Confinement dish fit for a new mother

SINGAPORE - I have been cooking dinners for my daughter-in-law, who has just completed one month of confinement after giving birth to her first child.

Though I am not an expert of Chinese confinement meals, I have tried to follow as much as possible of what I know about the strictures of the diet.

I hated the food that was served to me during my confinement, oh so many years ago.

While many enthuse, especially over the classic pig trotters cooked in black vinegar, the other dishes are, well, rather boring - no matter what the recipe.

They tend to be fish, offal or chicken, all cooked with ingredients that are considered "heating" and nourishing in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), such as old ginger, sesame oil and rice wine.

Sometimes, Chinese herbs such as ginseng and danggui (Chinese angelica) are added to these confinement dishes because they are seen as tonics.

Drinking plain water is never allowed.

Rather, tea made from brewing dried longans and red dates to promote "heat" and improve iron levels - which may be low from blood loss during childbirth - is drunk throughout the day.

These days, breastfeeding is practised more commonly. This has jeopardised many of these old dietary practices, as whatever the new mother consumes can be passed to her baby through her breast milk.

So Chinese herbs, spices and rice wine - which may affect the baby's digestion and development - are out when the mother is breastfeeding.


It has made my job more challenging.

I have tried, therefore, to cook dinners that still revolve around fish, chicken and even beef, but with ingredients that are nourishing, though not necessarily in TCM.

Which cannot be too different from what non-Chinese women eat after giving birth, no?

One night, I even cooked bouef bourguignon - a classic French dish of beef cooked in red wine with pearl onions and carrots - for I cannot think of anything more nourishing than this gentle braise.

Fish is a constant on my menu, because it is supposed to promote lactation (milk production).

I vary the cooking methods, so it may be steamed one night, cooked in soup (yes, with papaya, as in the traditional recipe) another night, or baked, as in this recipe.

This sea bass dish has no ginger, but it has just a little white wine, which does not contain much alcohol and a significant amount of this evaporates after baking.

The dish also contains slices of lemon and fennel.

Fennel is a galactogogue, a substance that promotes lactation in humans and other animals.

As for the lemon, it reportedly helps digestion, removing wind and bloating, and is antiseptic, having a powerful cleansing effect on the liver, kidneys and blood.

It also has a high mineral content that makes it alkalising to the body, despite the citric acid.

Some people believe that an alkaline diet can help maintain the body's ideal potential hydrogen (pH) balance (acidic and alkaline balance) to improve overall health, though detractors say that the body maintains its pH balance regardless of diet.

Anyway, it is not the acid content of a type of food that determines whether it will have an acidic or alkaline effect, but rather the way it is metabolised during digestion that counts.

But never mind that. This is a fish dish you can cook whether or not someone in the family has just delivered a baby.

The combination of fish with lemon and fennel is unbeatable.

The vegetable becomes sweet, salty and sour all at once, rather like the addition of salty and sour kiam chye (salted mustard leaf) to a steamed fish.

Another plus - the dish takes less than 30minutes to turn out.

What more can you ask from a dish, whether it is for a new mother on confinement or not?

Sylvia Tan is a freelance writer and cookbook author. Her previous recipes for Eat To Live can be found in two cookbooks, Eat To Live and Taste.


Baked sea bass with fennel and lemon slices

(Serves two or three)


1 sea bass, about 500g,

scaled and gutted, stomach cavity slit open

1 tsp salt or to taste

1 medium-sized fennel bulb, sliced thinly

1 lemon, sliced thinly

½ cup white wine

1 tbs olive oil

Black pepper to taste

A sprig each of fresh basil leaves and fresh thyme leaves


Heat the oven to 180 deg C.

Rinse and dry the sea bass.

Season it all over with salt, then stuff the cavity with some fennel and lemon slices. Then set the sea bass aside.

Scatter the leftover fennel and lemon slices in a roasting dish that can be served at the table.

(I used a glass baking dish).

Add a pinch of salt over them, and then add the white wine.

Bake the contents in the dish for about 10 minutes in the oven.

Then place the sea bass on top of the fennel and lemon slices.

Drizzle the sea bass with olive oil and bake it for about 15minutes or until it is cooked through.

Serve the dish immediately, garnished with fresh basil, thyme leaves and pepper.

Get a copy of Mind Your Body, The Straits Times or go to for more stories.