and produced luxurious banquet dishes, spoiling us almost every weekend. To feed our large family of aunts, uncles, and cousins, the soups my grandmother made were always served first while she stir-fried the last dishes. We slurped from porcelain bowls that, when emptied, became our rice bowls for dinner. You had to finish your soup before you could have rice, but those soups were not always wonderful.
Often mysteriously murky with dried roots, funguses, chewy lily buds, or chalky lily bulbs, her soups were sometimes laced with bitter tastes, hollow bones, rubbery textures, or gritty seeds. I never saw those ingredients in the stores in New Jersey where I grew up, and many still don’t have Western names. These tonics were medicinal and my grandmother’s way to protect us, which I didn’t know until I started to need medical help that Western doctors could not cure. She used ingredients that strengthened our organs to protect us in deep winter by nourishing damp cold out of our bodies or cooling our channels with the summer heat. Sometimes I recognized ingredients like carrots, cooked with black hair moss, and cancer-fighting bitter dried apricot kernels whose texture softened after boiling.
My favorite was always her chicken soup, speckled with bright vermilion goji berries whose gentle antioxidant sweetness softened the spiky bitter tastes from with huang qi, large slivers of immune-supporting dried astragalus, and shan yao, starchy pieces of dried mountain yam that improve vitality and nourish lungs and kidneys.
My frugal grandmother made chicken soup with fresh yellow chicken from the Chinese butcher. She poached it gently so she could serve the whole tender, chicken with head and feet at dinner, and also have a flavorful soup that everyone liked. On holidays she added delicious dried scallops with intense richness and meltingly soft cubes of winter melon. Another variation had thick dried shiitake mushrooms and clusters of frilly snow fungus that I equated with the lovely idea of eating lace. Their ruffled gelatinous edges crunch like firm seaweed, not quite hard nor tooth gripping, but a slippery firm bite that is intensely satisfying. Occasionally, there would be a few bloated red Chinese jujubes (a type of date, less sweet than the Middle Eastern variety) but there was always a scattering of vibrant dried goji berries.
Growing up, chicken soup was not for colds — when we were sick, we ate jook — it was for special family meals with my grandmother. Chicken soup was a luxury, even when we had dinner guests at home: My mother served it in a fancy soup urn with pressed chewy tofu and tender ham.
Medicinal soup is often a prescription from a cannon of basic herb formulas. The chicken is like a blank canvas and the herbs define its curative purpose. One decadent imperial version involves chicken cooked in chicken broth (like a double consommé) with herbs in a single serving porcelain cup fitted another porcelain vessel filled with hot water and covered, hence the term, double-steamed soup. In the ‘90s I lived in Singapore and noticed the Chinese food there because it was deliciously familiar with Cantonese influences but also expansive with Southeast Asian flavors. There, Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners were a common alternative to Western medicine. Eating for health was a normal concept with street food stalls specializing in black chicken tonics and other herbal remedies. The popular Imperial Herbal Restaurant touted a staff doctor to diagnose your meal and still offers the decadent “Lady’s tonic,” a black chicken soup on its menu.
Years later while living in mainland China, I remember visiting a street on Jinmen (Kinmen) Island in Taiwan, off the coast of Fujian province, where an entire street constituted of herbal soup vendors with steaming stacks of double-boiled soups including black chicken, but also chicken with coconut and another with dried scorpions. These soup kitchens intertwined with family-run apothecaries selling hand-wrapped pink bundles of just-sliced medicinal herbs for making herbal soups at home. Each shop had its own well-cared-for medicine cabinet full of tiny wooden drawers from generations ago, beautifully carved to identify the ingredients inside. They were strikingly different from the nondescript state-run establishments in mainland China and my first real glance at the difference between Taiwan and China.
I’ve seen restaurants in China whose menus offered different breeds of chicken. A mountain chicken is usually more expensive than an earth chicken, which is also prized. And then there is the black chicken: Revered for its powerful benefits especially for women, more nutritionally potent than white chickens with significantly higher amounts of carnosine that have a multitude of health benefits, they are decocted into soups and also poached and eaten with restaurants specializing in these big black birds. The name, 乌骨鸡, wu gu ji, means black-boned chicken because the flesh is gray with a deep ebony membrane that coats the muscles and bones. There is no white meat. Their dark black plumes are beautifully iridescent with blue, green, and purple tones. As far as health is concerned, they tonify the liver and kidney, replenish the blood (hence the female benefits), and bring vitality. The black-feathered variety dates back to the 12th century in Indonesia around the time Marco Polo described a similar bird in his travels through China, noting the eggs which are also deemed more nutritious than other eggs.
