My Grandmas Used to Make Me Drink This Soup Growing Up — But Not for the Reason You Think
Their homemade broth was good for more than just my health.
Weekends at my grandparents' house were mostly spent at the kitchen table. I can remember my grandma shuffling all her grandchildren into the kitchen, waving her ladle in one hand while a huge pot sat on the stove simmering and boiling away. The strong aroma of an assortment of herbs would fill the room, letting you know exactly what you’d be eating in the next couple of minutes.
We sat clustered around a tiny table, giggling and poking each other in the ribs while we waited for each porcelain, patterned bowl to be filled to the brim with a familiar Chinese herbal soup. For as long as I can remember, my grandma on both my mom's and dad's side would make this traditional broth whenever we would visit them. As kids, this mysterious soup was never appetizing to us. Sometimes we would have to be hilariously dragged into the kitchen! Other times we would even be bribed to finish our bowl! Both my grandmas had hawk eyes though — and would stand over us, never letting anyone leave the table until the broth was finished.
Because they served the soup piping hot (straight from the stove!!!) it would take a VERY LONG time for us to drink it. Being a kid and having no patience at all, it would sometimes feel like hours passed while we were sitting at that table. And all we ever wanted to do was run out of the kitchen and start playing! One of my cousins even thought of a genius way to drink it: through a straw so it would go down quickly without burning our tongues. Another cleverly poured it into a plastic cup and drank it like a soft drink. The trick was to drink it fast...but not too fast. You didn’t want to be the very first one done for fear that grandma would give you the leftovers (more for you to drink) and you definitely didn’t want to be the last to finish. That meant you would be the only one at the table, all alone, watching your other cousins get up from the table and have fun!
The herbal soup that both my grandmothers made was basically a chicken-based broth. Sometimes it would taste terribly bitter and other days it would just taste like a normal soup — depending on the seasoning and what was added to it. I can still remember the distinctive amber color and the murky remnants of the herbs and spices that sank to the bottom of the bowl. Not only did we have to drink all the broth, but we had to eat what was left at the bottom of the bowl — shriveled up herbs and all. I always thought that they looked like a bunch of mashed up twigs and mushrooms, like something you would find on the ground in the woods. But I gulped them down, just like my cousins, for the sake of our grandparents.
In reality, these herbs that my grandmas would include in their cooking were easy to find at local Chinese supermarkets and served as a source of nutrients and flavor. Slices of ginger, American ginseng (hua qi shen) or Korean ginseng (gao li), goji berries (gou qi), codonopsis roots (dang shen) and the notorious Golden Lion Dried Ziziphus Jujuba Mill (a.k.a. dried red dates or hong zao).
I never realized what went into these soups (or the amount of work they required) until years later when I finally asked. I learned that my grandmas would start cooking the night before our visit, often spending 4-5 hours boiling chicken, draining the water, putting water back in the pot and boiling the chicken again — and on repeat. Throughout this whole process they would also check up on the soup every so often and use a spoon to skim the fat that rose to the surface of the bowl so it was as healthy as they could make it. It was a labor of love.
What always struck me the most about their soups was how adamant they were about us drinking it. It was important to them because it was their way of caring for us. They believed it was a soup for good health! I remember when I was little and asked why we had to drink it. They give me numerous answers throughout the years. “It’s good for your skin.” “It’s good for your eyes!” “Do you want to be as strong as me? Then drink the soup!”
I didn’t realize it back then, but they weren’t that far from the truth. Learning about up each ingredient that they used has shown me that the soup was chock-full of nutrients that can help boost immunity and prevent common fevers and colds.
Later, as we got older and went away to college, they would sometimes cook up big batches for us (and freeze them in takeout containers) so that we could drink them on our own time. I remember when I would go home for breaks during the school year, my grandmas would come over to visit and one of them would whip out an old, glass peanut canister from her purse. The jar was, of course, filled with her soup — that she would heat up so that we could drink it in front of her!
Living on my own and cooking for myself has not only reestablished my own love for food but also takes me back to the meals and recipes that I grew up with and those memories that come with them. Now that I can recreate a dish like my grandmas’ soup, I wonder what kind of food I can make to pass onto my own family when I’m older. Will I be just as detailed as them? Will I create something as unique and long-lasting? I have lots of time to figure that out — but I can start to experiment with their recipes, trying new ones like Food Network Kitchen’s Chicken Broth or playing around with this 6 Bone Broth Mix-Ins. And maybe one day I'll create a recipe to call my own.
It’s been years since I had a bowl of their soup, but I can still remember all the nostalgic smells, the laughter and the clinking of our spoons and bowls. And now, with a greater understanding of what went into the soup and an appreciation for all the love that was put into it, I realize how much it meant that we drank it for them. Whether it was a chore, a ritual or a family tradition to us — it was all love to them.