My girls have been feeling run down lately and they requested dong quai chicken soup. Dong quai is also called women’s gensing, because it is supposed to do for a woman what gensing is supposed to do for a man. It would not harm a man to eat this soup, but if you are a man—or a woman who does not need it—it simply smells really bad. If you are a woman in need of feminine (yin) balancing it—apparently—smells wonderful.
Note: This is going to be a long post. This soup is a medicine and it is not for everyone. To understand this recipe you need to know a bit of background, as well as who should eat it and why. While much of this soup is a traditional Chinese recipe, blended by an herbalist, I have added a few ingredients from the dong quai soups we had in China.
I have a story about this soup. When we were living in Hong Kong, we was hosting a dinner party for about fifteen people. I had made many dishes for this party, but one was dong quai chicken. One of our guests was a plus one of our friends. She had been traveling around China for months and was in a really run-down state—twenty-five years ago getting around China by rail and road was not a trip, it was an adventure! [“Disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner!”—Bilbo Baggins] As this woman was sitting down to the table, she smelled the dong quai chicken. She stuck her head over the bowl and breathed in deeply. She then grabbed the bowl and dragged it to her place and tucked in. Other diners tried to get a taste of what she was so desperately enjoying. She slapped their hands away, it was all hers! If you need it, nothing smells or tastes better.
I have made this soup before, from the memory of having it in China. I was almost out of dong quai and the only place to get it in San Jose is at a Chinese herbal store. Fortunately for me, this is the Bay Area and these are not hard to find.
Jan did some interviews a few summers ago and her informant was talking about women’s medicinal soups and mentioned using red dates. As I was driving to the store, I thought I would get some of these to add to the soup as well. When I told the Chinese herbalist my plan for the soup, I decided to go all out and I asked her to add whatever she felt the girls would need to make a well balanced blend. This soup is more a medicine, rather than a food. She started grabbing things off the shelves and putting them on a sheet of paper to wrap up.
Side Story: Tradition Chinese Medicine (TCM) has been keeping the Chinese alive for thousands of years. We are not able to dismiss Chinese Medicine as easily as many Americans might. We have personal experience with its efficacy.
Jan’s first research was as a medical anthropologist. She did her master’s work studying a tribe in Suriname, the Kwinti. She did not get funded to return for her doctorial work—this turned out to be a good thing as they had a revolution and killed all the anthropologists in the country during the time she would have been there. She ended up studying naturalistic medicine, including TCM, in California.
During our time in China, I nearly died from a mysterious fever. I am told that I had a fever of 106º—that is the kind of fever that causes brain damage—and that I had been raving for hours. When I came to consciousness I saw my wife, the director of our program, her assistant and a fourth person—who turned out to be the Western medical doctor. With Jan’s knowledge of Chinese medicine, she had no problem with seeking alternatives when Western medicine had failed. They were all awaiting the arrival of the Chinese medical doctor or my last breath—whichever came first.
The TCM doctor wrote a prescription, which was quickly filled. When we got the paper package, it looked like someone had taken a rake out to the forest and scrapped up a bit. We recognized mosses, twigs, moldy leaves and grasshoppers in the mix. This was to be put into a clay medicine pot with water and boiled for an hour. After the solids were strained out, we were left with about two cups of black liquid. A dose was half a cup of this sludge with enough hot water and honey to make it drinkable—it tasted like forest floor, too! However, half an hour after I took my first sip of this concoction my fever broke and I was out of danger.
Traditional Chinese Medicine is a naturalistic system, based on centuries of observing what works. Discussion of an ingredients use and effectiveness is based on the idea of a balance of Yin & Yang or Qi—male/female; hot/cold; wet/dry; fire/water; etc. TCM does not work because the doctors say so; the TCM doctors say so, because it has worked for thousands of years.
Note: Please recognize that I am condensing 4,000 years of medical science into a few sentences and that I do not know a thousandths of what Jan knows about the subject. I only know what I’ve picked up by osmosis from her years of research.
I tried to get the herbalist to tell me what she was putting in the women balancing mix, but it was difficult. All of her labels were in character and she did not know most of the Western names for the ingredients. While I knew a few of them, I finally tracked them all down using Google image search. She gave me dong quai, astragalus, Chinese yam, red dates, goji berries, and foxnuts. I then goggled each, to discover what the medical benefit each ingredient was supposed to provide in this blend. Each ingredient was meant to strengthen a woman’s yin or ease a wide variety of “woman’s” issues.
Dong quai is Chinese angelica (当归: dāngguī). In Traditional Chinese Medicine it is used for gynecological ailments, fatigue, mild anemia, and high blood pressure. It is used to build up your yin (the feminine aspect of yin and yang). When I had shown the herbalist the last of my dong quai, she sort of scoffed at the old shreds of root that I had bought—the largest was half an inch by one inch. She then pulled out a large slice of dong quai, two and a half by five inches. This apparently was one “dose.” I had not only been using old dong quai in my previous soups, I had not been using enough of it.
The second thing the herbalist had added to the pile was Aastragalus propinquus (or membranaceus) (黄芪: huáng qí). This plant is used in TCM as a tonic for promote healing, and in reducing fatigue. The herbalists sold this separately as a prepackaged tea. While several other species of astroagalus are quite poisonous , the one used medicinally is not.
Chinese yam (淮山: huái shān) is a tonic that improves kidney function. Many Chinese kidney tonics (like ginger) are warming and enhance yang. If you are a woman who’s Qi is already out of balance this would only make matters worse. Chinese yam is one of the few kidney tonics that only enhances the yin, so it is added to many medicinal blends for women.
