When I lived in San Francisco, I had a wonderful acupuncturist named Dr. Angela Wu. Dr. Wu advised me to strengthen my constitution by drinking soup stock made from “black silky chicken.” Now, I rarely eat meat of any kind, but I did my best to follow her instructions. I went to Chinatown and found the frozen black chickens, and, per the recipe, I put one in a pot with ginger, scallions, and water, let it simmer for 3-4 hours, and strained out the rich stock. I liked drinking the stock, but making it took work, and though I now live in New York, Chinatown is out of my way. What’s more, I had no idea where these chickens came from. I like to know a food’s origins, and try to eat food grown with environmentally friendly practices. In the case of meat, I look for humanely raised animals from small, local farms. With all of the hassle, and the anonymity of the chickens, I stopped making the stock.
Enter Anita Lee and Bo Bo Chicken. I met Anita, VP of Sales for Bo Bo Chicken — a grower and distributor of poultry — during last October’s New York Food and Wine Festival; she was selling black chickens and other birds at a promotional event in Chelsea. I could not believe that someone was selling the chickens north of Grand Street — along with a packet of medicinal Chinese herbs, no less. I asked if Anita would show me her recipe for chicken stock. It turns out that Anita lives two blocks away from me in Williamsburg, and when I arrived at her apartment I was delighted to see that she had laid out all of the herbs for the soup on colored pieces of paper. (See photos.)
First off, she explained that Chinese medicine uses your own strength to heal you, and that soups made with silky chickens are believed to strengthen the blood. Silky chickens have black skin, black meat and black bones, and are covered in snowy white feathers. According to Bo Bo’s website, “Silkies can be boiled into a tonic soup that Asians believe can strengthen the sick, elderly, and pregnant due to its high iron content.” The particular combination of herbs that Anita showed me is for helping women get pregnant; it’s Anita’s grandmother’s recipe (someone has an agenda!). The broth is also meant to help stabilize low blood pressure and dizziness, and to warm the body by invigorating the blood.
As Anita prepared the herbs and chicken for the soup, she told me about the philosophy behind the family business. The chickens that Bo Bo raises are meant to provide an alternative to the chicken sold in American supermarkets, which are usually not fresh, often contain chemicals and hormones, and are sold without the feet and head. Bo Bo’s “heritage breeds” taste like what New York’s Chinese immigrants grew up eating. Their chickens contain no hormones or antibiotics, and unlike more “efficient” American breeds that have unnaturally large breasts, Bo Bo’s chickens have smaller breasts with meatier legs and thighs.
Although the chickens are not pasture-raised — Anita believes there is too much risk for them to contract diseases in the outdoors — there are other ways that Bo Bo’s chickens are raised with more care than the average store-bought chicken. For example, Bo Bo’s chickens grow at their natural pace — anywhere from 12 to 20 weeks, depending on the type of chicken — in contrast to industrially raised birds that are generally boosted to full size in just 4-5 weeks. Importantly, Bo Bo customers know where the chickens come from — Bo Bo farms are spread throughout Sullivan and Ulster counties in New York State — and they can check the freshness of every detail, including the clearness of its eyes. Bo Bo’s farms even invite area farmers to pick up their chicken manure and use it as fertilizer.
The way Anita sees it, her work is helping to preserve Chinese culture and share it with a wider audience. A former architect who stepped in to help run the family business when her father became ill, Anita brings her passion for good food, learning, and a love of family to the work she does. The amount of research she had available for me to look at, including ingredients, Chinese books on traditional medicine, and handwritten recipe notes from her cousin and grandmother was impressive. I got the sense that Anita is on a mission to educate herself about her own cultural history as much as she was helping to teach me.
One thing I learned was about the Buddhist tradition of chicken slaughter. According to Bo Bo’s website, in order to meet the standards of Chinese ceremony and tradition, “The chicken must be perfect and is usually the centerpiece of the family dinner. A perfect chicken is completely whole, neck un-broken, head and feet attached. Markings and bruises on the chicken are frowned upon and may bring bad luck for the New Year.”
In my ideal world, Bo Bo’s chickens would run around outside eating their natural diet of worms and insects up until slaughter, but the conditions in which they’re raised are enlightened enough that I’m open to start making black silky chicken stock again on a regular basis. To learn more about Bo Bo Chicken, and find where their products are sold, see their website, http://www.bobochicken.com/.
Recipe: Anita’s Grandmother’s Silky Chicken Tonic Soup for Increasing Fertility
A note from Anita’s grandmother: This soup is good for dizziness, headaches, and has been known to help women get pregnant. But the soup is no good if you are coughing or have cold symtoms. And is better for women and not men. But men of weak disposition can drink a little bit of it.
Look for the herbs in the ingredient list in Chinese markets. If you can’t find the herbs, use 6 slices of fresh ginger and one bunch chopped scallions.
Yield: 3 cups stock
Ingredients (ingredient names are in Cantonese, Mandarin, English, and Latin where available):
- 黑豆 – 100 pieces
(C: hat dao) (M: hey do)
Dried Black Beans
- 杞子– 80 pieces
(C: gai gee) (M: gay zha)
- 紅棗– 12 pieces
(C: hong dao) (M: huang jo)
Dried Red Dates
- 南棗 – 3 pieces
(C: nam jao) (M: nan jo)
Red Dates, but looks black
- 淮山 – 10 pieces
(C: wai san) (M: way shan)
- 當歸– 25 pieces
(C: dong quay) (M: don guay)
Radix Angelicae Sinensis
- 白芷– 5 pieces
(C: bak ji) (M: bei zhi)
- 川芎– 20 pieces
(C: chuan gong) (M: chuang gong)Rhizoma Chuanxiong
- 党参 – 1 pieces cut into ½ inch pieces
(C: dong sum) (M: dang shen)
Poor Man’s Ginseng
Extract the pits from the dates and throw the pits away. Immerse all the Chinese herbs in cold water for 30 minutes. Strain and rinse in several changes of cold water. Remove any fat pockets from the chicken. Discard the fat. Rub the salt all over the chicken, including the insides. Rinse the salt off the chicken under cold water.
Detach the head and the tips of the toes including the nails. Discard the head and toes. Cut the chicken into quarters. For a low-fat version, remove the skin of the chicken. But if you are using the Silky Chicken, keep the skin on as it is said to be very nutritious.
Place the quartered chicken in a large stockpot. Add 10 cups of cold water. Set fire to high heat and bring to a boil. Skim the fat on the top of the soup with a skimmer as it cooks.
Add all the Chinese herbs and 3 chunks of 1 inch ginger into the pot. Bring to a boil again and then immediately reduce the flame to a simmer. Simmer for at least 3 hours, up to 6 hours. Add a few pinches of salt to taste. Serve hot.
Normally the meat and herbs are not eaten, as the flavor has gone into the soup, but you can taste it if you wish.