Yesterday I cooked and delivered a traditional Chinese postpartum dish called chicken and red date soup to a new mother.
It is a tradition I started a few years ago when I supported my first Chinese client as a birth doula. She found me by asking if there was a Chinese doula in the local community, because she wanted to follow the traditional Chinese postpartum tradition, known as “doing the month”.
There was no Chinese doula in Cambridge, but someone told her there was a doula who was married to a Chinese and she found me.
My Chinese husband proved unknowledgeable when it came to the dishes in question, so, in my usual birth and postpartum geek fashion, I set out to read as much as I could on the topic, and taught myself to cook a whole new bunch of traditional Chinese recipes (much to my husband’s delight).
The first time I made the soup, my husband tasted it, looked delighted, and declared that it was “proper soup”. Then my client told me that it tasted just like what her grandma used to make. This felt like the ultimate compliment.
I have been making that soup for some years now. I’ve made it for several new mums, who have all loved it. I’ve made it for friends post surgery as well as it’s very good for recovery and healing.
As I made it again yesterday, I thought it would be nice to share, so others can benefit too. I also experimented for the first time making it in my instant pot (an electric pressure cooker), because it normally takes a couple of hours to make and I was pressed for time. I’m pleased to report the instant pot version tastes just as nice, so I’ll be sharing how I made that too.
It’s made from very simple ingredients, yet it tastes delicious, and feels cleansing too.
It has 6 ingredients: Chicken, onion, carrots, ginger, red dates (also known as jujubes-you can find these online or in Asian supermarkets), and goji berries.
In my usual fashion, I also set out to find some science behind the ingredients, especially the red dates and goji berries. My research left me somewhat disappointed because I’ve found lots of references to traditional Chinese medicine, and also some published research showing what nutrients are available in them, but nothing bridging the gap, i.e. explaining how those nutrients affect hormones and blood flow and healing.
The Chinese medicine states that red dates are known to increase Qi (life energy), and help nourish the blood and bring relaxation. Another important aspect of the Chinese postpartum (which I have found to be a worldwide practise), is to keep the new mother warm, and the ginger, red dates and goji berries do just that, as they are considered to be warming to the body. The traditional Chinese postpartum guidelines stress the importance of avoiding cold (literally, no cold drinks), as well as foods considered “cold” after birth.
Here is an article explaining their health benefits from the Chinese medicine perspective
I’ve also found some published research that red dates are sedative, anti-oxidant, and anti-inflammatory
How to make the soup
- 2 pounds whole chicken or chicken parts (I like to use thighs as they are easier to shred than drumsticks, it’s best if they have bones)
- 1 onion, peeled
- 2 inches fresh ginger, peeled and halved
- 3 medium carrots, peeled and thinly sliced
- 5 Chinese red dates (you can find these online or in Asian supermarkets, you need these to get the benefits as normal dates do not have the same medicinal properties)
- 3 tablespoons dried goji berries
- salt to taste
Preparation (the slow, stovetop way)
- Place the chicken in a medium pot, and add enough cold water to cover the meat. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, uncovered.
- Once boiling, add the onion and ginger. Season to taste. Reduce the heat to medium, cover, and cook for 40 minutes. Remove the lid occasionally to skim any foam off the top and discard.
- Remove from the heat. Move the chicken to a plate to cool. Shred the chicken meat with 2 forks. Place 1-2 cups of the shredded chicken back in the pot.
- Add the carrots and dates to the pot, and simmer over low heat, uncovered, for 45 minutes. Add the goji berries and cook an additional 15 minutes. Season with salt to taste.
- To serve, remove the chicken, shred the meat, discard the bones and return the shredded meat to the pan. Serve in bowls
Preparation (the fast, instant pot, or pressure cooker way)
- Put all the ingredients in the pot, cover with water
- Cook (using soup mode on your instant pot) for 35 min
- Do a quick steam release.
- Shred the chicken meat, and place back into the soup.
- Taste for seasoning as add salt as needed
- Serve in bowls, making sure each bowl has a red date in it
I had a go at making a veggie version too :
Whilst you cannot quite replace chicken in terms of taste, I experimented with adding several ingredients I knew would add umami flavours so the soup, so it still tasted nourishing and delicious:
Ingredients (feel free to use diffferent vegs):
- one leek
- 3 medium sized carrots
- 2 onions (1 red, 1 yellow)
- a few cabbage leaves
- a tablespoon of miso paste
- a tablespoon of dark soy sauce
- a tablespoon of marmite
- a dash of Worcestershire sauce
- 5 Chinese red dates
- 3 tablespoons dried goji berries
- salt to taste
- Peel, prep and chop veggies
- Add all ingredients together to a saucepan
- Cover with water
- Heat up until boiling then cook covered on low for 40 min
- You can either serve as is, or you could strain and just serve the broth (in this case put one of the red dates in each bowl)
If you are a new mum, and you’d like the benefits of the red dates without the time prep of the soup, you can also make red date tea, by placing 2 or 3 red dates (you can add goji berries and ginger too) in a cup of boiling water, and steeping for a few minutes. You can eat them afterwards too.
It is also supposed to be a good support to menstruation.
If you are vegetarian or vegan and fancy trying this soup, you could replace the chicken by some tofu or vegetables of your choice.
I have found that traditional postpartum practises the world over include rest, support, good nutrition and postpartum specific bodywork. One of my goals is to try and find out what traditional English and French dishes would have been served to new mothers, so please comment if you know, and I’d love to hear about any traditional dishes from around the world too.