It all starts with one key principle in Traditional Chinese Medicine: Re-balance the Yin and Yang in the body.
The energy in the body post birth is normally in an increased yin (cooling) state due to the loss of blood and fluids during childbirth. This means there is more yin in the body than normal and the yang (warming) needs to be strengthened (or replenished).
This is the basis of the traditional DO’s and DON’T’s of Chinese Confinement. Keep in mind that historically, without technology, heating, or the luxuries we have today, some of these traditions held very true. However, my guidance is for you to take the principles and tweak it so it fits your lifestyle, your environment, and whatever your resources allow. For example, DO NOT WASH YOUR HAIR is one that you will hear very often. The wet hair induces dampness into the body and as it air dries, it becomes cold, which also increases yin into the body through the head. However, modern technology allows for heated spaces and hair dryers. So if you do wash your hair, be sure to do so in a heated room and then blow dry your hair on medium to high heat until it is fully dried.
Don’t be exposed to windy or cool conditions
Yang itself is the warming and dry element of the two and is difficult to replenish if the external environment doesn’t allow it. In fact, it may be the opposite in that more Yin is going into the body if it’s too cool, too damp, or too wet in and around the healing body.
This is why you’ll see pregnant women wearing wooly hats in the summer in Hong Kong. At all costs, eliminate any opportunity where any parts of your exposed body are to cool, cold, or wet conditions. Here are some examples:
If you’re breastfeeding and have your shoulders exposed, use a towel, shawl, or wrap to cover them
If you must have air conditioning on, turn the vents towards the ceiling or walls and have the cooler air circulate on the outside edges
Wear thicker socks or slippers if you’ve got tiled or colder floors. The feet are one source where yang can easily leave the body.
Exercise in moderation, paying attention to sweat rate and exposure of sweaty skin to the cold air. I find gentle yoga or light stretching where you aren’t sweating buckets is good (but pay attention to which muscle you’re stretching, will explain further down).
This goes on to support the DO NOT WASH YOUR HAIR or DO NOT TAKE BATHS (with normal water) traditions, however, you still can if you’re able to keep the room warm and dry off immediately, including drying your hair thoroughly after you wash it.
Don’t overexert the body
This has more to do with the use of energy in the body and how it’s being resourced. The priority of your energy should be on allowing the body to fully heal during confinement. This is where confinement gets its terminology. Traditionally, it’s basically the woman lying in bed, pretty immobile for a whole month. This is highly impractical and unlikely in modern times, but some of the concept of energy preservation still apply.
DO NOT LIFT HEAVY THINGS. The exertion applies very similarly to when you’re pregnant in that you don’t want any muscle strain to the uterus at all. As these parts of the post partum body are healing, use the same principles.
IF YOU MUST, EXERCISE LIGHTLY AND IN MODERATION. If you must exercise, although some TCM’s and Pui Yuets (Chinese Confinement Ladies) will frown upon this, do it in a way that’s minimal exertion. Light stretching of legs and arms, but avoid the core area (unless you’re doing it wrapped) because that’s where the tradition of wrapping helps pull the stomach and core muscles back into place.
DO NOT DO HOUSEHOLD CHORES. I wish! Haha… however, this is the traditional way of managing confinement. You usually had your mother, mother-in-law, or a Pui Yuet who can support you, but that’s a far ask in modern times. It’s definitely easier in countries where hired help is more economical, but that’s where some planning will help you manage. Pre-bought and prepared meals ahead of confinement will save you many trips to the grocery store and the prep work. Source healthy food delivery or food preparation vendors. Enlist the help of neighbours, family, or friends, including other children. Recognize and accept trade offs.
As my second post partum began, we let go of my helper in Hong Kong. In my head, I had my mom fly over and I was a strong empowered woman, so I could do it! Right? I was so wrong!
I was trying to do it all. I was trying to be the great mom to my first daughter, the helpful daughter to my mom, the great wife to my husband, and the super housewife, but every time I see a Chinese doctor now, they always ask me to have a third baby so I can go through confinement again and do it properly and fix all the wrongs in my body! It’s that crazy?
