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Food as Medicine: Black Silkie Chicken Broth

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If one of your New Year's resolutions is to eat healthier this year or to try new and exotic foods, here's a bird that might help you satisfy either or both resolutions!

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This grey/black-skinned chicken is called a Black Silkie. Its feathers are said to be more like fur than feather — it does look like a fowl version of a terrier, doesn't it? (Photo courtesy of Rebecca Shull, who raises Black Silkies and other interesting critters at Moonlight Valley Farms, Pennsylvania)

Available fresh or frozen in well-stocked Chinese groceries, the Black Silkie is prized for its distinctive flavor, and its elegant broth is purported to have restorative qualities. Even its flesh is dark grey laced with black streaks, and is supposed to be very stringy and gamey — most soup recipes recommend discarding the entire carcass and drinking only the broth. Since it often costs almost twice as much as other soup hens, I've hesitated experimenting with this chicken. But on a visit to our area's newest Chinese supermarket on New Year's Day, the moment felt propitious and warranted an adventurous purchase.

Once home, a search on the interwebs for soup recipes, yielded a few ingredients common to most: ginseng root, jujubes and dried Chinese yam (Dioscorea opposita). The ginseng and jujubes were easy enough to find without having to trek back 40 miles to the nearest Chinese grocer. But the Chinese yam — which I knew to be as thin-slices of a dried white tuber used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) tonics — was not readily available in the Korean markets that were closer to home. As I searched again for recipes, I came across one from a TCM college that used cubes of fresh Chinese yam, also called shan yao. A cross search of "shan yao" yielded a surprising result: I knew this yam! But I knew it by its Japanese name, yamaimo (literally, "mountain yam/potato"). Hurray! I could find all the ingredients at the Korean market (a mere 22 miles away).
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In addition to the core ingredients of ginseng, jujubes and Chinese yam, the final "recipe" I concocted also included a couple of ingredients that appeared in a few soup recipes, and that we happened to have on hand: ginger and wolfberries. Everything went into a pot with enough water to cover and cooked together for about 5 hours. We really wanted to taste the chicken so I opted to leave out any other flavoring agents, such as rice wine or orange peel.

After straining out all the solids, we were left with a very dark and slightly unctuous broth. It was surprisingly mild, given its deep color, and light on the palate. And it definitely did not "taste like chicken." The broth was uniquely meaty-tasting — in the same way a mushroom broth can be described as "meaty" — but I really couldn't tell you what kind of meat it tasted like. Most importantly, the broth was incredibly warming, leaving a spreading sensation of warmth in the chest and abdomen long after the soup was finished. I understand why this soup is prescribed as a "pick-me-up" for women recovering from child birth and for anyone feeling under the weather.

We did sample some of the breast meat from the Black Silkie, and did find it as stringy as promised, but not really gamey. To be honest, it did not have much flavor at all, and we can only guess that it had lent all its soulful flavor to the broth.

As a first course, the broth provided a pleasing and unique start to our multi-course meal which included homemade char siu pork and Chinese broccoli with fresh baby corn and black mushrooms. An auspicious start to what we hope is a healthy and happy new year.

Happy New Year, Everyone!

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