When Annie Cok entered the final stretch of her pregnancy last winter, her mother-in-law knew it was time to start making the pickled pigs feet stew.
Called geung cho in Cantonese (literally "ginger vinegar"), the stew combines pig trotters, hardboiled eggs, and gnarly hunks of roasted ginger in a rich brew of sweetened black vinegar and sharp black rice vinegar. It's a must for Chinese women during postpartum "confinement," a month-long period when new mothers stay indoors after giving birth, resting, and eating a special diet.
Cold beverages and most vegetables, considered to have a cooling effect on the body, are off limits. Instead, dishes with ginger, red dates, rice wine, and wood ear mushrooms—ingredients believed to be warming, restorative, and strengthening—are served to new mothers.
There are many confinement dishes, and different families have their particular favorites—but the pickled pigs' feet stew is universal.
"People talk about [geung cho] like you have to have it as part of your confinement, otherwise you won't have enough nutrients to restore your body," says Cok, who was raised in Brooklyn and now lives in Queens.
It also makes for exceptionally good eating. The tender trotters and thick broth are spicy-sweet, with savory undertones and a tangy edge. It's a meaty main dish with one foot (pun intended) firmly planted in dessert territory.
"When I was a child it was like, 'Oh please, someone have a baby,'" says Chinese-American cookbook author Grace Young. "This is the most delicious thing in the world. The pickled pigs' feet are unctuous—just sublime, rich, and tender with the perfect balance of sweet and sour."
Young has happy memories of geung cho from her childhood in San Francisco. The stew, which she included in her cookbook The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen, was a rare treat made at home to mark the arrival of a new baby. She remembers her own mother carefully peeling several pounds of ginger and using a shaving blade to remove hairs from the pigs' feet before putting them into the stew.
"It's very effort intensive work. People don't make pickled pigs' feet every week or every month—it's only when a baby is born," Young says. "You can find it in some restaurants, but there is something about the homemade version that is so delicious."
Before Cok's son Rhys was born this past February, her mother-in-law, Pui Lan Yiu, made a huge pot of pickled pigs' feet stew. First Yiu skinned five pounds of ginger and dry-roasted it in her wok over several days. Then she added roughly a gallon of the two vinegars and kept simmering the mixture in a special clay cooking vessel on and off over the course of a month.
After Cok's son was born, the pigs' feet came into play. "When the baby finally arrived, [my mother-in-law] went to the market and bought the pig trotters, cleaned them, and put them in the geung cho," Cok says. "They're in there so long that the vinegar pretty much liquefies the bones, which go right into the liquid and thicken it."
For the first two weeks after giving birth, Cok ate a mild soup of chicken simmered with dried wood ear and shitake mushrooms in rice wine. The dish, called gai zhou in Cantonese, is believed to cleanse the reproductive system.
All the while, Yiu kept simmering the pigs' feet in the ginger and vinegar broth. "No two ginger vinegar [stew] pots are alike. They're just evolving throughout the month," says Cok. "In the beginning it's very pungent. But as the days go by in the confinement period, it gets more and more mellow and it's not so stinging in the nose."
After 12 days, Yiu added hardboiled eggs to the stew, and Cok was finally allowed to have a small bowl. Whenever friends and relatives came to visit the new baby, they also were offered a taste.
"Everybody eats the geung cho, not just the [new] mom. It's like, party on! Take a bowl of geung cho and eat!" Cok explains. "When it's the birth of a baby, everyone is going to come anyway, so this is what you serve them."
According to traditional Chinese beliefs, geung cho warms the body and stimulates the production of breast milk. The hardboiled eggs also symbolize birth, and the yolk and white represent the ideal balance of yin and yang.
"When a woman has given birth it's said that she has exposed herself to the cold. The worry is that your body will remain cold, and this will invite sickness," Young explains. "Eating geung cho restores balance."
Initially Cok was skeptical about the traditional Chinese postpartum diet her mother-in-law recommended. And her doctor in New York had never heard of confinement dishes like geung cho and gai zhou. (Western postpartum diets tend to focus on iron, protein, vitamin C, and weight loss.)
But her mother-in-law's pickled pigs' feet stew won Cok over. "Maybe it's psychological but I felt like it gave me warmth," she says. "I ate a few bits of it, and my stomach felt better."
Young sympathizes with Cok's ambivalence. She sees many young Chinese-Americans struggling to balance the old traditions with modern, Western living. "People just say you must eat [the geung cho], but they don't really elaborate as to why," Young says. "It really is like prying information from people who aren't used to expressing themselves about traditions that are so ingrained in them that they don't talk about it."
So when Young's cousin gave birth in New York a few years ago, she didn't even offer to make geung cho for her. "I was about to make it and then I realized that she's too Western and she wouldn't be into it," Young says. "I thought, 'That's a lot of work if she's not into it.'"
But Cok has found a way to make the traditional postpartum food traditions her own. "All the other [confinement] rituals can go out the window, but the constant is this ginger vinegar [stew]," Cok says. "Probably I will make it for my daughter-in-law one day."
Pick up a rare readymade version of geung cho in Manhattan's Chinatown, and hear more about Annie Cok's struggle to make traditional Chinese confinement practices fit in with modern life in New York City.