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Tuesday, January 16, 2018

My hapless experiments with confinement cooking

When I had my baby, more than 30 years ago, I didn’t pay much heed to all the food restrictions and health tips that everybody else in Asia seems to be following. I considered myself a modern, emancipated woman who knew better than my elders what my body needed, and that included daily showers and hair washing although those were taboo. Now, perhaps, with hindsight, I should have paid more attention to all that advice, because my bones ache on rainy days, something the old wives warned about.

The Chinese have a long list of dos and don’ts to follow, beginning with keeping the mother’s body as warm as possible as it rids itself of toxins and prepares nourishment in the form of breast milk for the baby. So it’s lots of warming foods like ginger and sesame oil, nourishing chicken and other meats, and none of the cooling or toxic foods like shellfish, cabbage and a whole host of fruits.

When my niece told me she and her husband were expecting that second son this December, I offered to help out and I made the long journey to London in the dead of winter to cook her some meals as well as entertain their three and a half year old son.

Home-made rice wine
With little or no experience in the preparation of confinement food, I had to google what dishes I could prepare for the nursing mother, given that she also doesn’t eat red meat, and English supermarkets are limited in their offering of fresh vegetables in winter. My own experience of confinement food was limited to the chicken cooked in Chinese wine that my mother supplied me with for a month after I had my baby. I was advised that mothers should consume up to two chickens a day and by the end of that month, I had chicken coming out of my ears!

So for my niece, it was mainly chicken cooked in sesame oil with julienned ginger, and a drizzle of Chinese cooking wine. There were only so many permutations of this that I could come up with - claypot chicken rice,  or an addition of honey and soy sauce. I also whipped up chicken or fish congee, chicken noodle soup with lashings of sesame oil, fried noodles or rice. We cheated occasionally with some takeout meals  - grilled chicken for her, burgers for the rest of us.

I thought that to simplify life for the whole family, I would cook the same meals for everyone. It wasn’t only until I complained to a friend that I was coming down with a sore throat and cough that she admonished me, “you can’t eat the same confinement food as the nursing mother. That kind of food is very heaty. Her body can take it, but normal people will be overheated by it.” Oh, lightbulb moment. Even my niece's husband was complaining about a sore throat. So from then on, I just added the julienned ginger in sesame oil to my niece’s food.

It being winter, we didn’t go out much, and it was actually quite cosy being cocooned in the heated home, my cuddling the baby for comfort as much as warmth, and playing game after game with my grand nephew.

I did discover an app that some Chinese mothers in England had created offering to deliver confinement food and soups. That’s an innovative service that’s sure to catch on among young families who want to have all that nourishing food but don’t have the means to get it. I have even heard of parents who would fly out a confinement lady to care for the new mother and baby at great expense. I certainly can't cut it as a confinement lady myself. I did warn my niece about washing her hair and drinking cold drinks but I’m still as clueless as to what the rest of the dos and don’ts really are.

Stewed chicken with ginger and sesame oil
Ingredients
Chicken pieces
2 inches “old” ginger, julienned
2 cloves garlic, minced
4 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
2 tablespoons Chinese cooking wine
soy sauce to taste

Method
Heat sesame oil in a wok or pan.
Add the ginger and fry till golden.
Add the garlic and chicken pieces, and fry till fragrant.
Add the cooking wine and enough water to cover the chicken pieces.
Stew for about 10 minutes, covered, and add soy sauce to taste.

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