When they are dried, jujubes are called red dates (红枣: hóng zǎo). They are a kind of super fruit that is good for a wide variety of medicinal uses or simply as a tasty treat. This fruit is supposed to relieve stress and have “anti-properties” (anti-biotic, anti- fungal, anti-inflammatory, etc.). Eilene insisted that I get some recently, because they are in season and all of her Vietnamese friends have a bowl out on the counter for snacking.
Warning: If you are trying to get pregnant stay away from this fruit. One of its properties is as an anti-fertility agent.
Goji berries (a.k.a. Wolfberry: 枸杞: gǒuqǐ) were also added to the pile. Goji berries are used in TCM as a general tonic to “cleans” the liver and kidneys to promote health and longevity. Goji berries are almost always cooked in a soup or tea before being eaten. Goji berries have become quite popular in America as a “healthy” dried fruit and are easily available at places like Whole Foods. However, you can fatally overdose yourself with them, so use them with caution!
WARNING!!!: If you are taking warfarin, or drugs for diabetes or hypertension DO NOT USE this ingredient. Atropine, a toxic alkaloid, in the berries interacts badly with these drugs. The amount of atropine in a particular batch of goji berries depends on their source. Some berries have only a little, but others have a fair amount. Treat goji berries like Ibuprofin; a little may be good for you, but an overdose can kill you.
The last ingredient the herbalist added to the paper was foxnuts (芡实: qiàn shí ). These are also called lotus seeds and are widely eaten throughout Asia. Among other things, they are used to help with bladder problems and yeast infections in Traditional Chinese Medicine.
As a Final Caution: This soup is a medicine. I checked out a few recipes for “women’s soups” on-line and there was a general caution to drink only one cup of the broth at a time. If you have more broth, save it to reheat the next day.
This kind of soup should never be made in a metal pot as some of the ingredients are reactive. I plan to use my Romertopf clay pot, which is the closest thing I have to a Chinese clay soup pot. This pot seals the steam into the vessel and should give me a nice steamed chicken and a rich soup.
As additions to this dish, I will be adding fava beans, and pea tops—these are the tender ends of a mature pea plant—you can substitute pea sprouts or spinach, if they are not available. The fava beans help reduce water retention and help with “eh-hem” elimination. The pea tops are added during the last few minutes of cooking to provide vitamins and a fresh green color.
Note: The herbalist sold me enough of the ingredients to make this soup for three women, but I do not have a pot big enough to cook three portions in. Jan was concerned that if I used all of the ingredients in one small pot that the soup would become too strong to be edible or worse even toxic. I divided the ingredients into individual portions. With a three pound chicken and the added beans I should have enough to feed three women with little leftover. I will give the remaining portions to Jan and Miriam (who needs it most) to make a tea out of later in the week.
Karl’s Medicinal Dong Quai Chicken Soup
Note: Do not drink water or caffeinated tea after eating this soup or add ginger, soy sauce or garlic to it. These things will reduce the desired effects of this soup.
Although I am making this recipe (for three people), I am writing the recipe for one/two women, which would be the more common way of making it. If you are eating it alone, drink only one cup of the broth and eat only one portion of the chicken. Save any remaining soup for the next day.
1 cornish game hen (1 small chicken, 3 lb.)
¼ cup fava beans (½ cup)
1 slice dong quai (about 13 grams)
1 slice astragalus (about 6 grams)
4 slices Chinese yam (about 13 grams)
4-6 red dates (about 22 grams)
1 Tbs. goji berries (about 6 grams)
½ Tbs. foxnuts (about 6 grams)
2 cups water or chicken broth (3 ½ cups)
Pinch Kosher salt
2 cups pea top (½ lb.)
1. Soak the clay pot in water for 20 minutes and pre-heat the oven to 400º F.
Tip: I am using a large Romertopf in the oven, but this is a personal preference. You may boil the soup on the stove top, if you wish, and any clay or non-reactive pot with a tightly sealing lid will do.
2. Wash and pat the chicken dry.
Note: Always trim off the first joint of the wings. While in China, it is good luck to have the head of the fish pointing at you, it is bad luck to have the wing of the chicken pointing at you. Cutting off the tip prevents this from happening.
3. Scatter the fava beans evenly over the bottom of the pot.
4. Place the whole chicken on top of the beans, breast up.
5. Scatter the medicinal ingredients around the bird and lay the dong quai on top of the breast..
6. Add two cups of water or canned chicken broth.
Note: I am adding three and a half cups of broth and water for three diners.
7. Bring the pot to a boil on the stove top, cover and transfer the pot to the oven.
Tip: The high oven heat warms up the chicken and starts the cooking process more quickly.
Note: If you are boiling the soup on the stove top: bring the pot to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer for 3-4 hours on low heat.
8. After 20 minutes reduce the heat to 275º F and continue baking for 3-4 hours.
Tip: The lid keeps most of the liquid in the pot, but it is a good idea to have a drip pan on the rack below in case it boils over. Do not open the pot except to add the pea tops at the end of the cooking time.
9. Twenty five minutes before serving, sprinkle a pinch of salt over the bird and place the pea tops over the chicken, return the cover, increase the temperature to 400º F, and continue baking for fifteen minutes.
Tip: The large mass of pea top will seem too much for the dish, but it will wilt down a lot as it is steamed. The pea tops will also release a fair amount of liquid. If the liquid in the pot is close to the lip, remove about one cup before adding the pea tops to prevent the pot from boiling over.
Note: If you are using spinach or pea sprouts, remove the pot from the oven, add the vegetables, and let the covered pot sit on the stove top for 15 minutes. These vegetables are much more tender than the pea top and do not need the extra time to cook.
10. Remove the pot from the oven and let it cool on the stove top for 15 minutes, covered.
11. Transfer to the table, lift the lid, and enjoy.
Note: Any males in the vicinity should vacate the premises. If you are male or a woman, who does not need her Qi balanced, this soup can smell unpleasant.