In the modern age, there are many ways to take your Chinese herbal formulas. But preparing your herbs the traditional way does have some advantages.
1. Strength. Modern technologies are all aimed at reproducing the strength of stove top cooking. While they have come close, they still can't equal what you can do in your kitchen.
2. Control. With the herbs right in front of you, you know exactly what goes into your herbal tea. Your acupuncturist may give you special instructions on whether to cook your herbs for a long time or a short time, your even whether to cook some ingredients separately.
3. Time. The cooking process forces us to slow down from the busy pace of our lives and concentrate on doing something good for ourselves. Instead of popping a pill and forgetting about it, we become more engaged in our recovery to good health.
4. Aroma. Now, this might not be a positive for some people. But we absorb just as much information from our sense of smell as we do from our other senses, and the aroma of your herbs cooking on the stove signals your body that something profound is about to happen.
5. Steam, Dregs. There are many uses for Chinese herbs other than drinking the tea. For acne or skin-related formulas, your acupuncturist may tell you to steam your face over the herbs (be very careful not to burn yourself if you do this - wait until the tea has cooled significantly, enough so that you can safely put your face or other affected body part over the steam). Or they may suggest using the cooked herbs themselves, rather than the tea, as a poultice on a particular acupuncture point or region of the body. Be sure to follow your acupuncturist's directions in this regard.
How to Cook Chinese Herbs
Keeping in mind that your Chinese medicine doctor may have special instructions for you, here are some general guidelines on cooking herbal teas.
1. Put the herbs into a pot. The best type of pot to use is a traditional ceramic herb pot. Enamel ware such as Le Creuset is also a good choice, and stainless steel will work fine as well. Just be sure to avoid aluminum pots as the herbs may react with some of the constituents of the pot.
2. Cover with cold, clean water. How much water should you use? A general guideline is two fingers above the level of the herbs, but you may have some herbs that float or very bulky, grassy herbs, in which case you can use about 5 cups.
3. Let soak for at least 30 minutes.
3a. Some people advise to then pour off this soaking water and cover the herbs again with more cold water. If you do this, be careful that you don't lose any herb material down the drain. Remember to not soak any powders as these will mix with the water and be poured off.
4. Turn the heat to high and bring to a boil.
5. Once boiling, turn down the heat to medium and simmer for about 25 minutes, or until you have about one cup of liquid left, and then pour off the decoction (use a strainer to catch any herb matter). If you are new to cooking Chinese herbs, check the water level occasionally to make sure you don't boil the herbs dry. If you do happen to burn the herbs, throw them out and start again with a fresh packet - burning the herbs completely changes their character.
6. Let the decoction cool a bit, and drink while still warm.
6a. Some herb doctors will tell you to cook the herbs again, using the same herbs but more water, BEFORE you drink your herbs. Then you combine the results with the first batch and divide them. You will then have two doses, one for the morning and one for the evening. The idea is that the second cooking extracts more active ingredients than could be achieved by simply cooking it once for a longer period of time. However some people think this is unnecessary. Ask your Chinese medicine professional which procedure to follow.
7. Do not mix any sugar or honey with your herbs, unless your Chinese medicine doctor has instructed you to. If the taste puts you off, you drink something sweet or have a small spoonful of honey directly afterwards.
8. Congratulations! You have just participated a very old tradition that still brings great benefit to our modern lives.