Zuò yuè zi and Bone Broth
Zuò yuè zi which translates to Sitting the Month from Mandarin refers to the first 40 days after giving birth in which traditionally the new mother takes this time to rest and nurture her baby. This ancient Chinese practice is believed to help the mother recover from birth while nourishing herself with warming and breastmilk promoting foods, such as collagen-rich bone broths and other high protein dishes. There are no visitors, except those who come to help with food preparation and around the house, tidying up, doing the dishes, whatever is needed. The practice is very broad and it involves a lot of other practices that I will not go into detail here, but they are all beautiful and centered on the new mother, giving her space to heal from birth and to discover herself and her new baby.
Many cultures have practices similar to Zuò yuè zi, but they are almost nonexistent in most Western countries, where instead of beautiful and healing rituals, women get pressured into bouncing back to their pre-pregnancy shape immediately after giving birth or resuming their social lives as soon as possible, sometimes going back to work in a flash, all the while getting slapped with ridiculous milestone questions such as “is the baby sleeping through the night yet?”. It’s become really ingrained in our cultures that we commend women for rushing and pushing themselves beyond human limits, without much interest in how they’re actually feeling and what their needs really are after having gone through pregnancy and birth. I too used to believe in this marathon. I even remember reading an article six years ago just after giving birth where it was suggested to the expecting mother to bake a cake right before giving birth so as to impress her first guests as soon as she arrived home with the baby. I remember thinking “Oh, I wish I’d done that”. Boy, am I glad now I didn’t!
A lot has changed for me in these past six years since my first pregnancy and most of all, I feel like I’ve really learned a lot about myself and acquired the courage of tapping into who I really am. And I’m so happy to have learned to honour what I need and to have enough self respect and love to actually make clear demands of myself, as well as of others. As someone who strongly believes in the “secure your own oxygen mask before helping out a child” analogy to parenting philosophy, I’ve really made an effort to make sure my vessel is as often as possible full enough so I can pour from it; I think as a caregiver, it’s really important to do that. One of the most important things I decided to do for myself while still pregnant was to plan these first 40 days after birth. I read a few wonderful books about the post-partum period and I’m happy to include links to them here, here, here and here for those interested and then I got to planning. Among the things I planned, I decided what foods to cook, what to stock up my pantry with and my husband helped prepare copious amounts of bone broth that we afterwards stored in the freezer for future use. And it really turned out to be one of the best ideas ever, as having a new baby as well as a six year old doesn’t leave much time for cooking nutrient rich and healthy foods as much as they would be needed during the early postpartum weeks.
I am now way past the first forty days, that I’ve had the privilege to enjoy as much as possible, baby at breast at what seemed all the time, with no visits except from my mother who has gracefully helped us out with cooking and entertaining my eldest. This new baby couldn’t be more loved by all of us and watching his older sister’s love for him is probably the most beautiful thing I’ve ever witnessed. I’m not trying to paint a picture of perfection, because it wasn’t and it isn’t and it really never is for anyone, it’s equally beautiful and so very hard; sometimes you feel like your arms are going to fall off from holding the baby hours on end, your nipples hurt like hell, it might feel like your brain will shatter from the constant crying while your heart will break into a million pieces as you helplessly look at your wailing baby, but the exhaustion of it all along with the beauty of it all, are both just overwhelming at times. Through all of these trials, I really do stand testament to the power of nourishment. Just having a plate of home cooked warm food at the end of the day or a replenishing healthy oatmeal bowl in the morning makes all the difference.
The recipe below is wonderful for new mothers, but it’s also a very filling and weather appropriate option for everyone, grown-ups and kids alike will enjoy it. Since I’ve started having a little meat now and then during my pregnancy, as it was just something I’ve felt the need to do, the recipe below uses beef. For me, this soup has been the absolute most nourishing thing I’ve had after giving birth, it felt like I was having the mothers of all soup.
P.S. By the way, my baby is not sleeping through the night, infants are not really supposed to do that (some do innately, but most don’t); since milk (especially breastmilk) digests very quickly, they become hungry very often and they are going to ask to be fed as soon as that happens. I’m not saying this soup will help with sleep deprivation, but I guarantee it will nourish new mothers. And it might also keep them in check next time someone asks them if the baby is sleeping through the night, just enough so they can come up with a 2:1 funny to malicious answer in a flash.
1,5kg beef oxtail bones (ask the butcher for help)
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 large yellow onion, peeled & quartered
A handful of dehydrated Wakame or other seaweed, optional
1 large daikon or horseradish root, peeled and cubed into 2½ cm/1 in. pieces
3 Tbsp Tamari (organic if possible) or soy sauce
One star anise, optional (I like it for the extra flavor it brings)
Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F.
Rinse the oxtail bones, pat dry with paper towels, then season with a salt and pepper. Place the oxtail and sliced onion in a roasting tray and roast for 30 minutes.
In a large dutch oven or pot, bring 3L water to a boil. Add the roasted oxtail and onions along with the wakame if using. Cover the pot, reduce heat to low and let simmer for about 2 hours. Add the daikon or horseradish along with the Tamari or soy sauce and star anise if using, then reduce heat to low and simmer covered for an additional 30 minutes – 1 hour. Use a slotted spoon to skim foam off the top if necessary from time to time. When the meat easily falls of the bones, the soup is ready.
The soup can be stored in the fridge for up to 5 days. It can also be frozen – this is what I did during my last month of pregnancy – my husband and I made about 4 batches of this soup, we strained it and we froze it in smaller batches. The soup can be frozen for up to 3 months. One day before using, remove from the freezer and thaw in the fridge before heating up and eating.