My lessons learned is that there have to be trade offs. So what if you have a messy house? So what if you’re wearing the same clothes for 4 days straight? Protect your body. It’s only 30 days.
Do consume warm and drying (yang-nourishing) food and drinks
e of the most important part of confinement is the food and drinks you consume during this important period of your healing. The key principle here is that anything (from a TCM perspective) nourishing the yang, mainly characterized by warming ingredients.
Warming ingredients include:
GINGER, GINGER, GINGER. The best type is to start with raw ginger and then find uses for its peel and the root itself. You can find this in many (if not all) confinement recipes.
SESAME SEEDS. Black is best, but white are also OK. Sesame seeds are warming and can nourish yang nicely. I’d suggest buying a bucket of these and sprinkle over white rice, dishes, stews, and even into your soups.
SESAME OIL. Similar to above, this is best used in stews and dishes and all of your cooking.
BLACK VINEGAR. Perfect for confinement and found commonly in the Pig’s Feet Vinegar Soup. This is a great condiment to have as part of your confinement garnishes. One favourite dish I like is the stewed pork ribs in black vinegar with sugar.
This also means avoiding foods that are deep fried, hard to digest, raw, considered toxic (goose, beef) or cooling (seafood, watermelon, ice cream, bubble tea)
You can also explore our selection of CONFINEMENT FOODS. Here we explore all the CANand CANNOTeat ingredients.
Maintaining a dry environment is also important. This is because the principle includes dispelling both cold and moisture from the body to replenish the yang and avoid retention. Water itself is a cool element and associated as yin.
Do create a warming environment for the body
Beyond the DO NOT’s of sitting in front of the air conditioning or exposing parts of your body to the air, what you want to do is be conscious and intentional with creating a warm space and moments for your body. In some instances, ginger is your friend here as well, which is weird, but stay with me!
DO OVERUSE GINGER. Here’s how you can get creative with ginger. The peel (along with a mix of other Chinese herbs) can be dried and used to soak your feet (a great way to get yang into the body), wash your hair, and bathe in. I would suggest using a soup bag to store all the dried ingredients so you can take it out easily and dispose of. You can use the peels as large dried pieces into a foot soak at least once a day. I did this before bedtimes and it helped me sleep so well!
DO KEEP EXTREMETIES AND HEAD COVERED. This means, hands, feet, head, back of neck, shoulders, elbows crease, back of knees, back of ears, and ankles are sufficiently covered and not exposed to cold or air. You’ll notice that all these body parts have pressure points when it comes to TCM and acupuncture. There is no such thing as overdressing. Actually, my Chinese doctor says, there is no such thing as over-nourishing during confinement!
DO COOK OR HEAT UP EVERYTHING THING FIRST. This means food or drinks, too. This is part of the warming environment, which is just as important in terms of what you put into your body. DO NOT EAT RAW FOOD. This is part of principle in staying with warm and cooked foods and drinks. And I know sometimes you get so thirsty when breastfeeding, especially if you’re in an Asian country (where it’s humid and hot), so I ended up making a dried herbal tea of longans and red dates and let it cool to room temperature. That’s how cool as I’ll drink. Nothing with ice. Nothing colder than body temperature ideally.
Children are naturally energetic and full of yang. They are constantly moving, running, on the go, and vibrant. As we age, we lose that ability to hold that yang in and our energy decreases and as we become older, we become more yin and actually prefer to slow down. This is very natural.
Knowing this, in general, it means that younger mothers can hold more yang and replenish it easier than older mothers. It is encouraged to replenish yang as you age (regardless of whether it’s post partum or not). This will also help reduce hot flashes (during menopause) and con conserve their Qi in later parts of their lives.
I’ve started consuming a cup of dried longans and red dates tea midday since I turned 40! I may need it even more now that I’m in Canada and definitely feeling the cold.
The key highlight of this tea is the wood ear. Wood ear in Traditional Chinese Medicine is known to reduce hypertension (lower blood pressure), support blood flow and circulation, tonifies and nourishes the blood and Qi, and alleviates coughs, moistening the lungs and removing phlegm.
To make this super potent, after you boil the tea, remove the wood ear and slice into small pieces and serve as a snack (or with the tea).
