The soup was black as ink with grease gleaming on top of it. A strong, bizarre aroma like a burning forest wafted up; we children claimed it was disgusting. Black shouldn’t be the color of the soup, and soup shouldn’t be bitter. Dad said sternly, “Eat it! This chicken soup is the most nutritious thing in the world!” We had to pinch our noses before bringing it into our mouths. “It tastes like medicine!” We groaned. My parents didn’t compromise. They made sure the precious ingredients were guzzled down into our stomachs. This dish, Black Chicken Soup, was a well-known remedy for patients who were recovering from illness , or elders for supplementing nutrition. However, in my family, it was a regular on the table.

My siblings and I were all much taller compared to other kids the same ages, and my neighbors swore they knew why. When the soup was boiling on the stove, the rich aroma would lure my neighbors into our kitchen because all the residents’ back doors opened to the shared courtyard. They opened the lid, observed the pot admiringly, then drew a deep breath before letting go a long sigh, “How delicious it looks and smells! No wonder you raise this many giants!” They ignored the fact that my parents, who both measured 5 feet 9, had passed the genes to us, and firmly believed this rare high protein black chicken enhanced with herbs contributed to our plus-size skeletons. (I, the shortest one in the family, had reached 5 feet 6 tall when I was 12 years old.)

Chinese people believe black bone chicken 烏骨雞 is the best source of nutrition. However, if it doesn’t go with many kinds of herbs which supply “Yuan Qi and Blood Qi 元氣和血氣” – energy and blood – it’s not as powerful to resist all diseases. My parents must be the true believer of the theory. They bought herbs from the traditional Chinese herb shop, where the items were drawn from some cells out of hundreds of others within the wooden cabinet standing at the back of the counter, then measured with a delicate Chinese herb scale. The shopkeeper pinched the herb in and out of the metal plate hung with the thin strings attached to a long wooden arm that had numbers carved. He moved a bell shape weight closer or farther from the pivot where he held with a metal chain until the lever was balanced. Then, he wrapped the mixed herb into a big square brown paper. Not only was I fascinated by the picking and weighing of many weird forms of dry herbs, but also wished I could carry the full house of thick sweet and bitter scent home.  

Mom put the whole chicken and herbs in a big pot filled with water, then cooked it for 2 or 3 hours with moderate heat. If ignoring the medicine-like taste, the chicken meat was very tender, juicy and full of flavor. My parents’ favorites were the head and feet because they like the skin, tendon, and brain which was as soft as tofu. I first thought it was the chicken that blackened the soup, but later my parents told me the herb called 熟地 (Rehmannia glutinosa) was the one made the color. The most famous herb soups are either “Four Herbs Soup 四物湯”, or “Ten Herbs Soup 十全湯.” I couldn’t check in fact which one was my parents’ regular recipe, but according to my memory, it was probably the Ten Herbs Soup because I liked to observe the bottom of the soup where I found leaves, roots, vines, seeds, and many other things.  

I now learned that the black bone chicken owns a beautiful name “silkie” for its fluffy, soft silky fur. Hens are broody and often hatched eggs for other birds. Also, it is calm and friendly, good as a children’s pet. The knowledge about the chicken’s character could spoil our dietary desire, but my parents never went beyond the concept of chicken was just food when they offered the food. As for the kids, we consumed it dutifully to fulfill their wish.

Although women after labor had to be fed chicken soup cooked in sesame oil, alcohol and ginger for 30 days, a white chicken could meet the requirement. This dish must be more costly.  Was my family more well off than others? Not at all! My father’s job as a government employee earned only enough for covering basic need such as food, clothing, and utilities. I remember overhearing my parents’ conversation about borrowing money from my grandma, who owned a store selling rice in a small town, for paying tuition when our schools started. However, my dad, the only breadwinner of the family, always placed nutritious food as the priority of the household spending.  

Phenomenally, the children all grew up tall and strong – range from 5’6 to 6’1,and weighed 120 to 180 lb. – but most importantly, we were very healthy. At that time, visiting doctors or dentists was not in our minds because there was no need for it. My parents gave us a popular over-the-counter medicine for cold, and that was it.

I can’t give all the credit to this chicken soup for our healthy physique, but the food really had nourished our young bodies, and still, it continues to gratify my memory.

Recipe

Ingredients:

A whole black chicken, about 2 pounds (You can find it in Chinese grocery store.)

Herbs for making Ten Herbs Soup 十全湯  (The Chinese herbs store will make the mix of ten-herb package for you.)

Fresh Ginger — about a 2-finger piece.

Cooking alcohol — 2 cups

Salt — make your own choice

Water — 1 gallon (You can add or reduce it depends on your choice.)

Method:

Put all the ingredients into the big pot, cook it over moderate heat for about 2 hours.

You can also steam the soup. Steaming it makes the liquid very clear.  

