In the days following the birth of my daughter, my postnatal plan included the usual Western treatments: ice packs and numbing spray, tush pillows and mesh underwear. But my background as an Ashkenazi Jew merited an additional, culinary regimen: so-called Jewish penicillin, a.k.a. chicken noodle soup. On one hormone-
fueled afternoon, I wept tears of joy into a steaming bowl of schmaltzy broth — such was its power.

The notion that recovery from childbirth might include a culinary component was not detailed in my hospital’s take-home informational packet, but it is standard treatment in cultures the world over. From China to India to Latin America, new mothers are plied with health-minded dishes that promise all manner of benefits. Eager to replenish calcium stores zapped by breast-feeding? Shrink your uterus back to pre-pregnancy size? Restore balanced levels of chi, the concept of “life force” in Eastern medicine? There’s a dish for that.

“The foods are all collagen-rich and mineral-dense,” says birth doula Kimberly Ann Johnson, who researched postpartum food practices while writing her book, “The Fourth Trimester.” At the start of the postnatal period, the traditional dishes tend to be “very liquidy, brothy, hydrating, warm, easily digestible things,” she says. As time passes, they might include “more hearty things, so that your tissues can rebuild themselves.” But like my own chicken noodle soup, a dish’s utility often extends into the emotional realm, helping to ground a new mother during the topsy-turvy newborn period.

That was the case for Jennifer Hsiung, who, upon arriving at her Brooklyn home with her newborn daughter last summer, found a refrigerator brimming with a fragrant chicken stew. It was prepared by her Hakka Chinese mother, who had sublet the apartment below to help Hsiung observe zuo yue zi, the Chinese practice of “sitting the month.” Anchored by a thick, fatty broth made with braised “old” chicken (young birds tend to disintegrate after long simmering) and spicy Burmese ginger (zingier than the stuff one finds at an average corner grocery), the concoction was enriched by a sweet fermented rice wine lovingly prepared months in advance by Hsiung’s mother and five aunts.

“They started making [the rice wine] as soon as they found out I was pregnant,” Hsiung says. Soon, they were churning out “gallons and gallons of it,” enough to make such quantities of chicken stew that Hsiung could slurp it down “morning, noon and night” for 30 days. Hsiung drew the line at two or three servings daily to supplement her normal diet.

The stew’s supposed benefits are multifold, Hsiung says. It’s nutritious, which gives a new mother strength to care for her newborn. Enzymes in the rice wine vinegar are meant to help flush out and contract the uterus. The ginger is to add heat to the body, aiding circulation and fortifying the immune system. Hsiung’s mother and aunts also told her the stew would help ramp up her production of breast milk and improve its quality. “I definitely feel like it did,” Hsiung says. It’s hard to say if the stew delivered on its other promises, but one thing is certain: “It’s really delicious.”

Other benefits were less tangible. “All of the Hakka women [make it] for their daughters,” Hsiung says. The tradition is “hundreds of years old,” and in her family, it goes back at least four or five generations. With each spoonful, Hsiung felt a stronger link between her family’s past and future. She hopes to make the soup for her daughter one day.

It’s unclear how and when postpartum food traditions began. “I don’t think you’ll find an origin point,” Johnson says. These customs date to “the beginning of time, when women took care of each other. Before women thought we were superheroes — and that what made us superheroes was doing everything — we were helping each other, so that as a group, we could collectively thrive.”

Postpartum dishes and preparations vary from culture to culture, as do explanations for how and why they might promote healing. “Ayurvedically, they would explain it one way, and Chinese medicine would explain it another way,” Johnson says. Complicating things, there’s little in the way of scientific studies to back up such claims. Perhaps that’s because of a significant confounding factor: A caregiving element is intrinsically baked into most postpartum food practices. Is it the dish or the caregiving that aids in recovery after childbirth?

New Yorker Lavina Lee wonders this as well. Her postnatal regimen included heaping bowlfuls of pigs’ feet stew, which she ate at least once a day for several weeks after her daughter’s birth. With her Cantonese parents living across the country in California, Lee’s mother enlisted a family friend to prepare the dish.

