My family is Cantonese Chinese, so drinking Asian herbal soups and drinks was one of our most celebrated and deeply rooted traditions. There is a saying that Cantonese people (southeast part of China) would rather drink soup than eat rice. Drinking herbal drinks was not just for nourishment, but for enjoying their flavorful tastes and sharing traditions and love for one another. Many Asian parents (stereotypically) rarely say out loud “I’m proud of you” or “I love you”, but instead show these emotions through cutting fruit or serving herbal soups and drinks.
My mom grew up in a remote, coastal village in the Dapeng region in Shenzhen, China, where the diets are filled with home fermented foods, fresh seafood, chewy rice dumplings, and you guessed it, herbal soups and drinks that are slowly brewed for hours. So growing up, my mom would serve us these same delicious, savory herbal soups filled with nutritious and delicious ingredients such as herbs, fruit, veggies, nuts, and/or meat with our dinner. Drinking these soups and drinks was so soothing and the best way to end our meals or drink as a beverage throughout the meal. Oftentimes, my mom would have herbal drinks or soups low simmering away for hours in colorful clay pots on the stove. Whenever I walked by, I would always lift the pot to take a look at what she was boiling. Oftentimes it was a savory brothy soup with ingredients like goji berries, fox nuts or protein, but other times it was sweet herbal desserts or drinks with ingredients like dried red dates, snow fungus, or peach resin jelly. Whatever it was, the smell was so comforting, and today, the smells always bring me back to my childhood.
So why do Cantonese people drink so much soup? My mom would always say “drink your soup!” or “yum tong [drink soup]” in Cantonese. If I asked my mom or my grandma, “why”, they would just say, “It’s what Chinese people do!.” I never doubted my mom or relatives whenever I got that response. But now as an adult, a Chinese born American adult who would like to pass on these rich Chinese traditions onto the next generation, I need to know!
I did some research. According to China Culture, it might have something to do with the regional climate in Guangdong, which features moist heat. Cantonese people believe that soups can “clear” heat, nourish beauty, strengthen physical health, prevent and cure disease, and nourish vital organs in the body. Many Chinese herbal drinks can counter “yeet hay” 熱氣 in the body, meaning they can help cool down the body after eating too many “hot” foods.
Chinese herbal drinks fall in three categories according to Angela Hui in “You Don’t Win Friends With Soup”, Cantonese soups roughly fall into three categories: tong 湯, geng 羹 and tong sui 糖水. Geng 羹 is what most people know as Chinese soup, and it is enjoyed across China. But it is tong 湯 (and its sweet cousin tong sui 糖水) that sets Cantonese soups apart. Different types of tong can be distinguished by temperature, time and cooking methods including bou tong 煲湯 (boil soup), gwun tong 滾湯 (quick boiling), dun tong 炖湯 (double-boiling) and lo foh tong 老火湯 (slow-cooking ‘old fire soup’).
What my mom would say about these soups and drinks is that they are very bou 補, aka healing and nourishing your body back to health. Fun fact, this word is a play on the Bo 宝 in our name Bo-yi, which means Precious Ceremony.
Today, drinking herbal soups and drinks is one of my favorite parts about my culture. These revitalizing elixirs have not only helped me physically, but have also helped me feel closer to my parents as I’ve moved away from my hometown. Learning more about the Chinese herbal soup and drink culture these past 10 years as an adult has also made me feel more connected to my culture, which as an Asian American who grew up in Texas, can be challenging at times. As an adult, I feel comforted that I have this knowledge and appreciation for these herbs and fruits, and I have my mom to thank for that! There is always a remedy for everything using these Chinese herbal soups and drinks, physically but also emotionally. They are like a warm liquid hug to me. Let’s all yum tong!