Comforting Nourishment from Ancient Chinese, Indian Ayurveda, and North American First Nation Heritage


ET36 MedicinalSoups Intro Arnoaltix Dreamstime

Nothing announces the seasonal change to winter quite like our return to hearty comfort foods. Nature generously provides the ingredients we need to keep our bodies fuelled, full, and healthy during the colder months. Ever since humankind mastered the flame, we as human beings have found ways to combine these ingredients into perfect combinations to feed our families and keep them warm.

Soups and stews are the foundation of this season’s cuisine and every culture and tradition has its own unique recipes that are passed down from generation to generation and touted as “medicine in a bowl.” From the ancient Chinese to the Indian healing system of Ayurveda to North American First Nations, soups are a staple when it comes to healing the body and restoring health and harmony.

For those of us fortunate enough to maintain a connection with older family members, you know that at the first sign of a sniffle, a sore throat or a headache, Grandma has just the recipe to soothe and comfort every ailment.

I fondly remember, as a little 4-year-old, sitting in my great-grandmother’s warm yellow kitchen slowly sipping on rich marrowbone broth with thin noodles and a thick, nourishing layer of fat on top. That soup made me feel safe and warm and cared for in a way that a salad never can.

Regardless of what culture you belong to, our human connection to food and its power to comfort, heal, nourish, and hold memories is highlighted in countless unique and traditional medicinal recipes. This winter, reconnect with our shared roots and make a batch of delicious, hearty, simmering soup for your family.

Kate Ortak is a holistic nutritionist, health writer, and founder of KO Nutrition Wellness. All her life she has felt a strong connection to food and nutrition and its ability to heal and restore balance to the body. When she’s not at her desk writing, you can find Kate cooking up something warm and nourishing in her kitchen. Visit Kate’s website at


Four Flavours Soup (Say May Tong) from the Chinese Tradition

ET36 FourFlavoursSoup Gojis

When it comes to restoring balance to the body, few cultures rely as heavily on warming and healing soups as the Chinese. With so much emphasis placed on the passing down and preservation of cultural wisdom and knowledge, it’s no surprise that these classic medicinal soup recipes have been so carefully safeguarded for generations.

Traditional Chinese doctors, often taught their skills by their fathers, and their fathers before them, play a large role in the continuation of recipes and the culture of food as medicine. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, disease is believed to stem from an imbalance in the body; therefore, many recipes focus on correcting this imbalance and restoring the body to harmony.

Four Flavours Soup does just that. The name comes from the four herbs used to create this healing tonic and while the combination often varies from family to family, one thing is clear: if you’re feeling a little under the weather and need a quick immune boost or worse, you’re already sniffling your way through a phlegmy cough and runny nose, this soothing and warming soup will fix you up fast.

The recipe has been adapted from The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen by Grace Young (Simon and Schuster, 1999) and features traditional Chinese ingredients you may have never heard of. But don’t let that stop you from making this satisfying broth. All are easy to find at large Asian supermarkets like T&T, as well as smaller Chinese grocers. You might even find them at some specialty health food stores.

Grace Young’s recipe calls for lotus seeds (leen zee), Chinese yam (wai san), lily bulb (bok hup), and wolfberries (gay zee), also known as goji berries. Lotus seeds are said to have a calming effect and are typically used to relieve restlessness and insomnia, as well as digestive disturbances such as diarrhea. Chinese yam and lily bulbs calm the spirit and the cough and nourish the lungs. They contain saponins and mucilage that aid in lubricating and moisturizing the lungs, helping to soothe dry coughs and break up and loosen phlegm from wet coughs. These benefits paired with the immune-stimulating power of goji berries make for one powerful medicinal soup.

1/3 cup            (about 2 ounces) whole lotus seeds

1 pound           pork neck bones

8 cups             cold water

1/2 cup            (about 1 ounce) dried Chinese yam, rinsed

1/3 cup            (about 1 ounce) dried lily bulb, rinsed

1/2 cup            (about 1 ounce) dried wolfberries (goji berries), rinsed

Soak the lotus seeds to cover with cold water for 3 hours. Drain, discarding the water. Remove and discard the tiny green sprout in the centre of each seed.

In a large pot, combine the pork bones and 8 cups cold water. Bring to a boil, skimming off any scum that rises to the surface. Add the Chinese yam and return to a boil. Cover the pot, reduce the heat, and simmer for one hour. Repeat this process with the other ingredients, first adding the lotus seeds and lily bulb, and then the wolfberries, for a total cooking time of just over three hours. Remove the pork bones before serving. Serve the soup piping hot (not more than 1½ cups per person). All of the Chinese herbs can be eaten, including the wolfberries, except for the small pits in them. 

Kitchari from the Ayurvedic Tradition

While many of us are familiar with the comforting and healing power of traditional Chinese soups, a lesser-known yet equally potent medicinal cuisine comes from the ancient Indian tradition of Ayurveda. Ayurveda, which dates back to over 5000 BC, is one of very few systems of medicine developed during ancient times that is still practiced today, a real testament to the tradition of Ayurveda, with its complex branches of healing.

