The Conch Girl Project
Recipe for Xiangting’s Kitchen:
Cantonese Style Herbal Chicken Soup
- It was in a college’s dormitory, where the kitchen was shared among at least three people. Each person’s kitchenwares and pantry stock were patched together like pieces of different puzzles. Xiangting gave you a thorough kitchen tour, helping you to distinguish what belonged to her and what you could use. The condiments windowsill was an exception—you could use any of them.
In the fridge, the herbs called out to you. In your parents’ freezer, two thirds of the space was always filled with a large quantity of herbs, so much so that you almost took it as a norm, as if everyone’s freezer is supposed to be used for herbs, until you realized it doesn’t have to be. When you moved to New York City you didn’t get any herbs, although Chinatown was just one train ride away.
- There was a communal room beside the kitchen, where there were different suitcases, a table, and several auditorium chairs. Everything here amplified the temporariness of this shelter. Everything told you about the lack of ownership of this location. Everything urged you to leave soon.
- You started to make herbal soup at the age of 12, the first summer holiday in Junior High. You were responsible for almost all the chores of your home for the whole summer, and all the summers and winters afterwards until you had no school breaks. Your daily routine was: you woke up and pretended that you wanted to sleep in until your parents both left for work. You got up, got fresh daily groceries before the heat got unbearable, went home (after climbing up 8 flights of stairs) and hand washed whatever was left for you to wash (Because your mom did not trust washing machines).
Then you would have some scattered spare time until you were starving and had to feed yourself. Sometimes you started to make herbal soup at 1pm so that when you made dinner it would be less of a hassle. After all, it takes at least 90 minutes to make it. Other times you would sneak out to hang with your secret boyfriend back then until you had to go home to make dinner before your parents came back. It was important to you if they liked what you made or not.
Herbal soup is a Cantonese tradition. A usual Cantonese nuclear family dinner would contain two dishes (with one of them being vegetables) and a soup. Your mom believed that it could boost the immune system and enrich blood. She was the one who insisted that soup was a must-have on the dinner table. For you it’s just something that takes a large amount of your time to make but tastes good. On those summer and winter holidays, you didn’t make soup with love. Most of the time it was just the learned obedience with fear, and the gradual realization of how much time it took away from you, or how different your classmates’ summers and winters were.
With all these memories deep in your mind, you started to make herbal soup for Xiangting in this place, where home was at the opposite side of the globe. Xiangting was not a total stranger. You went to the same undergrad and performed in a musical together once. Then you hadn’t spoken to each other ever since.
You hadn’t made herbal soup for such a long time. In fact, you had refused to make it. Just like you had refused to tell your parents much about your life. But the recipe was imprinted in you. Chinese angelica root, codonopsis root, Chinese wild yam, red dates, some ginger, and chicken. You only needed to gather the ingredients then you just automatically made it out of muscle memory. But this time you had no fear. You had more control on how to live your life. This time, you could spare your mind for kindness.
You served the soup in the communal room. Something so homely at somewhere so homenessless. Xiangting stayed in her room this whole time. You left without saying goodbye in person. She texted you later saying that the soup was the best soup she had had in New York City. She said it tasted like home.
Herbal soup is a must-have for nearly all Cantonese families. My mom is tired of housework, but herbal soup, among all the tedious chores, is the last thing for her to give up.
I didn't get obsessed with herbal soup since my childhood. It didn't make sense to me to spend a massive amount of time making a bowl of flavored water, nor did I believe it could boost my immune system or provide irreplaceable nutrients for the old and the young. As a kid, the hot
herbal soup was a barrier to entertainment after meals (because it takes time for the soup to cool down). Most of the time, I took the soup on command and out of obedience.
I had never made herbal soup since I moved to New York in 2021, when I finally got a hemisphere away from my home. I took ownership of my dining table and tried whatever food deemed unhealthy by my parents. Living in the college dormitory, I enjoyed my own space while sharing the kitchen, dining room, and even condiments with my suitemates.
I did buy some herbs in Chinatown, partly out of homesickness and partly due to the urge from my parents. But for me, herbs like Chinese red dates are only ingredients for afternoon tea, and nothing more. An herbal soup would be a hassle to my hectic life in NYC.
Sidian, surprisingly, cooked an herbal soup and served it in the cluttered common space before leaving quietly. A taste of the soup, despite being in the communal room, made me lost in a myriad of thoughts. It was the homesickness accumulating over the year. It was the delights of delicate cuisine. But, above all, it was a sort of settlement in an unsettling shelter. I missed the meal at home.
I shared the soup with my friend from northern China, who stayed temporarily at my place over the summer. We were friends who met in the same oversea exchange program back in the undergrad and happened to be classmates again at the graduate school. The herbal soup was an amazement for her, another unsettling person who temporarily settled down in NYC.