Monday, December 14, 2015

Good for what ails you: sesame oil chicken soup

China’s cuisines are unlike just about anyplace else’s for many reasons, but chief among them is the idea that every ingredient is also medicine. 

This concept was memorialized around two millennia ago in the Shennong bencao jing, which could be translated as The God of Agriculture’s Materia Medica. One of the basic principles of Chinese medicine is that there are polar opposites in just about everything – what we now refer to by the appropriately Chinese names of yin and yang – and much of our health stems from achieving good balance between the two. 

When it comes to our bodies, the polar opposites include the ideas that we are all composed to varying degrees of different proportions of male/female, hot/cold, wet/dry, and so forth. When these balances get out of whack, we get ill. A lot of this is simple good sense. For example, when we have a cold, we feel chills that blankets cannot warm. It takes a bowl of hot chicken soup to return those faint feelings of well-being to our bodies. As with the rest of the world, chicken soup in China is mom’s penicillin. 
Pure sesame oil

But the Chinese take it a few steps further. In addition to the health-giving properties of chicken soup – for the chicken itself is very nutritious and even the fat has been shown to make us healthier – various herbs and seasonings are tossed in the pot to enhance these warming properties. 

This soup, whose smell reminds me of Taipei, is often given to nursing mothers as a part of her confinement referred to in Chinese as a “month of sitting,” or zuò yuèzi 坐月子. During this period, the new mom gets to relax and take care of herself and her new baby. She also gets to eat lots of nourishing foods courtesy of her own mother, mother-in-law, and various aunties. 

One of the most classic dishes for the recovering mother is this, for it is believed to encourage blood flow and produce breast milk. Wood ear fungus is then included in this soup to help combat high cholesterol, which many women suffer from after giving birth. 

Dates and wolfberries

Other Chinese ingredients offer various ways to make people feel better, too. Red Chinese dates, for example, are considered “the king of fruits,” as they nurture the blood and heal the stomach. Wolfberries (aka gouqi or goji berries) are a prized general tonic. Also in here is rice wine instead of water, which warms up the body along with a huge pile of fresh ginger. The ginger is first fried in pure sesame oil, which is believed in Chinese medicine to have lots of anti-aging properties. This is, therefore, a wonderful, warming meal that aids in recovery. It also is super easy, fast, and hands-down delicious. This is something that should be served throughout the year, especially when anyone is feeling down or in need of a little extra TLC.

A couple of suggestions for perfection every time: First, fry the ginger until it is golden brown before adding the chicken, as this seasons the oil. It will fry and brown even further as the chicken cooks, which is wonderful, as this turns each slice into a sticky, crispy shard. Be sure to use a metal wok spatula to scrape the bottom of the wok while the chicken fries, as the sugars in the ginger will gradually caramelize on the bottom – these need to be nudged loose now and then so that they don’t burn. Once the ginger has completely dried out in the oil, it will merely float, rather than weld itself to the bottom of the pan.

Golden chicken & ginger

Be sure to fry the chicken to a golden brown, too. This completely changes the texture of the skin, turning it from flabby to tensile and slightly caramelized, which makes it marvelous to nibble on.

The toasted sesame oil is key here, too. Use pure toasted sesame oil with no fillers, like cottonseed or soybean oil. Look at the ingredients carefully before you buy. I always get Japanese brands, which are sold in large tins. Korean markets often have these on sale, and they stay fresh for a couple of months even when they have been opened; just close up the tin carefully and store it away from the heat in a cool pantry. I pour out about a cup or so of the oil into a little bottle that I keep near the stove for finishing many dishes, but for this sesame oil chicken soup and things like homemade sesame paste, these liter-plus sized tins are a lifesaver.

Taiwanese Mijiu is the final key ingredient here. You can find this in bright green glass bottles in most Chinese grocery stores, especially if they cater to a Taiwanese clientele. Get these either in regular wine bottle sizes or as gallon jugs.

The not-so-secret ingredient

Whatever you do, consider offering this as a full meal by serving it over the rice noodles. You can sidle a bit of fresh spinach or other leafy greens into the bowl if you like, but this should be little more than a garnish, as this is the best tasting medicine I know of. 

Sesame oil chicken soup

Máyóu jī tāng  麻油雞湯
South Fujian, Chaozhou, & Taiwan
Makes about 4 quarts soup

1 whole (3 to 4 pounds) free-range organic fryer, or 3 to 4 pounds chicken wings

10 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
1½ cups thinly sliced fresh ginger (peeling not necessary)
7 cups mild rice wine (Taiwanese Mijiu recommended)
2 to 3 cups wood ear fungus, fresh or dried and plumped-up, optional
16 or so red dates, optional
¼ cup wolfberries, optional
1 teaspoon regular soy sauce, optional (see Tips)
2 cups boiling water, optional
Dried rice noodles (mifen), optional

1. This soup, like just about any other soup, is many times better the next day, so plan ahead, if you can. Pat the chicken dry, get rid of any extra fat or pinfeathers, and then use a cleaver to cut it into large pieces before whacking it across the bones into inch-wide chunks. If you are using wings instead of a whole bird, simply cut each wing into three pieces along the joints; in this case, toss the wingtips into the pot, too, as they will lend extra flavor and richness to the broth. If you don’t enjoy nibbling on them like I do, then merely fish them out before serving.

A wok full of sesame oil & goodness

2. Place a wok over medium heat. When it is hot, add the oil and then the ginger. Stir the ginger occasionally as it fries so that it turns an even golden brown. As it start to brown a bit darker, scoot it up the sides of the wok out of the oil and add all of the chicken. Turn the heat up a bit and brown the chicken on all sides.

3. When the chicken is nicely browned, add the rice wine, raise the heat to high, and bring the wine to a boil. Add the optional wood ears (trimmed and torn into pieces), dates, and/or wolfberries at this point. Then, lower it to just a gentle simmer and cook the chicken until it is just tender, about 30 minutes. Taste the soup and add the soy sauce only if it is necessary. (Be careful not to add too much — this dish is might already be very savory because rice wines like Taiwanese Mijiu contain salt.) You might find it too salty for your taste; in that case, add about 2 cups boiling water to the pan. (The soup can be cooled down and refrigerated at this point when you are making it ahead of time.) If you wish to serve this over rice noodles, cook the noodles until barely tender and place them in the bottom of the soup bowls before ladling in the soup and chicken. Noodles or not, serve this very hot.


Taiwan-style rice wine (Mijiu, or as the label spells it, Michiu) is what gives this dish its distinctive flavor. Do note that this is type of cooking wine already has salt in it. The brand I use comes in a green glass bottle, has 1.5% salt, and says, in English, “Cooking michiu distilled spirit of rice, not for sale or use as a beverage.”

Illustration copyright (c) 2015 by Carolyn Phillips; from the forthcoming All Under Heaven (McSweeney's + Ten Speed Press, August 2016)