“My parents were worried for months about how they were going to get it to me,” Lee says. “I expected them to be really excited to meet the baby, but they were more concerned about making sure that I would recuperate.”

Every family’s recipe is different, Lee says, but hers is a potent mixture of black vinegar, ginger, pigs’ feet and hard-boiled eggs simmered in a clay pot. The feet impart iron-rich marrow and collagen, thought to help shore up bone strength, while vinegar and ginger assist circulation and get “rid of all of the old blood that you don’t need anymore,” Lee says. Eggs offer a nourishing protein boost.

“I don’t know that I subscribe to [the notion that], ‘Oh, this is restoring my balance and helping me gain strength,’ but, emotionally, it did,” Lee says. “No one could have prepared me for how horrible I felt in the few weeks after my daughter was born. I knew that I would need to recover and that I’d be tired, but I didn’t know physically how defeated I would feel. Having that built into the cultural practice — just taking care of the mother — felt really empowering to me.”

Other postpartum foods across Asia also include hot and fatty soups. Miyeok-guk, a Korean seaweed soup, was a go-to for Los Angeles resident Laura Lambert after the births of her two children. Boosted with fatty beef brisket and pungent fish sauce, the dish is meant to promote breast milk production. “To be honest, I got a little sick of it after the first week or two,” she says of the soup that her mother, an immigrant from Korea, made for her. “It was a lot.” But having prepared food was a lifesaver, she says. “Perfect when you’re at home alone with the baby after everyone goes back to work.”

Few of the women I spoke with strictly followed postpartum traditions — most picked and chose which to follow and how strictly. But some felt an immense pressure from family to fully commit. Rajini Pujari, who lives in New York City, says she was surprised at how closely her South Indian parents policed her consumption after her son was born.

“The amount of food that I was consuming was a lot,” Pujari says. Much of it included goat meat. There was stewed goat spiced with garam masala; minced goat run through with green chiles, red chili powder and fenugreek leaves; and the long-simmered goat’s foot soup flavored with a thick paste of blitzed poppy seeds and coconut flakes. “And there was always, always rice,” Pujari says. All of the foods were aimed at upping the quality and quantity of Pujari’s breast milk production. She believes it worked. “The fat content in these particular meals would enhance the fattiness in [my] milk,” Pujari says.

Soups and stews are also key culinary components to la
cuarentena, a 40-day confinement period traditional to cultures across Latin America.

“Everything she eats during this time should be soupy, warm, and moist to gradually restore her back to full power,” writes indigenous food activist Felicia Cocotzin Ruiz on her site Kitchen Curandera, which offers postnatal recipes informed by Ruiz’s knowledge of indigenous Mexican practices and pre-
colonization foods with a sprinkling of Ayurvedic medicine. She recommends dishes such as sopa de nopalitos, a
garlicky cactus soup spiced with cumin and coriander seeds.

On the other side of the flavor spectrum, Philadelphia resident Jennifer Lea Cohan’s Dutch grandmother encouraged her to eat beschuit met muisjes, hard biscuits made from twice-baked bread and blanketed in butter and sugarcoated anise seeds. The cookies hail from the Netherlands’ Zaanstreek region, where its originators reasoned that anise seeds helped deter colic in newborn babies. Faith in the cookies’ supposed medicinal properties seems to have dwindled through the generations — Cohan wasn’t aware they had any. For her, the benefit was mostly emotional.

“Blue muisjes met beschuit for the birth of my son, and pink muisjes for the birth of my daughter; I’m opposed to the gender-specific colors, but very pro the deliciousness,” Cohan says. The cookies always make Cohan think of her grandmother, now passed away, who escaped on the last ship out of Holland before it fell to the Nazis in World War II. “There’s always that concept of my ancestors and who I’m representing to my children,” she says. “I feel it in my heart.”

Rachel Tepper Paley is a writer in Brooklyn, N.Y. Follow her on Twitter @RachelTepper.

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