Did you know that in Taiwan there is a company that delivers specially prepared meals to new mothers daily, rain, hail, typhoon or even Chinese New Year? And that they tailor all meals for mothers undergoing traditional Chinese postpartum confinement (zuo yuezi), using principles developed by a Japanese-educated female Chinese doctor?
Actually, there are several — in fact hundreds — of companies doing Chinese postpartum confinement (zuo yuezi) business, but some are better than others. I was privileged to recently visit the headquarters of Windmill (fēngchē, 風車), an authentic provider of zuo yuezi food. Windmill is a family-run business founded by the godmother of zuo yuezi, Chuang Shu-chi (莊淑旂, in pinyin Zhuāngshūqí).
Dr Chuang was the first female Chinese doctor in Taiwan, a tenacious lady who overcame hardship in her youth to go on to complete her PhD in medicine in Japan and become a health advisor to the Japanese Empress Michiko. In Japan, she is most commonly known as the ‘godmother of cancer prevention’ for her work into promoting a lifestyle that reduces cancer. And she has written extensively on a range of health issues, including on zuo yuezi. Her book ‘The Way of Sitting the Month’ (坐月子的方法) published twenty years ago has become a classic must-read about how to do zuo yuezi properly. And her writings have instilled the importance of the zuo yuezi ritual in expectant mothers by merging traditional Chinese postpartum care with modern medical theory and practice. Her writings on zuo yuezi are so influential that they have encouraged a multi-million dollar zuo yuezi industry.
When Windmill started 18 years ago, there was no real zuo yuezi industry in Taiwan (or indeed in China). In addition to writing, Chuang would conduct classes about aspects of the zuo yuezi practice. Her ‘business’ started out as a classroom with a small teaching kitchen that was used to demonstrate how to cook zuo yuezi foods. The demand for her services grew and grew, and gradually people started to ask her if she would be able to cook and deliver zuo yuezi meals.
Windmill, a zuo yuezi delivery service, was born. But the road to today’s model has taken its twists and turns. Chuang’s daughter and son-in-law, both doctors, originally ran the business on a part-time basis. When it got too much, they hired a professional manager, but that didn’t work out so the business shut down for a while. But then, they decided to start up again and run it as a family business. Now it has grown and although they hire staff to cook, deliver, teach and do marketing, the family touch is evident.
At Windmill I met with Jenny, one of Chuang’s granddaughters. Herself a mother of two, she is elegant and glowing with health, an advertisement for the benefits of looking after your health through zuo yuezi. With US post-graduate degrees in architecture and urbanism, Jenny never expecting to return to Taiwan to work in the family’s zuo yuezi business.
Of course, Jenny ate Windmill zuo yuezi dishes after the birth of both of her two children. “From doing zuo yuezi myself I understood that it actually works — in a weird way,” she said. She encourages women to try to follow the zuo yuezi practice, despite the difficulties, because of its effectiveness. Her advice to mothers undergoing zuo yuezi is to tell themselves, “I am resting. It is all for the future. If I take care of myself for only one month, it will be worth it for my future health.”
The Windmill meal service consists of six dishes a day: breakfast, lunch, dinner and three snacks. The menu is based on the principles of providing ‘warming’ (yang) or ‘neutral’ (ping) foods according to Traditional Chinese Medicine principles. They also try to incorporate up to ten different colours of foods each day to provide antioxidants. Like most zuo yuezi foods, they try to incorporate the key ingredients of rice wine, ginger and sesame oil. Many of their dishes use a type of water distilled from alcohol (three bottles of rice wine is boiled down to make one bottle of rice wine).
Windmill provides different foods depending on whether a woman had a vaginal birth or caesarean section. This is because a woman’s body reacts in different ways depending on her birth experience. For example, red bean soup is a common dish for new mothers (it helps with restoring the blood and constipation, amongst other things). But too many legumes are not good for women who have had a caesarean as they get gassy easily. Similarly, women who have had a vaginal birth can start eating sesame oil almost right away after birth but women who have had caesarean are advised to wait a little longer. Jenny said that they usually advise women to start eating special foods to ‘adjust’ their health if they know they will be electing for a caesarean.
