Everyone seems to have gone through an ewww-I-don't-wanna-eat-my-vegetables phase at some point during their childhood. Everyone, that is, except me. Growing up, it was my mother's fix-all magical herbal soup that elicited the chastising line, "You're not leaving the table until you finish."
Eyes shut, the last bite of my meal on standby, index and thumb clenched tightly around my nose, I would rapidly gulp down the concoction, doing all I could to ignore the bitter, revolting flavor. Immediately followed by a loud and victorious groan as I wiped the last drops from my lips.
She brewed the soup once a week without fail, in pots large enough to hydrate my family of four twice a day (as you can imagine, fridge space was always an issue). My mother was very creative when it came to responding to whines and wails. "Look at your lips! So dry!"; "You have cold sore? Drink soup!"; "You want nice skin?"; and yes, even, "You want boyfriend?!"
But the moments I dreaded most were when she'd offer the dark, mysterious liquid to my friends—especially during my tween years, when everything my mother did seemed to embarrass me in one way or another. Cringing in protest, I'd watch in half sympathy, half hysteria as my friends politely accepted a bowl and tried to control their composure. My mother would stand on the sidelines, smiling and saying, "See! It's good!" Okay, Mom.
In my household, the soup is referred to as tong, a general Chinese term for soup. To my surprise, it's never given a metaphorical name involving phoenixes, emperors, the word "superior," or some godly reference. Deep brown, watery, and mildly tonic, it's a critical element of the daily Chinese meal—at least according to my mother—believed to bring nourishment, encourage the maintenance of good health, and ensure longevity. The soup is mainly used as a neutralizer, treating bodies that suffer from yeet hay, or excessive internal heat resulting from a diet high in spicy and fatty foods.
The soup's vague name is probably due to the fact that no one besides the chef really knows what's in it. It's versatile and made up of literally any and every dried form of root, sea creature (I will forever be scarred by the memory of finding a bag of dried seahorses in the herb cabinet), or vegetable. On trips to Hong Kong, we'd accumulate bags of miscellaneous and questionable dried goods, not to mention countless Chinese gossip magazines—essentials for every Chinese person who lives overseas. We were quite a sight at airport customs.
To an outsider, the ingredients seem like an overwhelmingly random jumble. But they're all selected for their contributions to yin and yang, selected to create balance in the body in accordance to traditional Chinese medicine. Here are my mother's go-tos:
Tangerine peels become flaky when dried, with a distinct bitter odor and taste. According to my mother, they cure viruses and kill bacteria, with a warming property that aids digestion and stimulates circulation.
Adenophora Root is used to sooth dry coughs and brings moisture to the throat. Unlike tangerine peels, it has a cooling property. If my mother saw a single flake or crack on my lips, she'd throw these roots into her soup.
I always found the hollow and feather light luo han guo (monk fruit) the most mysterious of my mother's ingredients. I would hold it up to my ear, shaking it to hear the seeds rattle inside. The dried fruit pod is used as a low-calorie sweetener for the treatment of diabetes and obesity.
Shriveled ginseng roots are used to relieve stress and fatigue while tranquilizing the mind. Boiled, it releases a sweet and bitter flavor.
Goji berries are thought to reduce blood sugar and improve eyesight. This is a popular ingredient in my mom's soups—my brother's eyesight is far from perfect (and strangely has yet to show any improvement. Hmm...)
I always knew whenever red dates were going into our tong—the fruit releases a very distinct sweet fragrance. I was always deceived as a child, thinking that I could munch on the shriveled fruits, only to find myself chewing on a tasteless sponge-like plasticky carcass. But my mother swears by their warming properties, especially for calming nerves and soothing sore throats.
The sight of these shrunken creatures only made my soup-drinking that much more horrific. Dried seahorses are generally used to remedy kidney and respiratory ailments and help balance and clear up skin. To keep from sending me into a faint, my mom would graciously remove the carcasses before serving the soup.
All-in-one mixes of tonic herbs and roots are conveniently available at Chinese supermarkets and herbal stores. The packaging often includes names that are unpronounceable and rather vague, with ingredients that vary according to conditions such as lack of energy, recovering from childbirth, or high levels of stress.
I know, I know—when one thinks of soup, they don't normally picture a pot of runny brown liquid filled with mysterious floating odds and ends. I'll take lobster bisque, bouillabaisse, and tom yam koong over my mother's remedy any day. But as much as I once dreaded my mother's remedies, I've come to believe in their power. My lips do miraculously become baby soft, my skin does begin to glow, and my cold sores do disappear. And unless I want to spend the rest of my days single, I guess I'll continue to shut my eyes and drink.
About the author: Cleo von Siebenthal is a wildly curious eater who never stops at just one bite.