那湯的顏色黑得像墨汁一樣,上面還浮着一層亮閃閃 的油光,再加上那一股強烈的,像火燒森林般的焚焦味道,把我們孩子們的臉都拉垮下來。太噁心了!那有湯汁是黑的?而且還苦得要命!爸爸板著臉嚴厲地命令道:「這是世界上最營養的食物,你們一定要把它全吃掉!」我們大聲抗議:「好像吃藥一樣啊!」我爸媽可不理會我們,監督著大家把那碗裡的珍貴食材全部吞食下肚。這道湯品是專給病人加快復元,或年老者增加營養的出名補藥湯。但是在我家,這湯倒是經常出現在餐桌上。

我家的孩子們比別人家同齡小孩都要高大,我的鄰居們都說他們知道為什麼會這樣。因為我們幾個人家的後門都朝著中庭廣開著,大家可以方便進出彼此的廚房。每當這道藥膳湯在我們家的爐頭上燉著時,那股濃烈的味道就把鄰居招引進了我們廚房。他們打開了鍋蓋,朝裡面仔細審查一番,深深地吸口氣之後,便長長地嘆氣下評論說:「這雞湯太香了,這麽常吃,難怪你養了一班巨人!」他們沒考慮到我爸媽都是175公分以上的長人,這時刻他們把遺傳基因丟一邊不管,說我們家孩子高頭大馬的身架,都要全歸功給這烏骨雞藥膳湯。(我是家人中長得最矮的一個,但是我12歲的時候,已經168公分高了。)

中國人深信烏骨雞是最好的營養品,但是,它如果不配上各種草藥一起燉煮,就起不了補氣補血的功用,也就不能完全抵擋疾病。我的爸媽一定很相信這個理論,他們經常上中藥舖去抓藥方。在那中藥店裡,店員從高大厚重的藥櫥中,打開一個個的小抽屜,拿出來各種不同的草藥,再用一把木製長柄的小秤去秤重量。那店員仔細的捏一小撮藥草,一一放上一個金屬小盤,在他放進放出的當時,就把一個小秤鎚移近移遠的,直到他提著的秤桿在中軸的兩邊都平衡了,那就是對的份量了,於是他就把草藥倒在一張紙上。都量好了,藥就被包在一張褐色的大方紙上。我不僅對這挑三揀四,秤斤論兩的過程感到特別有興趣,也很希望能把那滿屋子的藥香也帶回家去。

媽媽把一隻全雞和藥草放進裝滿水的大鍋,便用中火在爐上慢慢熬煮,二或三小時之後,藥味雞香四溢,就可吃了。如果不在意藥草的苦味,雞肉可真的是鮮嫩有汁,很香甜。中國人最有名的藥膳湯是叫「四物湯」,或「十全湯」。我不知道那一帖是我爸媽最常做的,但是根據我的猜測,可能是「十全湯」。因為我老喜歡仔細地審查那鍋湯,除了雞骨頭外,裡面還有各色各樣的樹葉,樹根,種子,枝藤等等,和其他不可辨識的東西,一大堆都沈在鍋底。

我現在才知道烏骨雞原來有一個很美麗的名字 — 「絲羽」。原因是它們的羽毛很細密而蓬鬆,像絲一樣。它們的母雞很盡職,喜歡孵蛋,所以還常常會去替別的雞種孵蛋。而它們的性格很友善,溫和,很適合給孩子們做寵物雞。明暸雞的特色,個性可能會把我們對雞肉的喜愛給抹煞掉,但是我的父母在提供這道食品的時候,從來不曾灌輸我們任何超出了「雞就是食物」這樣的基本觀念。對我們孩子來說,我們吃掉爸媽提供的食品,也是盡責負責地滿足了父母對我們的期待。

根據中國傳統風俗,生育後的婦女得要吃三十天的麻油薑酒燉雞湯,然而這道補品,也只要是平常的雞就可以應付了。這烏骨雞湯一定比別的雞湯還要貴的。是不是我的家庭比別人家還要富有呢?一點也不是!我父親是在政府公家機關上班的職員,他的薪水只夠供一家的基本花費,比如食物,衣服,和水電開銷等。我曾經不經意地聽到爸媽們在談著要去向在斗六小鎮經營米舖的外婆借錢,因為學校開學了,他們的錢不夠給付我們眾多孩子的上學註冊費。但是,我家只靠爸爸一人賺錢,在經濟並不富足的情況下,爸爸總還是把提供營養的食物放在家庭花費中最重要的地位。

我們家的孩子果真都長得很「壯觀」。身高從168 公分直到185 公分,體重從55公斤到82公斤。但是其實最重要的是,我們都很健康。小時候,我們不用談論看醫生,看牙醫這些事,因為根本就沒這需要。我們家常備的藥品是叫「傷風克」的藥丸子,這是應付感冒的成藥,在藥房就可以買得到。

我不應該把家人健康的身體都完全歸功給這道烏骨雞藥膳湯,但是這道菜真的滋補了我們一家人,給我們幼小的身體打下了一個好基礎,現在,也還繼續地潤養著我的童年回憶。

 

Categories: Memoir

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *