“Zuo yuezi” in Mandarin, or ge lai in Hokkien, is the traditional Chinese method of postpartum confinement. Within a month of childbirth, mothers are guided by certain principles geared toward restoring the body’s strength and protecting it from “cold air” (commonly known as lamig or pasma).
Some of its practices include staying home and not bathing for a month, and following a special diet aimed at restoring the mother’s “chi.”
Many of my friends who have undergone the regimen swear by how quickly they recovered from their pregnancies. “Sitting the month” has long-term effects, they said. Those who strictly comply will experience less aches and pains as they age.
Jerry and Eleanor Ty of Kitchen Hobbies specialize in teaching confinement cuisine. Preparing such confinement dishes have become quite rare, if not forgotten, said Jerry.
He added that ge lai has been observed for over 2,000 years and it is still being practiced today, especially by Asians.
“Confinement practices are normally completed in a 28-day cycle and is important for the recovery, recuperation and rejuvenation of new mothers,” he said. “In general, confinement cuisine reconditions and invigorates the body and promotes blood flow. It restores uterine functions and may help prevent postpartum depression caused by fatigue, back pain, lack of sleep, etc.”
Proper confinement also helps boost breast milk, he said, and the ingredients used to prepare these dishes have several health benefits.
Ginger warms the body, dispels cold, expels wind and detoxifies the body. Turmeric promotes uterine contraction and clears off lochia. Lemongrass dispels wind. Chinese angelica roots help clear lochia. Milkvetch root likewise helps clear lochia and strengthens the immune system.
Wolfberry/goji berry strengthens the immune system, nourishes the kidneys and liver, improves blood circulation, and promotes better eyesight. Pork trotter is rich in collagen that replenishes skin health.
Lovage root helps restore uterine functions, warms the body and promotes blood circulation, while salmon, rich in omega 3, improves eyesight and elevates the mood to ward off depression.
Papaya, rich in vitamins and minerals, helps increase breast milk production. Asparagus, high in fiber and Vitamins A and K, increases breast milk.
Serravallo’s tonic bark and iron wine replenishes iron loss. Sesame oil warms the body, aids in uterine contraction, and prevents constipation.
These ge lai ingredients are available at Chinese drugstores and groceries.
Jerry advised that during this time, one must refrain from eating shellfish as it is high in toxins. One must also avoid fish high in mercury content; taking cold drinks; salty food as it reduces lactation; and vegetables and fruits that have a cooling effect like cabbage, kangkong, cucumber, cold vegetable salads, oranges, pears, persimmons, tangerines, lemons.
He also suggested that breastfeeding mothers remain hydrated with soups and tonics—not with excessive amounts of water as it causes water retention.
Lastly, many new mothers equate ge lai to house arrest. Instead, one must think of it as a time to restore one’s strength and to bond with the little one.
Here, the Tys share some of their rejuvenation recipes:
Red Date Tonic
Red Date Tonic calms the nerves, promotes new blood cells and improves immunity.
Add 1 cup of hot water to 3 pieces of red dates. Let this sit for a few minutes and drink as you would tea. Keep adding hot water until the dates lose their taste and aroma.
Sesame Chicken warms the body, aids in uterine contractions, helps replenish energy and prevents fatigue.
½ kg chicken thigh
2 tbsp sesame oil
6 slices ginger
6 pc garlic
3 tbsp rice wine
1 tbsp light soy sauce
1 tbsp sugar
½ tsp fine salt
2 tbsp scallion
2 tsp sesame oil
1 tsp sesame seed
Blanch chicken. Drain well.
Heat sesame oil and saute ginger and garlic. Cook until lightly toasted.
Add chicken and pour rice wine, soy sauce, sugar, and salt. Simmer until almost dry.
Lastly, toss in scallion and splash with additional sesame oil.
Transfer to a serving plate and top with sesame seeds.
Black Chicken Herbal Soup
Black Chicken Herbal Soup regulates hormones, nourishes the liver and kidneys, and is also packed with vitamins and minerals.
1 whole black chicken
5 slices ginger
1 pc angelica root
12 pcs goji berry
6 pcs red dates
1 pc milkvetch root
1 pc lovage root
2 tbsp rice wine
2 tsp sesame oil
4 c water
Fine salt, to taste
Boil water and blanch chicken. Drain well. Place all ingredients in a pot. Cover and simmer for 45 minutes to 1 hour. Season with salt.
Gingered Sweet Potato Soup
Gingered Sweet Potato Soup is rich in beta carotene, a good source of vitamin A and fiber, while ginger helps expel wind.
¼ kg diced sweet potato
4½ c water
8 slices ginger
¼ c rock sugar
2 pc tangerine peel
Combine water, ginger, and rock sugar. Simmer for 15 minutes.
Add sweet potato and tamarind peel. Simmer for 10 minutes.