I’ve also made wood ear salads, which allows you to still consume wood ears with more diversity in your diet!
For post partum:
This tea I drank as a confinement tea and within the first 0-5 days of confinement to help eliminate the lochia. It’s a simple tea with 3 ingredients (the meat is optional if you’re vegetarian) and very easy to make. It’s a sweet, slightly tart tea and must be drank hot/warm. It’s one of the better tasting teas I know available for confinement! You can boil a whole big batch for 5 days worth, refrigerate and then reheat when needed or boil fresh batches everyday. It is recommended to drink 1-2 glasses a day (depending if you’ve got other teas or soups already filling your tummy!). Do not add additives like sugar or salt. Keep it clean, light and natural.
Soak your dates and wood ear for 10-15 minutes in cool water
Boil your soup or tea water
When the water boils, add all the ingredients together and boil on a medium boil (covered) for 1.5 hours
Serve hot/warm directly as is
You can pre-soak the wood ear first thing in the morning. This will soften until you need to boil them.
Be sure to buy and use pitted red dates as the seeds are quite fiery (not in a good way). Some red dates come pre-seeded, but if not, you can use a sharp knife and remove them or halve them first and remove.
I am writing about the ginger peel specifically because while normal people don’t use the skin very often, the Chinese highly value this “by-product” when it comes to confinement. It is commonly used for bathing purposes (either literally soaking the ginger peel in water and then rinsing your body with it or soaking your feet). What normally happens is that ginger is purchased in bulk (huge, huge amounts for confinement – especially the pig’s feet in ginger dish) and none of the ginger is wasted.
Peel the ginger in its entirety. The peel is dried, while the ginger itself is cut up and used in various dishes and soups and stews. For me, I am not a heavy believer of washing my body in ginger peel water, but did end up soaking my poor sore feet. The tradition falls back to historical (pre-electricity) Chinese confinement practices. Back in the days, after a woman gave birth, she was susceptible to virus, bacteria, disease because of the weakened condition of her body (for more information, you can do some leisure reading on the confinement practice). Ginger, being a heaty ingredient, enabled her body to stay and keep warm. Which is why she pretty much lived, consumed and breathed ginger. This also accounts for the reason why women were not allowed to wash their hair for a period of time after child birth – very likely because back then, drying the hair increased her risk because at some point, her hair would become cold (especially in the winter). Well, these days, we have the handy hair dryer and for those in colder climates, the benefit of a heating system – so the question is, do these traditions still apply?
Regardless, some traditions hold true and strong. My mother argues that the Chinese have thousands of years of history behind it and that as a western raised girl, I shouldn’t discount the power of generation-passed knowledge. Which is partially why I write and blog about everything I learn, because this is something I want to pass to my children eventually. Whether they take it with a grain of salt or think I’m off my rocker is a whole other story….
So to end this post, you’ll find within thechinesesouplady.com, we’ve got a host of information on confinement. That’s because collectively as a group of sisters, we’ve gone through 6 confinements personally and spoken to more sources than we can count on the practice. Veggie vendors, meat vendors, herbalists, the neighbor, your child’s classmate’s grandmother – everyone has a say and angle on confinement best practices and approaches. So please enjoy our collection of confinement soups and best practices.
You may have noticed that over the past few months we have been posting many pregnancy and confinement soup recipes to this site. As this blog closely follows the soups we are making for ourselves and for our families, you’ve probably already guessed that we have had a pregnancy in the family. Actually, we’ve had TWO!
On September 1, our sister Carol delivered a healthy baby boy and exactly one month later, on October 1, I (Tracy) welcomed my second daughter into the world. Carol and I and our babies both enjoyed very normal delivery experiences. Besides feeling only slightly weaker, after my daughter was born, I felt happy and healthy and ready to begin my month of post-pregnancy “confinement”.
There was so much to learn and celebrate as we experienced our Chinese culture. This was definitely our growth story!
Before I begin, you should know that my sisters and I are not into “extreme confinement”. That is, we do not strictly confine ourselves to our home, we shower regularly (and wash our hair, but do blow dry right away) and we even turn on the air conditioner (can’t survive +35C in Hong Kong)! That said, we do, however, take our confinement food (especially our soups, of course!) seriously.
