I spent some time earlier this week catching up with Chungjun “Ben” Li of Chinatown’s Double Li Szechuan restaurant, which I wrote about back in November. He’s finally translated his entire menu into English, and he’s talking about opening a new place somewhere in the suburbs, maybe in a year or so. But the big news was that late last month his girlfriend, Cindy, gave birth to a bouncing baby boy, name of Ray.
He told me all about the semitraditional postpartum treatment mother and child were undergoing at the hands of a woman he’d hired to cook and care for them. In Chinese culture this confinement period, sometimes known as “doing the month,” is usually managed by the grandparents, but as both sets live out of town, he had to advertise for help. I say the treatment is partly traditional, because Cindy isn’t forgoing showering, laughing, and rising from the birth bed like she might back in China. But she is staying indoors for about a month, and she’s on a special diet which includes, among other things, a lot of soup.
Ben’s task was to pick up a chicken, specifically one of those white, fluffy ones with black skin, known as silkies, which are highly valued in China for various medicinal purposes. Ben’s silkie was destined to be simmered for broth for the new mother, its meat and bones discarded. So we headed off to Wing Ho Live Poultry & Retail, a little shop on 26th that stocks guineas, hens, turkeys, geese, ducklings, rabbits, pigeons, quail, and partridges, all in the most pristine state of freshness possible–which is to say, still scratching and clucking. Along the way Ben extolled the fresh flavor and rugged texture of these birds, “raised wild,” as he said, and insisted I get one of the red free-range chickens to make my own soup. He’d provide the recipe.
Have you been to a live poultry store? For those who don’t hunt or have access to their own animals or abattoirs but want to experience what Michael Ruhlman recommends as “one of five things you should eat before you die . . . the meat of a freshly slaughtered animal, preferably having witnessed the slaughter,” your local live poultry shop is the place to go. It won’t smell good, it won’t be pretty, but there you can meet your meat while it’s still breathing, look it in the eye, and take measure of your omnivorousness. And what you take home is as fresh as it gets. My first experience in one of these places involved two cute little white rabbits who definitely didn’t want to be stew and were violently vocal about it. It was sufficiently traumatizing for me to back away for a time and brood. I like to think I’d have been more stealthy had I done the deed myself.
The birds at Wing Ho might spend their lives free ranging, but they certainly aren’t after they get to the shop, where they wait in crowded cages to be selected by customers, have their throats cut, feathers plucked, blood drained, and carcasses butchered. This definitely is not the place to wax poetic about the bucolic, carefree existence of pasture-fed animals. But they go quickly. My chicken and Ben’s silkie were dispatched, cleaned, and cut up within ten minutes. The whole business happened so fast I had trouble keeping up with it, but I took some pictures (attached), and here’s a pretty fair description of what happens to a chicken in one of these places.
And here’s Ben’s recipe for chicken soup. It’s not the postpartum special his girlfriend is getting, but just a simple clear broth infused with that fresh chicken flavor. Initially the gentle sweetness from the dried dates and longans (a relative of the lychee) was a little disorienting, but it grew on me, and the flavorful and textured meat from the chicken that nobly gave its life beat the hell out of Perdue.
Ben’s Li’s chicken soup
1 freshly killed free-range chicken, plucked, cleaned, cut into pieces (feet included)
4 quarts water
1 knob of ginger, peeled and sliced
3 green onions
1/3 cup rice wine
fistful of dried longan
fistful of seeded dried dates
1 tsp. salt
In a large wok or pot, cover the chicken with cold water and bring to a boil. Remove from heat, drain, and wash it under cold water. Return to the pot and add the water and all the ingredients. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to the barest simmer for three hours. Say thanks to the bird, and enjoy.