When I was discharged from Taipei Adventist Hospital after the birth of my second son, we asked the nurse what food we should eat when we got home. ‘Fish soup,’ she replied. ‘That’s the best for helping mothers increase their milk supply.’
Chinese postpartum confinement (坐月子, zuò yuè zi) diet has been developed over centuries. It is designed to help new mothers recover their vitality after child birth, and also to assist in lactation. Fish soup is a favourite zuo yuezi food with seafood-loving Taiwanese. And after making it for lunch today, I was happily surprised to discover how easy it is to put together.
The first step is to secure fresh ingredients, especially good quality fish. Zuo yuezi is not the time to scrimp on produce. But luckily for me, the freshly caught perch (鱸魚, lúyú) that I purchased at the local wet market was ideal for making soup. Other medium-large sized fish such as cod or carp are also good for making fish soup. The fishmonger kindly scaled and sliced the fish for me into large pieces, retaining the all-important head and tail.
While at the markets I also purchased a medium-sized green papaya. Fish soup is still nutritious and effective for zuo yuezi purposes without green papaya, but its lactogenic effect is great enhanced if you include it. This is because green papaya contains oxytocin, a key hormone that aids in producing breast milk. (It can also induce labour during pregnancy for the same reason, so eat with caution.)
Two key Chinese herbs are usually added to this soup: Chinese dates (紅棗, hóngzǎo), and Chinese wolfberries (枸杞, gǒuqǐ, aka gou qi berries). These two herbs are traditionally used together, although it is not essential to pair them. I didn’t have any Chinese dates left so I only used gouji berries.
The soup also uses rice wine and sesame oil, two key ingredients in zuo yuezi cuisine. According to my confinement nanny, a woman should begin eating rice wine only from the eighth day of birth onwards. I am not sure what the basis of this rule is. But to avoid passing on alcohol to your baby via breast milk, make sure that the soup boils so that the alcohol in the rice wine evaporates.
Fish soup (魚湯, yú tāng)
1/2 medium sized fish such as perch
1/4 green papaya
3cm knob of ginger, peeled
pinch of salt (optional, zuo yuezi food contains little or no salt)
5 to 6 Chinese dates (hongzao)
2 tablespoons Chinese wolfberries (gouji berries)
2 generous tablespoons rice wine
toasted black sesame oil (for serving)
2 tablespoons chopped shallots (for serving)
- Wash the fish and set aside. Peel and slice the ginger, and slice the green papaya into match sized pieces.
- Bring around two liters of water to the boil (adjust depending on the amount of fish). Add the ginger to the water as it boils, along with the pinch of salt (if using).
- Once the water heats up and is nearly boiling, add the green papaya, Chinese dates and Chinese wolfberries.
- Once the water boils, add the fresh fish. It is important that you include at least one bony bit (i.e. the fish head or the fish tail) along with the other fleshier bits. Add a slurp of rice wine (if using) and half of the shallots.
- Boil gently for around ten minutes until the fish is just cooked. Ladle into bowls and top with sesame oil and extra shallots. This soup is best consumed when freshly made, but can be refrigerated and eaten again the next day.