One of my first cultural shocks when I first came to the U.S. from Vietnam was visiting a hospital and seeing a newly postpartum parent walking herself across the floor still attached to the IV fluid. Her baby could have been just a few hours old. All of my life before that, I only saw parents of newly born babies bound to the bed, either in the hospital room or their bedroom, not leaving their home for weeks. During the immediate postpartum period, restricted movements and exposure to the outdoors, warmth and restoring postpartum foods were considered necessities. What a contrast here in the Western world. It wasn’t a good or a bad thing, it was just different. And even though it could have been a shock initially, it was also, strangely, a relief. I thought of our old Eastern traditions which then seemed like a constraint, a misfit to a modern society. For many years to come, this idea allowed me to expand and adapt to the Western culture.
Back to the Eastern belief system, at the core of it is the yin-yang ideology. Everything in the universe is constantly striving to reach the state of equilibrium. As I strove to expand and rise to a bright surface, I found myself longing to return and reach deeper into my own roots. In the brightest of light, it could be hard for the eyes to see. But in a deeper and darker place, my vision adjusted and I could start to see more clearly. That dark place was, surprisingly, becoming a new parent, birthing my first baby, the long days and long nights of feeding, caring for, and raising a child. In this space, I gradually saw myself in the rawest, most original, most authentic, most fitting, most Asian version of my identity. And, quite as expected, what came with having a newly born baby was not leaving the house for a few weeks, warmth, and restoring postpartum foods. Even though some parts of it weren’t easy (such as home confinement, no cold exposure including cold drinks, no regular bath or shower!), this time I learned to not just “accept” it, but to understand why and to make sense of it, to appreciate the richness and the depth of my own culture. At the center of Eastern postpartum care is the food traditions, specially, postpartum foods that I found the most heart-warming, wonderfully scientific, deeply hydrating, greatly nourishing and amazingly delicious to those who need just all of these things the most.
Asian postpartum foods are seen as having the benefits of balancing energies and flow (“Qi”) within the body, cleansing and warming the blood, speeding up recovery from childbirth, restoring strength and vitality of the birthing parent, and most wonderfully, bringing in an abundant breast milk supply and supporting smooth lactation. They have been traditionally prepared by the grandmothers or other older family members. The beauty of it is that there are no written recipes but rather, they are passed down for generations orally. When I sent a message to my mother-in-law to ask her if she could send me the “recipes”, she didn’t respond for days. Finally, she sent a message back: “There is no recipe, just call me on the phone”. I knew it!
Asian postpartum foods in my experience are the most delicious and labor-intensive foods ever prepared. And what made them the most delicious to me wasn’t just the foods themselves, but the comfort and warm feelings of being cared for, the association of joy and excitement of having a new baby.
Here are a few of my favorites:
Pork knuckles and eggs in ginger and sweet vinegar sauce
The sauce is prepared about 1 month prior to the expected due date.
The ingredients include ginger, vinegar, dark sweet rice vinegar, and pork knuckles. No specific measurements, just go by feel.
· Peel and slice the fresh ginger. Marinate the ginger with salt for 30 minutes. Pan fry the ginger pieces in the wok until they are completely dry so that they don’t mold during the long process.
· In a clay pot, add dark sweet rice vinegar, sour vinegar, and the ginger. Close the lid.
· From then, every 3-4 days, boil the mixture, then leave it open to completely cool, then close the lid back.
· After the baby is born, wait for about 2 weeks before adding the fresh pork knuckles in the sauce in the clay pot to cook.
· When the pork is done, add hard boiled eggs into the mix and bring everything into a boil.
· Refrigerate when finished.
· Serve over the next few days or even weeks.
Rationale: Ginger is warm and therefore encourages circulation within the body. Eggs provide additional protein and nutrients. The vinegars bring out the calcium in the pork bones which is depleted from pregnancy and breastfeeding. (Breastfeeding is even built into our food cultures!). The pork knuckles (or chicken feet) are common in postpartum foods as the collagen released from them is deeply hydrating to the cells of the body, therefore, they address the problem with insulin resistance and ultimately support smooth lactation and breastfeeding (Good for breastfeeding, again!)
Doubled boiled chicken soup
Ingredients include a small chicken and ginger, wood ear fungus, peanuts, Chinese cooking wine, cooking oil
· Cut the chicken into small pieces.
· Peel and slice the ginger.
· Soak the raw peanuts and wood ear fungus in water.
· Cut the wood ear fungus into small pieces
· Add oil, sliced ginger, chicken, peanuts, cooking wine to the pot and stir the ingredients.
· Pour water into the pot, add wood ear fungus. Boil the mixture in low heat for about 1-2 hours.
Rationale: Ginger is used in almost every postpartum dish for its great benefits (vitamin C, warming, fiber). Chicken soup includes protein, fiber, collagen, vitamins, minerals which are known to support the immune system. Wood ear fungus is believed to prevent bleeding and blood clotting. And cooked raw peanuts in Asian culture are used as a galactagogue (supportive of lactation)!
Red Egg and Ginger
Red Egg and Ginger celebration is an important milestone in Chinese tradition. It comes from the ancient times when infant mortality was high. The birth of a child wasn’t celebrated until he/she had reached 100 days old when it was believed the child was more likely to survive. The celebration was often held in a banquet style at home or in a restaurant with family members, relatives, friends, and neighbors. In this tradition, eggs represent fertility, birth and a renewal of life. Red, in Vietnamese and Chinese cultures, is a symbol of happiness and good fortune. And certainly, ginger is traditionally present in every postpartum dish.
The eggs are hard boiled and the shells are dyed in red color. The ginger is pickled. A plate of red eggs, in an even number for a boy and an odd number for a girl, and pickled ginger may be placed at the center of each party table for guests to take home for good luck. This is also a gesture for thanking the guests for coming and having blessed the new baby.
In celebration of the Asian American, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islanders (AANHPI) Breastfeeding Week, I would like to invite all to explore our postpartum cultures of heart-warming and delicious foods. I hope this speaks to new Asian parents who are far away from their homes, their families, postpartum and breastfeeding-supportive traditions; perhaps reading this will bring up good memories, and inspire them to reconnect with their own cultures so that these centuries-old traditions, which have always given us a sense of belonging and meaning, will continue to be passed on for generations to come.
This article was first published in August 2023 on the LLL USA website: https://lllusa.org/celebrate-aanhpi-week-asian-postpartum-food-traditions/