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.
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.)
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.
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。
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。