Eight of the Great Traditional Chinese Medicine Foods
Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food. — Hippocrates
As this year draws to a close, it seems I will be spending more time alone than ever before in my life. My wife will be gone for an indeterminate amount of time, but on the scale of months at least. So it has come down to re-arranging the space in our small home. I have taken over the table for writing and art, but at the same time I respect my wife’s personal space even if she isn’t here, so I don’t touch her stuff. Although she has worked her magic in our small kitchen the time has come to speak of many things of sour bamboo, five-spice powder and black ear fungus. I have been rummaging around the pantry (kitchen cabinets) for a couple months now. I have been making a lot of soups during this pandemic home alone time. So, today I conducted an extensive pantry raid :-)
My wife is the one who taught me some foods are medicine. In the US, there are “Asian Markets” everywhere. They are the place to go for a wide variety of items not found in traditional American supermarkets. After living in China for twelve years, I know some items below are on the shelves in most homes. Here are a few Traditional Chinese Medicine Foods which I am adding to my pandemic mix, and a few (out of fear or ignorance) I am saving for my wife when she returns.
The number one go to medicine food for potency would have to be ginseng. Be careful with the amounts though. Too much of a good thing is bad for your health, especially ginseng. My grandmother used to hunt wild ginseng in the hills of Kentucky as a little girl. This brand of ginseng is sold in every TCM store in the US, and is highly prized in China. When putting in soups, a single piece is enough, and don’t forget to eat it.
Goji is my favorite TCM food. These magical red berries are said to provide many benefits: liver, lung, immune system, nerves, brain,… When I first met my wife she told me to wash a few tablespoons full each day and soak in hot water — drink the “tea” and eat the fruit. Goji is a fantastic addition to your cupboards. Great in oatmeal. Wash them before using.
Star anise is a powerful and cheap anti-viral medicine food. These beauties contain Shikimic acid which is one of the main active ingredients in the Tamiflu, which is used for the treatment of influenza. Although I don’t like the flavor of anise very much (think black jelly beans), I understand it is fighting viruses so into the pot it goes. Watch out for the seeds that fall out, and I do not recommend eating the anise, but that’s up to you.
For authentic Southern Chinese flavored dishes add a dash or two of Five-Spice Powder. The five spices are: anise, fennel, cloves, Sichuan pepper and cinnamon,all of which have antioxidant properties. What Americans put on bakery foods, Chinese put on meat and other dishes for savory flavor. Many Americans love cinnamon, but for my young students in China, cinnamon is a medicine. Each semester I would have two food classes, but I soon learned they refused to eat any dish we made with cinnamon. When you pass a Chinese butcher shop, you will definitely catch a whiff of five-spices powder.
Nothing says medicine food like mushrooms. Mushrooms and fungi are power-packed health foods. The cloud ear fungus, goes by many names, I just call it black fungus. It is an edible jelly fungus bought dried. Because it is dried, it expands three to four times when it re-hydrates in your soups. I have been told it is good for the lungs, liver, immune system and inflammation because of the ant-oxidant qualities. There are dozens and dozens of dried mushrooms varieties for sale in Asian markets, almost as many as there types of noodles. Wash them before using.
Hong Zao is sometimes known as Chinese red date or jujube. According to what I’ve been told, this is especially good for women’s reproductive system. It also aids in the digestion, especially constipation. Wash them thoroughly and plop a few in your soup. Watch out for the seeds.
Dried Lo Han Fruit. Being a lecturer in China, and teaching small children, occasionally I would be stricken with a sore throat. This can be a problem when you talk for a living :-) Dried Lo Han is magical. Break off a piece and make a tea with it. A couple other methods for easing sore throats: boiling ginger with honey, and or boiling pears with sugar.
Sour Bamboo is a southern China and Southeast Asian favorite. I am including it because the smell and taste reminds me of my sweet wife. The first home-cooked meal we ever shared was a local noodle dish which features sour bamboo. Pickled foods have many benefits for the digestion. The strong smell reminds me of the years I lived in tropical southern China. A little of this goes a long way.
While poking about in the pantry, I also found my wife’s medicinal herbs. These are for expert level use only, so I am putting them on the high shelf where they await the return of the master. The one on the left is a very rare medicinal plant. It needs to be infused in 80-proof or higher alcohol for several months before using. I swear it has incredible curative powers for joint and back pains a spoonful at a time. The center one is a massively powerful fungus that in larger doses could prove very harmful. And the one on the right is unknown. And that is half the fun of conducting this pantry raid — the unknown things lurking about in dark recesses of the cupboard. Get Cookin’ Stay Healthy.