Now that my confinement is done, here is a brief summary of my personal confinement story from a soupy perspective.
There were several soups I was required to drink throughout the entire confinement period. Every day, I drank three to five BIG bowls of soup. Each bowl was the equivalent of five or six smaller bowls (similar to the soup sizes served in Chinese restaurants) and it gave me a pleasant and warm feeling of being warm and full for most of the day. My confinement lady (a.k.a. our wonderful mother who is a true Chinese soup lady) cooked at least three different soups every day made from ingredients purchased fresh each day from the nearby wet markets in Hong Kong. The constant soups I drank throughout the day were:
Papaya Fish Soup
This soup is delicious and healthy and is used to help with milk production. When I was engorged (too much milk!) I continued to drink fish soup without the green papaya; instead, we substituted healthy vegetables such as sweet corn and tomatoes.
Chicken Herbal Soup
Everyday, a large pot of chicken soup was made with TWO fresh chickens (black silkie chickens were preferred). Using two chickens made for a very dense and nutritious soup. Drinking “heaty” soups is essential during confinement and so staple herbs included dried longans and fish stomach (pronounced as “fa gao” in Cantonese). Wolfberries and red dates for sweetness were also staples in the soup. Whenever I felt too heaty, we would not include any fish stomach or longans in the soup.
Another “constant” in the second half of my confinement period (after the 13th day) was the traditional ginger and vinegar “soup”. Almost every day, I would eat a small bowl of some pork meat and a boiled chicken egg which had been sitting and marinating in the tangy and delicious stew for days… yum!
Occasionally, my mom also made other drinks and soups for me to drink based on my specific needs. This would vary depending on how far along the confinement you’re at and how you’re feeling. And when I say unique, some of these are truly unique and new for me! The amazing thing about this experience is seeing the difference between Western and Eastern, and blending it so it’s really customized for me. For example, crocodile meat and soft-shelled turtle are common staple meats available in supermarkets in Hong Kong.
Black Bean, Rice and Ginger Water
While I was still at the hospital (the day of delivery), I started to drink an almost tasteless concoction made of water with boiled black beans, rice and ginger. This drink is said to help reduce “wind” in the body and “warm” it up to help with the healing process after giving birth. Instead of drinking water, whenever I felt thirsty, I was encouraged to drink this for the first week after delivery. After my milk came in, we stopped drinking this and focused on fish and chicken soups instead.
Soft-shelled turtles are a “healing” meat and are often consumed even outside of confinement / pregnancy. I drank this soup for only two days half-way through my confinement period to continue to help with the healing process. This should be consumed only if you are not sick as it is believed to “feed” your sickness as well.
DEer Antler with Korean Ginseng Soup
My sister drank this during her confinement as it is also considered a “healing” drink and popular among Chinese as a confinement soup. However, when it came time for me to drink this soup, I was already feeling too “heaty” and so we did not make this for me. Similar to turtle soup, this should be avoided if you are ill or have a fever.
Foods to avoid
All “cooling” foods and soups should be avoided during confinement. I occasionally craved the cooling foods, but was a “good girl” and resisted until after my confinement month was done. Even now, I am still only nibbling at “cool” foods and soups and will continue to do so until after the third month. Foods I avoided include:
Watermelon and other “melons”, including cantaloupe and honeydew
Tofu (and all soy products including soy bean drink)
I also avoided foods which are believed to be slightly “poisonous”:
Crab and other shellfish
Although I’m sure there are many other cooling and poisonous foods which should be avoided, these are the foods which stood out for me because I eat or drink them on a regular basis and had to consciously avoid them.
And here ends my confinement story. I’m happy to say the month is now done and I feel more free to do and eat what I please. If you have other tips or foods to eat or avoid during confinement, please share with us and our readers by posting to our comments.
Pig’s Feet with Ginger in Black Vinegar, Ginger and Vinegar Trotter Soup, Pig’s Feet and Ginger Soup
Traditional Chinese Name:
猪脚姜 (zhū jiǎo jiāng)
This is the ultimate traditional confinement food (or soup) in the Cantonese cuisine repertoire. This dish is so amazing that people eat it just for the taste and not for confinement.
