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

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.