The bird is called a silkie in the U.S. and I’ve only seen one breed with blue feet and with a white fluffy plume that is sparse on its blue and black face, giving it a lean elegance. American silkies are lean and scrawnier than the meatier Asian varieties. The white-feathered version exists in China, but is not as common for eating because they are so small. They don’t roast well and are not great eating after a long soupy simmer. These white-feathered birds are known medicinally and made into a chewable paste/pill and oral liquid in China for women who suffer hormonal/menstrual imbalance. As fresh birds, they are special and pricey, a splurge for a new birth to help the mother recover, and for celebrations like Chinese New Year or village banquets because health is the most important thing when you’re celebrating another year lived. I’ve paid over $100 to have the soup in a New York restaurant and find it more manageable to make it myself for about $15 for a fresh, two-pound bird.
My local Asian market has fresh silkies when I am in a rush. I have also found local farms that purchase live birds from Amish farmers and prepare them to order “Chinatown style,” with head and feet attached. They always seem to make better soup — and I get the organs too.
Over the years, I have experimented with different ways of making broths and soup. I’ve found the best version to be pure in taste, untainted by the strong flavors of onion, carrot, and celery, so essential to Western soups. Few have the double-boil setup at home although it’s entirely possible, but a slow cooker, Instant Pot, or good soup pot work as well. Gentle heat is the imperative constant in making this soup — it should never boil hard. My father is in his 80s, so my version of black chicken soup is intended to nourish his organs, increase immunity and vitality, and strengthen his blood. There are also obvious benefits of a collagen-rich broth with nutrients from the whole chicken including bones and skin.
Although the broth is best when freshly made, I make enough for a week; he gets three quarts and I keep one for myself. Every morning, he has an egg poached in rich black chicken broth speckled with goji berries and a handful of spinach leaves — and there is enough for broth for a meal of noodles or dumplings. So far, so good!
Black Chicken Soup
Makes: 4 quarts
Time: Several hours, mostly unattended
1 whole silkie or black chicken (about 2 lb but you will only have whatever is available)
½ cup rice wine
8 large slices of ginger (no need to peel)
6 Chinese red dates, rinsed
4 thick dried shiitake mushrooms soaked in water for 30 minutes
1 bunch scallions, trimmed
6-8 long strips dried astralgus root
1 ounce dried shan yao (optional, Chinese mountain yam)
1 tablespoon dried goji berries, rinsed
1. Rinse the chicken completely and put it in a large pot. Cover with water and bring to a boil, then simmer for 5 minutes. Remove from heat and drain, rinsing chicken of any impurities.
2. Return chicken to the pot and pour wine on top. Add ginger, dates, mushrooms and their soaking liquid, scallions, astragalus root, and shan yao if using, and cover with water (about 4 quarts).
3. Bring to a boil and reduce heat and simmer, covered, for 2½ hours. Add goji berries and simmer 30 minutes. Carefully strain and cool liquid. Season with salt as you wish. Remove and discard stem from mushrooms and slice and return to soup. You may eat the chicken if you like.
4. If you are not eating the chicken, you can return it to the pot with herbs and cover with fresh water. Bring to a boil, covered, and cook a bare simmer (meaning not boiling) for 2 hours. Strain and use this as a stock for cooking or use this a rice porridge base.
*Slow cookers and Instant Pot will work for this but adjust your heat settings so the soup does not constantly boil.
Thank you for sharing this article. I appreciate the hands on history and recipe sharing. Many of us believe and practice the 'let food be your medicine and medicine be your food' theory, especially after watching our parents health fail from too much 'convenient' food and prescription drug solutions to health issues. I would love to visit a food court of medicinal soups, but in the meantime I'll make this soup. And thank goodness we have 2 Asian grocery stores in our town. The recipe had me at the ginger and dried goji berries!