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  Beijing Scene

Hearty Healthy Winter Fare

The New Year's season, both Western and Chinese, is a time to get rid of the old and ring in the new. It's a time to make resolutions to improve ourselves and the world around us. It's a time of high purpose and inspiration. It's also a time to freeze your butt off.

So, as a service to all you brave souls out there weathering Beijing's inescapable urban icebox, here's a sample of ingredients and dishes that just might help get you through yet another bone-chilling, teeth-chattering winter and to help ward off all the inevitable ailments that come along with it.

For many Chinese, winter just wouldn't be winter without a dose of Black Chicken Soup. No, this is not your grandmother's chicken noodle soup, but a Chinese specialty that is twice as potent as its Western counterpart and valued for its medicinal properties. Black chicken is literally what its name suggests - a chicken born completely black, through and through, from feathers to bones. It is said that this pitch-colored poultry, stewed for hours to a rich and savory perfection, aids the lungs and stomach and helps supplement the blood. This nourishing quality is called zibu. Black chicken is a strong tonic that helps prevents disease, and is especially good for post-natal women and the elderly.

"Black chicken is our most popular traditional winter dish," says Jiao Jianwen, traditional Chinese medicine expert and manager of Changchun Tang Pharmacy. "It is most effective at fighting disease when consumed in a soup with other medicinal ingredients."

Those ingredients include wolfberries, or gouqi, a small reddish-orange, raisin-like fruit which is good for the kidneys and brightens the eyes. Another mainstay of the recipe is ginseng, pronounced renshen in Mandarin, a time-tested herbal remedy considered a cure-all that fills a whole variety of nutritional needs.

Black chicken soup can be imbibed at many restaurants in Beijing, but a particularly delicious broth is brewed up at Ding Tai Zhen Restaurant (116 Dongsi Nan Dajie, 6522-7286/7578).

An alternative to black chicken soup is a stewy concoction created by the head chef at the Gourmet Garden Sichuan Restaurant (12 Changan Street, 6568-1607/2606) featuring black pigeon instead of chicken.

But if black chicken or pigeon is not your cup of tea, so to speak, then try some ginger. "Ginger is good for warming the stomach and achieving optimal body temperature," says Jiao. "It is especially effective for cold and dry climates like Beijing's."

The most common way to prepare ginger to maximize its medicinal benefits is to brew it like tea. The simplest method is to put slices of peeled ginger and honey into water and then bring it to a boil. Jiao's favorite recipe calls for mincing ginger, mixing it with brown sugar and then boiling it down until it gets almost as dense as molasses.

A less well-known and perhaps more ordinary medicinal winter food is the radish, or luobo. Xiao Wang's Home Restaurant stir-fries up a savory radish dish featuring stewed pork. This hearty fare has the dual benefit of revitalizing your organs and filling your stomach.

But as far as vegetables go radish is overshadowed by the ubiquitous cabbage, or baicai, thanks to past winter-rationing measures. In fact, no visit to northern China would be complete without seeing stockpiles of the wrinkly, green bundles gathering soot in doorways and hutongs (alleys) as soon as winter sets in.

"There was a time not too long ago when we had nothing else to eat in north China in winter," says Jiao. "But now it's not so important. Cabbage has a lot of good vitamins, but radish has more and it can also help you digest food."

Jiao recommends stewing radish chunks in soup stock and mixing in medicinal herbs. According to Jiao, to stay healthy in today's Beijing one should always integrate food with medicinal ingredients. This has always been the way in both the Chinese kitchen and apothecary. Most importantly, when cooking, care should be taken to retain vitamins and medicinal properties.

"Soup is often the best way to cook things," says Jiao. "Especially in winter, the warming effect is highly beneficial. There's also no oil required and the liquid retains all of the nutritional elements that would be lost in other methods of cooking."

For those who need a little red meat now and then, stewed beef and mutton are also nourishing, healthy winter foods. Fried and roasted meats are also good. But, since many of the beneficial elements are lost to extreme heat, it's also best to prepare them in soups, Jiao points out.

Those who want to stay healthy but don't want to eat soup every meal may wish to consider a new variation on the tried and true dumpling.

Uncle Khang's Dumpling Restaurant (8 Baishiqiao Street, 6832-5688/5788) features boiled pork and vegetarian dumplings. The dumplings are made to simulate a mini-soup contained in a little dough pocket. The effect is a meal that melts in your mouth, and offers the same nutritional value as a hearty soup.

Other healthy winter foods worthy of honorable mention include Chinese dates, or zao; tianma, a Chinese tuber, and for the truly adventurous - dongchongxiacao - or Chinese caterpillar-like fungus. The dates are beneficial for the eyes and blood circulation, while tianma goes straight to the head, helping with brain functions and alleviation of headache pain. The fungus is considered to be generally good for you, and said to be most potent when brewed in a strong liquor.

So to tough out the rest of this season, stay warm and keep all these tips in mind when the first cough of the new year tickles the back of your throat.

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