KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 29 — Rainy days and rainy nights. Lovely in the beginning, when the cool weather is what we need after months of heat and humidity. But past the first week or so of constant downpour, the chill and the damp gets to you.
Your body needs warming up. Your spirits too, if you’re being honest. (All that rain can be quite the downer.)
This is when we start craving hot foods and hot liquids. Whether a bowl of “soul soup” enriched with mushrooms and fried shallots or a slow-braised lamb stew with fall-off-the-bone meat, there’s nothing more comforting than something you can sip, slurp and barely chew.
Of course, when the rain lasts a good deal longer than we’d like, perhaps a dish with more staying power is preferable. A warmth that persists, down to our bones and our marrow, to the depths of our very being.
Chinese herbs come to mind, from the ghost white tiles of fúshén (which may have a calming effect and improve digestion) to dǎngshēn (codonopsis root, which may reduce gastric ulcers caused by stress).
Simmered slowly in a soup or stew and these medicinal herbs can nourish and heal; they’ll certainly keep us warm.
Taken further, the ancient Chinese believe that certain types of food are yin and cooling while others are yang and more warming. Duck belongs to the former while ginger falls under the latter category, so we have a clue as to where to start, both an inkling and an inspiration.
Chinese herbs, duck and ginger: ingredients for a balancing soup, surely, or a stew.
We imagine what it will taste like: sweet and pungent, deeper flavours than we are used to. Every sip of the broth would be like miraculous manna, promising to reset our body and return it to balance.
A cynic would consider this confinement food, and maybe they’re not far off the mark. Isn’t the confinement period traditionally a time to restore the body back to strength, and with it the mind and the heart as well?
Rainy days and rainy nights. What a pity if we aren’t in the right frame of mind and body to appreciate these to the fullest. With spoonful after spoonful of a warming elixir, we would be.
Duck, ginger and herbs. Rain, life and bliss once more.
OLD GINGER DUCK STEW
Known as jiāng mǔ yā (姜母鴨) in Mandarin or literally “Ginger Mother Duck”, this dish is believed to have originated in southern Fujian. Today the slow braised herbal duck stew is a classic dish in Taiwan, where it is typically made with Muscovy ducks (also known as the red-faced duck due to red wattles around their bills).
Despite its name, the dish doesn’t require solely female ducks; the phrase jiāng mǔ refers to “the mother root of ginger” or what we recognise as old ginger. So a more accurate translation would be old ginger duck stew.
Where the traditional Chinese herbs are concerned, ingredients such as gǎoběn (Ligusticum sinense), which purportedly helps prevent colds, and dāngguī (Angelica sinensis), which replenishes the blood, are commonly employed.
Quite honestly, it’s easier to find a packet of Chinese herbal soup herbs in the supermarket or traditional Chinese medicine shop. The latter, especially, can be a learning experience if you strike up a conversation with the staff as they can advise or recommend the appropriate herb blend for your needs.
If nothing else, you’d be able to try a different herbal flavour every time you try this recipe. There’s a certain element of surprise and perhaps no small measure of delight in that.
Having said that, I always add red dates and goji berries even if the herbal packet I purchase already contains them; these two ingredients add a lovely natural sweetness that pairs well with the taste of duck meat.
Rainy days can make us feel down and all sedentary; the high iron content in duck meat (higher than even beef!) and the beneficial properties of dāngguī may improve our blood circulation and hopefully get us up and going again.
500 gm duck meat (e.g. breast or bone-in thighs, depending what is available)
5-6 tablespoons sesame oil
3-4 large pieces of old ginger, smashed
1.5 litres water
1 packet mixed Chinese herbs (preferably for ginger duck stew; ask for it at your local Chinese medicine shop)
3-4 dried shiitake mushrooms (rehydrated earlier by soaking in water)
A handful of dried black/wood-ear fungus (rehydrated earlier by soaking in water)
6 red dates
A handful of goji berries
6 tablespoons Chinese rice wine (e.g. Shaoxing)
1 tablespoon dark soy sauce
1 tablespoon light soy sauce
2 tablespoons brown sugar
Few slices of pork liver (optional)
Salt and white pepper powder, to taste
Fresh cilantro leaves, for garnishing
Blanch the pieces of duck meat in boiling water, drain and set aside.
Heat up the sesame oil in a wok or large pot. Using high heat, sauté the pieces of smashed ginger till the aroma is released.
Once the ginger is aromatic, reduce the heat to medium and add the pieces of blanched duck meat. Fry for 4-5 minutes before adding the water. Bring to a boil.
Once the water has reached a boil, add the packet of mixed Chinese herbs, rehydrated shiitake mushrooms and black fungus, red dates, and goji berries. Allow to come to a boil again before lowering the heat and simmering for half an hour.
After half an hour of simmering, add the seasoning — the Chinese rice wine, dark soy sauce, light soy sauce and brown sugar. Bring to a boil again, then simmer for a further 30-40 minutes until the the duck meat is tender and the braising liquids has reduced and thickened.
About 5 minutes before serving, if desired. you may add a few pieces of pork liver to the stew so it may briefly cook without becoming tough. Check for taste and season with salt and white pepper powder before turning off the heat.
Serve in warm bowls and garnish with fresh cilantro leaves.
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