It is consumed by men and women alike because it is flavorful and delicious. The ingredients aren’t the easiest to obtain and it is not a remotely easy dish to make, but during confinement (when the mother can eat a bowl a day), it’s worth it to make a large pot and give to friends. Traditionally, families will make large pots of this dish and give it out to friends and family to let them know that there is a new baby.
For more information on what confinement is and the Chinese ingredients associated with confinement, please see our Confinement Soups page.
Some things to note on the directions for this soup is that it’s more a guide, rather than a true recipe.
Since my mom is a pro at this, she doesn’t really follow measurements and simply makes it according to personal taste – so I’ve tried to adapt this recipe to that style.
Some prefer it more spicy (add more ginger), some prefer it more sour (add more black rice vinegar), some prefer it sweeter (add more sweet vinegar or brown sugar) or some prefer super hard boiled eggs (keep them boiling in the vinegar for at least 2 days).
Regardless of how your taste ventures, make sure you have a bit of spare ingredients to adjust the taste to your preference.
Prep time: 60 mins
Cook time: 1 hour 30 mins (for the soup)
Total time: 2 hours 30 mins
Serves: 10 bowls
1 whole pig’s feet, halved and cut into edible sections
Ginger is the highlight of this dish. That’s what makes it so potent, effective (to drive away the wind from the body), and gives it that little bit of spicy kick.
This part needs a good 1-2 days after you’ve purchased your ginger in bulk. Usually, when I see people buying ginger at the wet marts in bulk, we all know what’s cooking!
For this soup, the ginger pieces are kept rather large in chunks with their skin off. Once you peel the skin, don’t throw it out! For confinement, it is the perfect foot soak (or bathe if you’d like) for post partum.
Ginger preparation instructions:
Wash ginger and then leave to air dry for at least 1 day
Peel skin off ginger and dry both skin and peeled ginger (the skin is often used for bathing and soaking feet during confinement)
Cut ginger into large pieces
In a pan (or wok) on high heat with no oil, fry your ginger while stirring quickly for 5 minutes
Take out of wok and set aside
Preparing the Vinegar Soup Base
Be sure to use a clay or ceramic pot for these types of soups. Traditionally, that’s all they had back then and it does keep the flavour of the soup quite pure and can be stored in the pot and re-boiled as often as needed. In Hong Kong, the pre-made vinegar and even the soup itself are served, stored, and sold in clay pots. It becomes quite the workout to lug these things around!
In a large clay pot, add your sweet vinegar and turn on high heat until boiling
Add in prepared ginger
Reduce heat to low and boil (with cover) for an hour (until ginger is cooked)
Set aside until ready to add pig’s feet. I say this because during some confinements, people will have made the ginger-vinegar soup ahead of time in preparation for the birth of the baby.
Preparing the Pig’s Feet
There are also 2 parts to the preparation of raw pig’s feet. The first is to ensure the protein itself is clean and suitable for consumption. That means removing the hairs, the tougher parts of the skin, and the nails. The second part is to blanch it in boiling water. Interacting with the boiling water will immediately release all the insoluble protein, blood, bone bits, and fat, rendering it ready for soup production.
To remove the hair from the pig’s feet, you can either burn it off over a gas grill (with a hot flame) or using a sharp knife, scrape it off
Wash thoroughly in warm water
Half and cut the pig’s feet into edible sizes
Wash again in warm water (to remove the grits and bones)
In a pot of boiling water, blanch your pig’s feet for 5-7 mins
Preparing the Soup
When ready to eat, scoop out as much ginger-vinegar soup as you’d like to prepare for your portion of pig’s feet (so that you can continue to use, add more or keep your soup base)
Put into a smaller clay pot and apply medium heat until boiling. Add in blanched pig’s feet and black rice vinegar (to taste). The black rice vinegar will help soften the pig’s feet more. Add hard boiled eggs if desired.
Cover and boil on medium heat for 30 minutes (or until desired softness of feet).