The zuo yuezi diet, based on Dr Chuang Shu-chi’s principles, is a four-week gradual program. During the first eight days, the focus is on cleaning out the uterus and eliminating any toxins. Many of the foods and medicines are designed to help the uterus to contract quickly and cleanly. Windmill also recommends certain Chinese herbal preparations, such as the famous ‘sheng hua tang’ herbal concoction. During this phase, it is not uncommon for a woman to sweat a lot due to all the warm foods and alcohol she is consuming.
I should add that it is normal for many women to experience night sweats after birth. My experience during zuo yuezi with my second son is that zuo yuezi diet exacerbates this effect. Every night, I would lay down a towel over my pillow and sheets and every morning it would be drenched in sweat. The sweating was not at all enjoyable, but I did find it incredibly useful for getting rid of fluid retention. Perhaps this was the real secret reason that my one month post-baby weight was 13kg lighter than before birth.
During the second week, the focus is on recovering the ‘kidney energy’. I remember eating bowlfuls of kidney soup every morning during this phase; while I would not go out of my way to go back to eating kidney soup again, actually it wasn’t too bad. Jenny said that many women can experience sore waists during their second week after childbirth, as the waist and kidney are linked. Windmill recommends women eat a type of black Chinese medicine known in English as Eucommia Bark and in Chinese as 杜仲 (dùzhòng).
During the third week, the focus is on nourishing the blood and building qi energy (補血補氣, bǔxuè bǔ qì). By this time, women have recovered sufficiently to be able to absorb more nutrious foods.
And during the final week, the focus is on anti-ageing (預防老化, yùfáng lǎohuà). Many people have told me that if you do zuo yuezi properly you will be beautiful in your old age. This is difficult to prove empirically, but in general many non-Asians find it difficult to guess the age of older Taiwanese women (with most estimates years or decades younger than reality). While there are undoubtedly a range of diet, lifestyle and genetic factors involved the zuo yuezi regime and diet could also well be a key factor.
And many of the drinks and other dishes contain ingredients such as Chinese red dates that are useful for helping detoxify the body after use of pain relievers such as an epidural. They encourage women to drink a tea every day made from seven dates cooked with 280 ml of rice wine. For lactation, they encourage drinking certain soups such as fish soups, black fungus etc of an evening.
Taste testing a meal
So what do the meals taste like? I was able to sample the lunch of the day (or at least, one of the many lunches that they prepare.) And the dishes were surprisingly tasty despite not containing any salt. From left to right there is white rice mixed with scallop and carrots, topped with black sesame (拌飯, bàn fàn). The evening meal uses a brown rice mix (whole grains are a staple in the zuo yuezidiet). But windmill likes to mix up the carbs to give a bit more variety. The other white carb on this menu was thin rice noodles (麵線, miàn xiàn) . The rice noodles are easy to digest, and are designed to be eaten with the soupy chicken dish (more to come about that). The stir-fried dish at the front was chicken with green soybeans, carrots and potatoes: a simple but nutritious dish.
The chicken soup you can see in the middle is the famous zuo yuezi dish in Taiwan: sesame chicken soup. Windmill’s version uses their own custom-made dried ginger. Jenny eats it by itself as a snack, and I found myself sneaking a few tastes as well. On the right was a bowl of healthy black sesame congee with Chinese wolfberries (goji berries). And finally, there was a detoxifying tea made with red dates.
Windmill meals are delivered door-to-door daily by a team of female staff members, 365 days a year. Each meal is set is tailored for its recipient, so takes into account dietary restrictions, preferences and the type of birth the woman had. They also provide vegetarian meals. Windmill also markets some products, including Chinese herbs, for sale overseas.