Many ancient healing philosophies honour food and nutrition for their ability to restore health to the body, and Ayurveda is no different. Variations on the traditional kitchari (also spelled khitchdi, khitchadi, or kitcheree) stew, a cleansing and nourishing Indian comfort food made with rice and legumes, are still enjoyed around the world today. In India, this wholesome stew is considered one of baby’s first solid foods.

Split yellow mung beans are traditionally combined with rice and warming spices like ginger, cumin, and turmeric to create a flavourful and nutritious meal. These beans are used because, unlike all other legumes, they do not cause intestinal gas, due to their husk being naturally removed during splitting. The husk, which is hard to digest and gas producing, naturally falls away, leaving the beans easy to cook and digest, and all of the nutrients available for absorption.

Mung beans are high in protein, fibre, and antioxidants and, combined with rice, make a filling and nutrient-dense meal to keep you healthy and satisfied all season long. Ginger helps to clear nasal passages and soothe upset stomachs, and turmeric fights redness, swelling, heat, and pain caused by inflammation. Kitchari stew provides a dynamite combination of healing power and flavour.


ET36 MedicinalSoups Kitchari Alleko

By Kate Ortak

1 1/2 cups       basmati rice or quinoa, soaked overnight and rinsed well

1 1/2 cups       yellow split mung beans, soaked overnight and rinsed well

2 tbsp              ghee or coconut oil

2 tbsp              fennel seeds

1 tbsp              coriander seeds

1 tbsp              ground cumin

1 tbsp              ground turmeric

2 tbsp              chopped fresh ginger

8 cups             water

1 1/2 cups        chopped assorted vegetables, such as carrots, sweet potato, celery, cauliflower or winter squash (optional)

2 tsp                sea salt  

1 to 3               handfuls of greens, such as Swiss chard, spinach or kale, chopped (optional)

                       Fresh herbs, such as cilantro, basil or parsley, for garnish (optional)

In a large pot, heat the ghee over medium heat. Stir in the fennel seeds, coriander seeds, cumin and turmeric. Cook until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Stir in the rice and beans. When the rice becomes translucent, about 3 minutes, stir in the ginger and water. Cover the pot and bring to boil.  , reduce the heat, partially cover the pot, and simmer for 20 minutes.

Stir in the optional vegetables. Add more water if necessary, depending on how many vegetables you added. Bring to a boil, cover the pot, and simmer until the rice and beans are tender, about 15 minutes. Stir in the salt. Place the greens on top, if using (do not stir), and cook for 5 minutes. (The greens will steam and retain their texture.) The finished consistency of the stew should be rich, thick, and soupy. It will continue to thicken over time. Ladle into bowls and add fresh chopped herbs for garnish, if desired. Sprinkle with a little more salt to taste.

Venison Bean Soup from the Wet’suwet’en Culture

Whether you are a newly arrived Canadian or one who has been here for many generations, First Nation traditions surround us all. Living in this beautiful land, we grow to appreciate the sacred place that so many before us have called home.

For many people, unique Aboriginal art is the most prominent and visible aspect of these traditional cultures, but the rich heritage extends far beyond that. Hearty, comforting cuisine has kept First Nations people warm and healthy during the long, cold Canadian winters for thousands of years.

While resources may have been scarce during the colder months, substantial and hearty soups were able to feed and maintain a large, hungry family. These days, we often rely on central heat to keep us warm but we can still learn a thing or two about staying healthy during these chilly winter months from the traditional medicinal recipes of Canada’s Indigenous ancestors.

This soothing and delicious venison bean soup, adapted from Modern Native Feasts by Andrew George (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2013), puts a spin on the classic beef stew. It is often served by the people of the Wet’suwet’en territories in British Columbia in their feast (potlatch) halls. Whether you substitute beef or use venison, it’s hard to beat the comforting power of this dish.

ET36 VenisonBeanSoup Lorianni

Makes 4 to 6 servings

1 1/2 lbs          venison or stewing beef, cut into 1/2-inch chunks

1 tsp                kosher salt, plus more if needed

1/2 tsp             freshly ground black pepper, plus more if needed

2 tbsp              extra virgin olive oil, plus more if needed

2                      onions, diced

1                      leek, white and light green parts only, diced

3                      carrots, sliced

2                      stalks celery, sliced

2 tbsp               tomato paste

8 cups              venison or beef broth

1 cup               cooked or drained canned navy beans or kidney beans

3                      sprigs fresh thyme, tied together with kitchen twine

2                      bay leaves

                        Fresh parsley (optional)

Season the meat all over with 1/2 teaspoon of the salt and 1/4 teaspoon of the pepper. In a large pot over medium-high heat, add the oil. Add the meat, lightly browning it on each side. Transfer the meat to a plate.

Reduce the heat to medium. Add the onions and leek (and 1 tablespoon of additional oil if required) and cook, stirring occasionally, for 4 minutes. Add the carrots and celery and cook, stirring occasionally, for 3 minutes. Stir in the tomato paste and cook, stirring continuously, for one minute. Stir in the broth, beans, thyme, bay leaves, and the remaining 1/2 teaspoon of salt and 1/4 teaspoon of pepper.

Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat, partially cover the pot, and simmer until the meat is tender, about 60 minutes. Remove the thyme and bay leaves. Taste and adjust the seasonings as needed. Garnish with parsley, if desired.