Strength through soup

Ancient Chinese making tonic soups

It comes as an existential shock, wint

er in China. It’s rather like the discovery of your first gray hair, signaling the creeping inevitability of old age. It could be the gooseflesh and suddenly cold floor on that early-morning trip to the toilet. Or the return of the arctic gust blasting down the subway stairs. Moments like these say that winter’s here, to kill off what’s left of the year, and any hope of outdoor happiness until next April.

The chilly optimism of winter wonderlanders dies easy in China. In northern metropoles, blue skies come at the price of non-stop Mongolian wind. Without it, a bone-aching gray malaise shrouds everywhere from Beijing to Lanzhou, colder and clammier than any bivalve in the Northern Sea. Expats generally work Christmas day, and China skiers find après ski consists of little more than baijiu cocktails around a coal stove. Only National Geographic photographers tracking the elusive Manchurian snow leopard see newly-white forests, or hear the solitary crunch of boots on virgin drift.

South of the Yangtze, winter is naturally less extreme, yet still torturous. Unheated apartments are the rule, from Shanghai to Kunming. And from November on, they are extra-moist shiver zones that necessitate going outside to warm up, regardless of space heaters or electric cushions.

But if this is depressing you, we have erred in our mission. Gloomy spirits will only sharpen your vulnerability to the swarming hosts of viruses and bacteria striving to turn your winter purgatory into living hell. With your colleagues coughing and sputtering into the office’s closed air system, and nostril-hunting spitters making every flat surface a petri dish of communicable illness, you need a line of defense.

Blocky multivitamins are advisable, for adding a rich color to your effluents. The Chinese, in lieu of overpriced supplements, have long relied on tonic soups to turn their bodies from microbe motels to temples of unassailable immunity. Here are four of our favorites.

Tianma Xinbaogu Jitang天麻杏鲍菇鸡汤

Not your Bubbe’s chicken soup, this Chinese version adds the xinbaogu mushroom and the herb tianma. The former has eighteen kinds of easily absorbable amino acids. The latter is famed for strengthening your vital Qi, digesting fat, and enhancing immunity. Add some ginger, and you have a powerful soup to keep you sniffle-free even after handling those horrid winter door-flaps hanging in market entrances.


10 g Tianma, 500 g Xinbaogu mushrooms, 1 chicken, 1 liter chicken stock, 1 medium ginger and shallot, 2 liters of water.


  1. Pre-soak the tianma for one hour, and wash the Xinbaogu mushrooms extra-well
  2. Pre-boil the chicken for five to ten minutes, for flavor
  3. In a large pot, mix all ingredients, including broth and water, and bring to a rapid boil. Remove the cover and boil another five minutes.
  4. Reduce heat and simmer for one hour. Add salt, pepper, and other seasonings to taste.

Xinjian Zhufei Tang剑猪肺汤

Your nasal passages are the frontline in the war on sickness. But as the lungs go, so goes the battle. Now you may have heard a pig squeal, but have you ever heard one cough? We didn’t think so. That’s why a hearty pig-lung soup, coupled with drying herbs such as Nanxin and Jianhua, will see you past New Year’s as phlegm-free as a prize hog.


12g Nanxinren, 30g dry Jianhua (250g if fresh), 2 sweet dates, 500g fresh pig lung.


  1. Wash pig lung thoroughly and slice thin.
  2. Dip Nanxinren in warm water to loosen skin, peel and wash, then wash Jianhua thoroughly.
  3. Place all ingredients in a pot (clay, if possible) and fill near to brim with water. Bring to a rapid boil, then simmer for one hour. Season to taste.

Shudi Danggui mutton soup熟地当归羊肉汤

Good health is in your blood. Danggui root is praised for purifying the blood, while the herbs Huangqi and Shudihuang will strengthen your kidneys for a revitalized yin/yang balance. Add a healthy portion of mutton, widely known for its warming, sustaining powers, and you have a tasty magic potion for warding off winter flu and fever.


700g Mutton, 30g Shudihuang, 15g Danggui, 30g Huangqi, 10g red dates, 10g ginger, 3g sugar, 2g salt.


  1. Wash and dice mutton, then briefly boil to get rid of excess blood.
  2. Place ingredients in a large pot with 1 kilo of water, and simmer on a low heat for three hours.
  3. Add dates, sugar, and salt; stir well and simmer for fifteen minutes.

Shasen Yuzhu Xianya Tang沙参玉竹蚬鸭汤

A sluggish stomach and bowel will slow your cold-fighting forces. Shasen and Yuzhu herbs provide a blast of Yin to clear away lung heat, and boost internal fluid levels. One-of-a-kind duck Xianya will take care of turning your stomach into a digestive furnace, invulnerable to whatever the cheapest street food in China can throw at it.


30g Beishasen, 30g Yuzhu, one Xianya duck


  1. Wash all ingredients thoroughly
  2. Place ingredients in a pot with one liter of water, bring to a boil, then simmer for one and a half hours.
  3. Season to taste.

Our deepest apologies if you live outside of China and the foregoing herbs are not readily available. If so, have home-made chicken soup at least twice a week and think warm thoughts.

Thanks to Qiaoyi Li for her research.

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5 Responses to Strength through soup

  1. Irish Gifts says:

    Those are some pretty different soups! I would probably pas on the mutton one as well as the one with pig lungs. Call me crazy…

  2. Ken says:

    yes. the good effect of tonic cannot be denied. was having poor digestion for quite some time, until i took some chinese herbal tonic soup, and problem is gone. the wonder of chinese herbalogist.

  3. Dang gui has been used as a tonic for blood and for regulating the menses, lubricates bowels to correct constipation, reduces swelling, expels pus, relieves pain.

  4. Profit Lance says:

    This stuff looks absolutely awesome! Thanks.

  5. I really think Americans need to re-discover the joy of soup.

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