Chinese bowls of balance

People need to adjust to each season, from autumn right through to winter and spring, says Marilynne Jackson. The Chinese culture has soup to help people do just that.

Soups are made to help through [transitions],” says Jackson, a Chinese-Canadian who will be demonstrating her soup-making skills in an upcoming workshop at the Sun Yat-Sen Chinese Garden. “The soups are very soothing; a lot is to fortify the system, to strengthen the core of what you have. They are meant to balance the body, to keep the Qi, the life force in all of us, and the blood in balance.”

The workshop will take place on Feb. 16 at the Garden in Chinatown.

Bone and bark

Chinese soups can be grouped into broad categories, all designed to correct various imbalances in the body.

Marilynne Jackson will host a workshop on Chinese medicinal soups. | Photo courtesy of Marilynne Jackson

There are tonic soups, “supplement[s] if there are any deficiencies,” Jackson explains. “[There] is an eliminating soup to dispel dampness, an aid to help clear the system. [Another] one is harmonizing, and it’s to keep balancing the internal systems, the spleen, the lungs, the stomach, liver organ, and the kidneys.”

One particular soup, a ginger and pig’s feet soup, is designed to correct imbalances in the female body that occur after women give birth, continues Jackson.

“In old China, they didn’t use meat very much because of cost. So while everybody could have this soup, new mothers would definitely have priority,” says Jackson. “There’s a lot of ginger, so it’s a hot soup; it heats. It’s to rebuild the entire body system after birth, which depletes the mother.”

Pig’s feet and other Chinese ingredients can sound exotic to Western ears, Jackson laughs.

“A lot of them are roots, and sometimes it’s bark off particular trees,” she clarifies. “Lily bulbs. People just grow lilies; they don’t think about eating them. Angelica roots; cinnamon bark; licorice root; foxglove root, which turns the soup black; white peony root; maybe berries and red dates to sweeten. This will all be boiled up with a bone broth.”

Jackson learned soup-making as a child growing up in northern British Columbia.

“Back in the 50s, all the little corner stores were all Chinese,” she says. “The reason for that is that they didn’t speak English, or if they did, not well, so they weren’t hired for anything else. That’s how they ended up in small communities where they could afford to buy into a business.”

Living in a small community meant that traditional Chinese dishes were often not available for Jackson and her family.

“Everything we did we had to make ourselves,” says Jackson. “They were tight communities. They had at least each other; they would make things in big batches and share. It was social. If someone wasn’t well, someone else would make soup and take it along.”

A big mix

Jackson says she is pleased that, in the Vancouver of today, traditions such as Chinese soup are becoming mainstream, something she attributes to multiculturalism.

Pots of dried herbs on exhibit at the Sun-Yat Sen Classical Chinese Garden. | Photo courtesy of Paul Wong

“[Nowadays] there are a lot of Asian mixes − with Chinese not always the common language,” she says. “In the time period when I was growing up, it was more difficult if you didn’t speak Chinese. [And] if you speak Mandarin, you won’t understand Cantonese. I think [the common language of] English has made it easier for more to be available. And of course on the Internet there is everything!”

Some ingredients are now part of Western culture, Jackson points out.

“There’s a resurgence. Goji berries have become a thing, [and] seaweed,” she adds. “It passes on; it continues.”

Jackson will make two such balancing soups at her workshop, held as part of artist Paul Wong’s exhibition j淑芳你好嘛 (Suk-Fong Nay HoMah) / Suk-Fong, How Are You?.

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