By Michelle Kay
No matter what time of year it is, my mom always has a pot of something simmering on the stove. Sometimes it’s a savoury soup or bone broth; other times it’s a bitter tonic that fills the entire house with an acrid odour. There are “warming” soups for winter and “cooling” soups for summer. Her roster of recipes rotates with the seasons.
My parents immigrated to the snowy Prairies in the late ’70s, several time zones away from their mothers and the sticky humidity of Hong Kong. They didn’t bring much with them and were ill-prepared for the Canadian winter, but my mom had some recipes—well-worn ones committed to memory or written on scraps of paper kept in a yellowing manila folder.
Like many children of immigrants, my brothers and I grew up code-switching between two cultures and languages. We lusted after ready-made North American products like Lunchables and Pop Tarts when we were with friends, but we also enjoyed traditional dishes with abalone and sea cucumber when we were with family.
Our household practised a mixture of Eastern and Western medicine, but in the kitchen we were firmly planted in Asia. My parents believed in healing through diet and used their folk knowledge to ensure that we were all healthy.
One of the basic tenets of wellness in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) focuses on keeping the body in balance with its environment. Illness and disease are interpreted as disharmony. This means well-being requires a comprehensive and holistic approach, rather than treating just the symptoms. Dietary therapy is a vital part of wellness, along with acupuncture, massage, exercise, sleep and herbal medicine. Western medicine tends to examine the parts of the body that are affected by disease and treat the symptoms, whereas TCM looks at patterns, analyzes parts in relation to the whole person and examines details of an individual’s health history, habits and lifestyle. Food and flavour are agents of healing and prevention.
My mother’s soups, teas and tonics were armour against illness and aging. One particular tonic appeared every month, accompanying Auntie Flo. It was supposed to be good for female health and was made of dried red dates and the herb dong quai. Many Asian cultures consider red dates a superfood; they are high in iron and vitamin C and replenish the blood. Dong quai, with its distinct bitter, funky taste, enriches and strengthens blood, regulates menstruation and activates blood circulation. Because the Cantonese word for turtle (gwai) sounds like dong quai, as a kid I thought my mom put a turtle into the tonic, which would explain its reptilian stench. Once puberty hit, I had to choke back a couple of bowls once a month. These days I make myself a more palatable version, the cutesy-sounding Jujube Tea. It’s sweeter and still contains red dates (also known as jujube fruit, hence the name).
Many of my Asian-Canadian friends also had to yum tong (“drink soup”), including a mysterious black and bitter liquid that was supposed to be very good for us. As we grew older and our taste buds became more susceptible to outside influences, consuming these soups and tonics became chores, liquids we had to have before and after our meals. There’s a funny video by comedy group CantoMando that makes fun of this experience. A mother lovingly prepares soup for her son, including traditional ingredients and some questionable additions. She assures him it’s not bitter (I can attest that this is a lie). The son prepares for gustatory battle, throwing on a helmet and placing candy and a barf bag nearby.
I stopped short of sporting a helmet, although I did hold my breath and pinch my nose as I drank. Now that I am older, I think of those tonics and soups as weight training for my taste buds, allowing me to handle a range of pungent, bitter, sour and spicy flavours. More importantly, they taught me about wellness. Whether they actually worked or had a placebo effect is beside the point. We were imbued with lessons of moderation and balance. Overall health was a constant conversation, with an emphasis on maintenance and prevention over damage repair.
Ironically, food was a touchy subject when I was growing up. It was a source of both comfort and anxiety. Even though these soups and tonics were ever-present in my life, I rarely talked about them with non-Asian friends, fearful it would further single me out as The Other.
Chinese food and certain aspects of Eastern medicine have entered the mainstream, but TCM is often regarded with suspicion and sometimes labelled as pseudoscience. While Western medicine is rooted in tangible, empirical data, TCM is a holistic practice that embraces Chinese culture and philosophy. It sees the body in relation to society and nature, not as a standalone entity. Scientifically immeasurable concepts such as qi (life force), meridians and wuxin (the five elements) are foreign to the West.
Previously seen as fringe, some TCM tenets such as acupuncture and cupping have become accepted and are even covered by health plans, but herbology and TCM-oriented cooking are still not widespread. The ingredients of the tonics and soups aren’t easy to find or even name (especially if you don’t speak Chinese). But with the rising popularity of kombucha and ginseng, and with bone broths popping up in fancy coffee shops, it seems like only a matter of time before we see medicinal soups in takeaway cups.
These days, my mother has fewer soups and tonics on the go. My siblings and I have moved out, but she makes a point of preparing them for us whenever we visit. Her tastes have become more Westernized over the years—she even eats processed foods she would have scoffed at decades ago, like frozen meat pies, pizza and cheesecake—but her soups taste exactly the same.
Michelle Kay is a writer, editor and librarian in Toronto. When she’s not writing, she’s running or biking around the city. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @yo_mk.
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