When I first heard that pork knuckles and peanut soup (花生豬腳) was served to women during their Chinese postpartum confinement (坐月子, zuo yuezi), it was enough to make my stomach churn. But there are benefits, in moderation, to this traditional dish. And once you get past all the fat, the slow-cooked pork meat is mouth-meltingly good.
Pork knuckles and peanut stew, along with sesame chicken and fish soup, is one of the most well-known zuo yuezi dishes. This dish is best known for helping lactating mothers to increase their milk supply, and while diet is no substitute for regular feeding or expressing, it works. Really. As odd as it sounds, these pork hocks are not too bad and, eaten in moderation, can assist in post-birth recovery.
Taiwanese love pork knuckles. I often see them on menus everywhere, either stewed in glistening fat or baked German style with sauerkraut. The first time I saw this fatty dish, served on a hot summers’ day, I nearly gagged at the sight of rich folds of pig skin and trotter fingers in their fatty broth. Then I watched in disbelief as Mr Taiwanxifu devoured a bowl of it. Then some more.
Later someone told me that this dish was often served to mothers during zuo yuezi. “Yuck”, I thought. “There is no way I would ever eat this dish or offal after pregnancy.” So when I decided to go through the zuo yuezi ritual after having my second son, I was scared that I would be served pigs trotters and peanuts with every meal.
But my Chinese postpartum doula (yuepo) never cooked it for me, and once after a friend gifted some, suggested that I refrain from eating it. “This dish is great for recovery, but it doesn’t suit your constitution,” she said, looking at my generously rounded figure. And she was right. Six months’ after giving birth, I discovered that I have high cholesterol. I am not sure it was because I overindulged in all that nourishing zuo yuezi food, or perhaps more likely over-ate during pregnancy. Or maybe, as a well-meaning colleague advised, I am just getting old.
That said, for a new mother who is weak after childbirth and struggling to produce milk, this dish is one of the best tonics you can have. In moderation, all that pork fat and tissue — which contains collagen – is excellent for rejuvenating skin and joints. Slowly stewed, the pork meat is tantalizingly tender. (Perhaps stewed pork trotters might even catch on back in Australia one day soon in the same way that the once overlooked lamb shanks have become a rediscovered gourmet treat. In fact, Nigella Lawson does a beer-braised version of pork knuckles.)
And the peanuts are an important ingredient, because they are high in iron and Vitamin E: both good for healing and recovery after childbirth. Cooked peanuts are especially prized in the zuo yuezi diet for helping improve lactation, and I assume this is for good reason. (It certainly worked in my case.)
As odd as it sounds, I have wanted to learn how to cook this dish for some time. A friend at work recently had a daughter, and this gave me the perfect opportunity to try my culinary skills. I think my friend was initially confused about why I would opt to cook such a traditional Chinese dish for his wife, but once he saw it realised that I actually did understand (something) about zuoyuezi. And hopefully he understood that my gesture was well-meaning.
I cooked this dish in a slow-cooker, which is the ideal way to stew large chunks of meat (especially leg meat) to ensure they are tender. But most Chinese cooks don’t have slow-cookers, and instead boil this dish on the stove or in a rice-cooker. Do what is easiest and most convenient for you.
1 whole pork trotter (around 2.2kg), cut into pieces
1 cup raw, unsalted peanuts (without skins)
6 cups water
1 packet Chinese stewing spices (star anise, cinnamon, cloves mace — substitute 2 whole star anise if you can’t find this)
3 cm ginger, chopped
Chinese herbs — around 10g of Huang Qi (黃耆, astragalus) and 2 pieces Zhi Can Cao (炙甘草 honey-fried licorice root)
- Cover the peanuts with water and soak for several hours or overnight.
- Ask your butcher to remove any remaining hair and chop the pork hock into pieces.
- Check over the pork trotters and remove any remaining fur with tweezers. Wash in cold water.
- Bring a large saucepan of water to the boil. Add the pork trotters and cook briefly to scald. (This will help to wash the pork trotters and ensure that the finished stew is clear and doesn’t have grey ‘scum’ on the surface). Drain, discard the water and add the pork trotters to the slow cooker.
- Drain the water from the peanuts and add to the slow cooker. Add the water, stewing spices, ginger and Chinese herbs (if using). Set the slow cooker to ‘automatic’ and cook for around six hours or until the meat begins to fall from the bone. Serve with rice.
- Note: I have not added any salt to this recipe, as the zuo yuezi diet is low-sodium. If you are serving to other members of the family feel free to add salt or soy sauce.
- Note: the Chinese herbs are commonly used during zuo yuezi. But it is best to check with your Traditional Chinese Medicine practioner before using, to ensure that it is suitable for you. I have attached some photos below for reference.