Ah-ma’s Postpartum Herbal Soup

When I think back to the birth of my first child, one of the most wonderful memories I have of those early days snuggled up with my baby is the doting care I received from my grandmother. I lived with her growing up and was lucky enough to live with her again for a couple of years as a new parent. Beginning just moments after the birth, she was at my side, offering comfort, nourishing postpartum food (including her postpartum herbal soup), and gentle reminders to savor the joy of those tender, young days. Her deep wisdom and quiet strength during that time filled me with more gratitude than I could ever put into words.

The tradition of midwifery was not foreign to my grandmother. She birthed all six of her children with a midwife in Hong Kong and cared for many of her own loved ones during their postpartum periods. She loved that I had become a midwife. I remember one evening early in my midwifery career, I was telling her about the baby that I had helped welcome that morning. She looked at me plainly and asked if I had made soup for the birthing parent. I giggled and told her that we didn’t really do that as midwives here. She frowned with an eyebrow raised and said nothing else on the matter; but in her silence I felt I was all but committing malpractice.

Since then, I have made her soup for many of my clients. But beyond that, I wish I could bottle up all the care she gave me as I became a parent and give it to all new parents. Since I cannot give you my grandmother, I thought I would share the recipe for the soup she lovingly made me every few days for the first several months of my baby’s life. I know she would be happy to know that her soup could nourish you, too.

Postpartum Herbal Soup

Chicken Version

A word of caution – my grandmother, like so many of our elders, never used a recipe or a cookbook. She never measured anything beyond the height of the water in the rice pot, which she did by the crease in her pinky finger. What I will give you here is a description of what I watched her do so many times in her kitchen. Use your instincts and trust that the pot will come together.

You’ll want to start with a big pot. My grandmother always used a ceramic pot because she felt that metal interfered with the herbal properties during cooking. I’ve used both a slow cooker with a ceramic insert and an enameled cast iron pot with good results.

In addition to the herbs I’ve listed below, you’ll want to have:

  • a whole chicken (or mushrooms, if you want a plant-based option…more on that below), 
  • ginger (a nice chunky handle), and
  • salt

My grandmother would argue that the type of chicken really matters. She used a whole yellow-haired chicken, which are easily found at Asian supermarkets, like Sunset Super and 99 Ranch. However, I’ve also used good quality bone-in chicken thighs with great results. The yellow-haired chickens do add quite a bit of flavor, so using the dark meat of just the chicken thighs, as opposed to a whole standard supermarket chicken, will come the closest in terms of flavor.

You’ll want to start by stripping the skin from the chicken and cleaning it thoroughly under cold water. Place the entire chicken (or thighs) in the pot along with several slices of peeled ginger. If you’re using a standard stockpot, aim for about two inches worth of ginger slices. Add your rinsed herbs (see below) and fill the pot with enough water to cover everything by about an inch or so. Simmer over low heat for 8-10 hours. Salt to taste (see notes on herbs for additional serving suggestions).

Mushroom Version

If you’re using mushrooms, I’ve found the flavor profile I like the most is a combination of fresh shiitake (frozen works too), cremini, and dried shiitake. I like a ratio of 2 fresh/frozen shiitake:1 cremini, and a palmful of dried shiitake for added flavor. How much you get really depends on how big your pot is and how much mushroom flavor you desire. Adding a piece of kombu adds a nice balance to the flavors, but it all works well without it, too.

Soak and rinse your dried shiitakes prior to use (they don’t need a long soak, just enough to plump them up again). Add them to the pot along with your roughly chopped fresh/frozen shiitakes, creminis, and several slices of peeled ginger. If you’re using a standard stockpot, aim for about two inches worth of ginger slices. Add your rinsed herbs (see below) and fill the pot with water (about ten cups for a standard stock pot). Simmer over low heat for 8-10 hours. Salt to taste (see notes on herbs for additional serving suggestions).

The Herbs

My grandmother always rinsed the herbs (she rinsed almost everything she ever ate for that matter) and put them directly into the pot with the rest of the ingredients prior to cooking. After cooking, she drained the broth from everything else and very much prided herself on the clarity and color of the remaining broth she served. You will probably want to skim off some of the fat that has risen to the surface during cooking, especially if you weren’t able to get off all the skin during your prep. Some folks may want to add some of the chicken meat and that’s fine (although much of the flavor will have transferred to the broth); you’ll probably want to put the herbs in a cheesecloth bundle so that they are easy to separate from the chicken. If you’re using mushrooms, you can leave the mushrooms in for texture, but I would also recommend using a cheesecloth bundle for your herbs to help with separating. If you are a purest like my grandmother, you’ll just strain everything out and be left with a wonderful comforting sipping broth.

Below I’ve listed the herbs that she used. They are all available at well-stocked Asian markets, like Sunset Super and 99 Ranch. Because I have concerns about the amounts of pesticides that can sometimes be used in growing these medicinal herbs, I package and sell organic herbs with a cheesecloth bag at my Inner Sunset office as well.

Astragalus Root (Huang Qi) – This herb stimulates the body’s immune response and adds to promote healing. Astragalus root is also used to improve physical endurance, digestion, and nutrient absorption. I use 3-4 slices for a standard stockpot.   

Codonopsis Root (Dang Shen) – In addition to improving digestion and nutrient absorption, codonopsis root is used as a replenishing herb and can improve fatigue and lack of energy. It is also used in blood building for people who have anemia or who have experienced blood loss. I use a couple of finger length pieces.

Dried Chinese Yam (Huai Shan) – Another herb used for immune support, Chinese yam is also used to support healing tissues and improve vitality. I use 3-4 slices for a standard stockpot.   

Dried Goji Berries (Gou Qi Zi) – A powerful antioxidant, Goji berries help to neutralize harmful free radicals and support a healing immune system. They can also aid in fatigue and help replenish blood. I use a handful for a standard stockpot.   

Red Dates (Hong Zao) – Red dates have many beneficial properties, as they contain a number of vitamins and antioxidants. Easing anxiety and promoting restful sleep are two properties that make red dates particularly useful in the postpartum period. They are also useful in improving skin health and can aid skin and soft tissue healing. I use a palmful for a standard stockpot.   

In loving memory of my cherished grandmother, whose unwavering love and care continue to inspire and guide my journey as a midwife and a parent every day.

Signature card for Kelly Wong McGrath
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