There is some instinct in women, especially mothers, that makes us want to nourish those we love and care for. Somehow we believe deep down that the right nutritious food will cure all ills. Whether we are encouraging someone to eat well for the sake of her baby yet unborn, comforting a listless toddler on our knee, visiting a friend convalescing in hospital, sitting with a sick relative or watching out for an older family member who has lost their appetite, the words “eat up, it will do you good” are never too far from our lips. It’s the urge in us to fix things even when there are some things which just cant be easily fixed.
In China more than any other cuisine, the medicinal properties of food are intrinsically linked with day to day cooking. Every time Shan or her MaMa have served me a meal or sent me a recipe, they have commented on the health-giving properties of one or other of the ingredients. They are not unusual in this. According to The Food of China, achieving balance at every meal is an essential part of Chinese cooking. “Every ingredient is accorded a nature – hot, warm, cool and neutral – and a flavour – sweet, sour, bitter, salty and pungent – and these are matched to a person’s imbalances: a cooling food for fever, warmer food after childbirth.” The Chinese use exotic foods too, that are believed to have special properties, such as black silky chicken in special soups and preparations.
In different regions of China, people explain their food preferences in terms of the local climate and its effects on the body and the spirit, changing their diets with the season and even with age and sex. That deep understanding of the impact of different foods and spices on the body and the spirit is handed down seamlessly from generation to generation. Chicken and chicken soup features in their lexicon of cures. I remember Ching-he Huang seeking out a traditional chicken broth when her immune system became depressed during the making of Exploring China – A Culinary Adventure.
In Shan’s recipe for Winter Chicken Ginger Stew, she and Shane explained to me how they use chicken and the the complimentary spices of garlic and ginger to “heat from the inside” during the cold days of a Beijing winter. Ginger has traditionally been used in Chinese medicine and cooking to prevent or cure the common cold and warm the body. Garlic is considered a ‘warrior’ for the body, cleansing harmful bacteria picked up in every day life and from less healthy eating.
As winter in Northern China is very dry, they generally advise against eating too much spicy food or chilli at this time of year as this can affect the balance of a body and its ability to retain moisture. Here in Ireland of course our winters are very damp and chilli can help sweat the moisture out of the body and speed up the metabolism.
The Chinese are not the only ones to believe that chicken soup is good for body, and even the soul. The phrase Chicken Soup for the Soul has become part of the vernacular and spawned a world wide movement for life improvement. We believe in the healing and preventative value of chicken soup here in Ireland too and I recall a lovely post by Mum of Invention earlier this winter whose tagline is “let food be your medicine and let your medicine be your food”. She wrote about using simmered chicken and its stock to prepare your defences against the common cold.
With all that has been going on since the beginning of the year, we’ve been feeling a bit under the weather recently and I felt as if I was about to come down with something earlier this week. I set out to find a recipe for a Chinese version of chicken soup that included garlic, ginger and chilli to open my pores and push those bugs away.
A Twitter conversation with AineD about using slow cookers got me thinking about using them in the way the Chinese might use a stock pot or clay pot for a long-simmered soup. So I trawled a few slow cooker cookbooks and I came across the recipe below in Anthony Worrall Thompson’s Slow Cooking and tweaked it a bit.
Although this particular recipe is described as a Chinese soup, it has influences from Thailand with its use of lemongrass, red curry paste and lime. It has flavours evocative of thai red curry but without the added coconut. It packs a powerful, spicy punch and certainly clears the tubes. I made it using the stock from our free-range turkey at Christmas, a breast of free-range chicken and lots of fresh vegetables. With the addition of a nest or two of noodles, which are optional, it is a meal in itself and a perfect supper for a cold, miserable, January evening.
Chinese Chicken “cure a cold” Soup
- 1 chicken breast, thinly sliced
- 1 lemongrass stalk, tough outer leaves removed and finely sliced
- 2 kaffir lime leaves, fresh or dried
- 2 tsp red curry paste
- 2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
- 1 – 2 red chillies, thinly sliced
- 8 baby corn cobs, sliced length ways
- 1 large carrot, thinly sliced
- 1 “thumb” of fresh ginger (about 3 cms) peeled
- 1.6 litres good chicken or turkey stock
- 1 tsp Maggi seasoning (optional)
- 8 fresh shitake mushrooms, stalks removed and thinly sliced
- 100 g mangetout
- 100 g green beans, trimmed
- 100 g tender stem broccoli
- 4 spring onions, thinly sliced at angles
- 2 nests of quick cook noodles (optional)
- 2 tbs light soy sauce
- Juice of 1/2 lime or more to taste
Preparation and cooking:
- Bring the stock to simmering point in a saucepan and add the chicken, lemongrass, lime leaves, curry paste, garlic, chillies, baby corn, carrot and Maggi seasoning.
- Bring to the boil and pour into a slow cooker.
- Cover and cook on low, without removing the lid, for 4 hours.
- Return to the saucepan, add the mushrooms, mangetout, green beans and broccoli.
- Simmer, partially covered, over a medium heat for 15 minutes.
- Add the spring onions and noodles (if using), bring to the boil and simmer for a further 2 minutes.
- Remove the chunk of ginger, stir in the soy and lime juice, adjusting to taste.
- Serve piping hot in bowls with spoons and chop sticks – you can eat all the vegetables and noodles with chopsticks and just drink the leftover soup as a broth at the end.
If you don’t have a slow cooker you can cook this on the hob over the lowest heat for about 2 hours but increase the quantity of stock to about 2 litres.
For the full “cure a cold” impact, use two chillies but, be warned, this is hot enough to open all your pores and sweat out any cold or virus you may be incubating, depending on the strength of the chillies and the red curry paste. If you prefer a milder flavour, reduce or omit the chillies, substitute red pepper strips instead and ensure any chillies you use are the longer, milder variety.
Keep well this winter and mind yourselves.