Thursday, July 24, 2008

Herbs as Food, Food as Herbs

If you've ever taken Chinese herbs, particularly in the decoction or herbal tea form, you probably shudder and retch at the memory. No doubt it's effective, but sometimes it takes a little prayer and a spoonful of honey to get through your Chinese herbal therapy.

Well guess what - not all Chinese herbs taste like bitter dirt. Some are rather bland and neutral, and some are even sweet and downright tasty. These neutral and sweet herbs are generally milder in action and can be used on a daily basis, mixed with your food.

The thing is, every single natural substance in the world has a medicinal purpose. Some are milder, some are stronger, and some do things that we haven't discovered a purpose for yet. Chinese medicine regularly uses scorpions, centipedes, cockroaches, beetles, clam and abalone shells for medicinal purposes, as well as the usual leaves, stems, roots, seeds, fruits and berries. There is a whole branch of medicine that specializes in the use of different kinds of snakes. Ever seen those whole snakes floating in a yellowish liquid, possibly in Chinatown or Little Saigon? Those can be used for arthritis and impotence.

To put it in perspective, the great Chinese naturalist Li Shi-Zhen, in his encyclopedic 16th-century "herb" manual, the Ben Cao Gang Mu, divides the medicinal substances by type, rather than category of medicinal action. For instance, all the roots are in one section. All the salt water fish in one section, fresh water fish in another, and so on.

So the next time you put something in your mouth, ask yourself what the medicinal functions are. How does it make you feel? How much of it do you eat? What happens at the other end several hours later?

We'll end with a list of common Chinese herbs that are used as food.

  • Lu Dou - mung bean - cool and sweet, used in desserts and summertime drinks
  • Gou Qi Zi - goji berries - warm and sweet. Put a few in your tea.
  • Ju Hua - chrysanthemum flower - available at tea shops as a light, refreshing tea. Often used together with Gou Qi Zi.
  • Xia Ku Cao - prunella or self-heal - this herb is energetically very cold and is often made into a tea with sugar added for a cooling summer drink.

No comments: