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Vegetables as Food and Medicine: Part One

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Food as Herbs, Health, and Medicine

Winter Volume: 2000 Issue: 7(4) page(s): 15 and 16


Did you know that the United States Department of Agriculture, in 1899, published a pamphlet about Chinese vegetables? It did not discuss their herbal value, per se, but did look at nutritive, economic, culinary, and other uses. Some consider this pamphlet the first Chinese cookbook published in the United States. Before looking at just food and medicinal uses of some popular Chinese vegetables, which we will do so in alphabetic order, a reminder that in the two previous issues of Flavor and Fortune, in Volumes 7(2) and 7(3), similar roles for fruits were discussed.

Herewith begins a pair of articles about ten vegetables. As with those about fruit, it investigates botanical and common names, parts used for healing purposes, yin/yang use and value in terms of qi, some reported health properties, known health hazards–if any, and a few medicinal recipes of these food items. The information provided is what traditional Chinese doctors, called Traditional Chinese Medical practitioners (TCM) believe. This article is not medical advice; for that see a trained and licensed doctor, but the information is provided for historical and cultural purposes.

Amaranth is known in Chinese as xian cai. Botanically, the most common names for this vegetable are Amaranthus tri-color and Amaranthus hypochondriacus. The Chinese use both green varieties called quing xiang xian, and red varieties called hong xian cai of the common amaranth that is also called 'fragrant green vegetable' by the Chinese and 'lady’s bleeding pilewort' or 'velvet flower,' even 'prince’s feather,' and 'red cockscomb' by many others.

All parts of this plant are used be it the root, stem and leaves; they are used for both culinary and medicinal uses. Considered cool, in the yin/yang dichotomy, there are no known health hazards of this delicious green if used correctly, though some Chinese advise not to use pepper when using this vegetable as a medicine, but no one could advise why. They also advise not to use it if the spleen is enlarged, again no reason given.

What they do use it for medicinally is for diarrhea, ulcers, inflammations of throat and mouth; they even recommend it when someone has an allergic reaction to paint. For this the Chinese recommend using the stems and leaves, simmering them in water and when tepid, washing any affected areas. Other uses include mixing the leaves with diced cuttlefish and simmering them for a long time, no one could advise how long, and then eating this mixture for several days in a row should one’s skin be jaundiced. For those that have dysentery, only red amaranth is of value, they say, simmering it for some minutes, adding honey and then eating this sweetened vegetable compote.

Amaranth is also recommended for bee stings, just crush the leaves and apply to the affected area, sting included. Other uses include taking the root for a nose bleed, perhaps two tablespoons worth with half that amount each of watermelon rind and cogongrass (Herba ecliptae), and applying as a minced mixture to the nose. Simmering them together for a few minutes before application was the method of choice in another source. As a vegetable, which the Chinese adore, they cook it just until it wilts with lots of garlic, and just before serving, add a few drops of sesame oil.

Bamboo shoots are known as tian zhu or zhu ru, in Chinese. Bambusa beecheyana (munro) and Arundinaria japonica are their botanical names. Around the world, they are known as Folium bambusae, another botanical nomenclature, and as bamboo and bambusa.

Many places in the literature they are considered neither warm nor cool. For those that do a finer job of differentiation, they say that the leaf is considered cold and sweet, the young shoots cool or neutral, and the juice and shavings under the outer bark-like part to be slightly cold and sweet. This very common Chinese vegetable has no known health hazards, but over use is not recommended, according to one source.

The juice or shoots are used for asthma and if mixed with ginger juice and sugar in equal parts and simmered in a little water, they can be valuable plain or mixed with bitter orange and/or tangerine peel. The Chinese pharmacopea advises that for those with gallbladder problems, take up to nine grams; no recipe given. Should someone have a common cold, they say to use thirty grams of pickled shoots mixed with garlic, soy beans, and red peppers and cook these, no amounts suggested, with noodles, salt, and sesame oil and consume this dish because it causes the body to sweat.

Pregnant women are told that bamboo is used when there is a threatened abortion, for restlessness, heat in their stomach, and to stop vomiting. One source advised this just after the recipe for a cold, no one was sure if they meant that recipe for them, as well. Bamboo is not recommended for everyone. For those with fractures, strains, and stomach problems, a Chinese traditional doctor advises one should avoid bamboo shoots. This and previous recommendations are not always consistent, the suggestion is that for any medicinal use of this or any food item, consult a trained TCM practitioner. That is true for use of bamboo or any other food used as a medicine. Pulse, face color, tongue, and other diagnoses are used by the TCM practitioner to determine differences in usage.

Bamboo shoots are a very popular vegetable. They can be stir-fried alone or mixed with other vegetables with or without meat, and they are preferred when stir-fried without or with very little oil. When the shoots are very thin and small, they are called baby bamboo. When old and thick and quite large the shoots develop layers of internal holes. Then, they are referred to as winter bamboo. Best when fresh, young or old, they can be both sweet and hard to locate. Should you be lucky and find some, cut them up just before using them If you cut these crunchy wonders too early, the flavor changes and it becomes somewhat bitter. Should that happen, they need to be boiled before use. Second best are the frozen ones, they are used as are the fresh ones. If using canned bamboo shoots, rinse them well to remove both salty and tinny tastes. Bamboo juice is also used in recipes; to get some, you need to extract moisture from the roots, particularly those that are a little sweet.

Day lily can always be found dried, and recently they are available in liquid or just plain and in plastic pouches. These have a different taste, and they are used interchangeably as food, not so for their medicinal uses. Called huang hua cai or just huang cai in Chinese, Hemerocallis citrine is the botanical name for the day lily, also they are known as 'golden needle,' or 'tiger lily stem,' and they are considered cool in the yin/yang classification. Though called tiger lily stems, remember that they are not tiger lilies at all, rather they are day lilies. The tiger lily botanically is Lilium tigrinum and it, too, is used both fresh and dried).

The roots of this plant are considered bitter and affecting the spleen and lungs while the flower, fresh or dried, is considered sweet and affecting the lungs and the large intestine. The Chinese do not use the fresh flower often for medicinal purposes, but do use it often when dry, and when they do, about two tablespoons are used in a single dose.

They do use the root for high blood pressure, cooking those two tablespoons with an equal amount of water chestnuts and simmering them for a long time with water. This they drink as a tea. They make a soup of the same amount of flower or root mixed with one tablespoon of wood ear fungus (mu er) and a little pork; this is used for those that have blood in their feces or urine or both. TCM recommends two tablespoons of the dried day lily flower simmered with water and sugar, amounts not specified for those with hoarse speech but they say to keep it in the mouth for a long time before swallowing it.

Other uses are for dropsy where they grind the dry root and using a teaspoon, they add it to rice soup and have this twice a day. It is also used to alleviate pain when menstruating, for a prolapsed rectum, and for both mild cases of jaundice and dysentery.

The most common use of this vegetable is in conjunction with the cloud or wood ear fungus, and most people think of it when in Hot and Sour Soup. Together, they are also used in stir-fry dishes, most commonly in a Buddha’s delight or an all vegetarian dish. When buying them dried, be sure that they are not too brown and certainly not brittle. If they are, they have been on the shelf too long.

Garlic or Allium sativum is called hu suan in Chinese. Though most people know this herb just as garlic, some call it 'calabash garlic' and others know it as 'poor man’s treacle.' The Chinese believe it to be both pungent and warm and a vegetable that invigorates the stomach, warms the spleen, and keeps the lungs healthy. They also believe it eliminates worms, improves digestion, and provides and promotes vital energy or qi. They think that fresh or dried, oil of garlic or the bulb itself is valuable, but not too much of it or it irritates the stomach. They claim that there are no known hazards and that garlic does not cause any allergic reactions, except maybe a mild hand eczema.

They use garlic for the common cold as do many cultures but they use the juice, not the bulb, and mix it with ten parts of cool pre-boiled water and use it as drops in the nose. They also believe that garlic prevents cerebrospinal meningitis by eating a teaspoon’s worth at meals. For tuberculosis, they have a special mixture with some other tuber and rice but for this they only use purple garlic. For whooping cough, this same type of garlic, two tablespoons of it, are soaked in a cup of warm water for six hours, then mixed with sugar and given to children, half teaspoon at a time, three times a day.

There are other Chinese uses of garlic, one is to prevent and treat lead poisoning. Another it to treat dysentery. Yet another, for a nosebleed, crushed garlic is attached to the center of the sole of foot on same side as the bloody nose. They believe that bleeding stops when the soles of the feet get hot. Garlic is also used on either foot, for corns; for this the Chinese take equal amounts of garlic and scallions and crush them to a paste with a small amount of vinegar. They put this mixture directly on the corn. In addition to these uses, the Chinese give garlic to the elderly. There and in the United States research has shown that it reduces elevated lipid levels and prevents age-related vascular changes.

In the Chinese kitchen, garlic is used in almost all meat and in just about every seafood recipe and it is used in many vegetable dishes, too, as the fresh bulb. When their recipes call for garlic oil, they macerate the peeled bulbs in oil and leave them at least two days before using them. Garlic is used somewhat like chives, and as such it is are called garlic chives. These stalks have a small head on top before they open to a flower.

Ginger, the Chinese call jiang, sometimes sheng jiang, even gan jiang. For the first two they are referring to fresh or raw ginger, the last term is used when they mean dry ginger. Mislabeled a root, this rhyzome’s botanical name is Zingeber officianale or Rhyzoma zingiberis.

Considered pungent and warm, the Chinese say that this vegetable warms the stomach and the lungs and it affects the spleen. They believe is induces sweating, alleviates nausea, disperses cold, neutralizes poison, and promotes circulation. This particular food item fresh or dried is considered of equal value, and they steep it fresh or dried, minced or ground, and make a tea using mixing either with boiling water.

Chinese doctors have advised patients not to use ginger tea if pregnant and experiencing morning sickness because it irritates the bile and not to use ginger should they have gallstones. But they do recommend it for coughs associated with phlegm. They would treat a patient with a bad cough with boiled ginger, a Chinese radish, scallions, and water and have them drink some and at the same time rub simmered warm ginger on their back. Should the problem be a cold in the stomach with vomiting, they would suggest two tablespoons of fresh ginger with four times that amount of garlic made into a juice and advise drinking this as one serving, and repeat as needed but not too often.

For roundworms, TCM practitioners say to mix four tablespoons of crushed fresh ginger with an equal amount of honey and eat this three times in one day. For hiccups, the recommendation is for a teaspoon of ginger with some persimmons and mix this in water and drink it; but do not have it more than twice a day. For menstrual cramps, a tablespoon of ginger is mixed with two duck eggs and a quarter of cup of rice wine; this is simmered and eaten all at once. For a migraine, mix ginger skin with scallions and rice wine and drink immediately. Ginger is also used for loss of appetite, to increase one’s qi, and these days, before flying, to ward off travel sickness.

In the culinary arena, ginger is used in many recipes, often in conjunction with garlic. See the many recipes in this and previous issues of Flavor and Fortune. Part two about vegetables as food and medicine will be in the next issue where it will discuss five other vegetables.

Note: This article is expanded from a talk titled: Chinese Herbal Remedies: Rationale and Recipes given by the author at the Alternative Health: Practices and Philosophy Conference at Queens College on November 13, 1999.

                                                                                                                                                       
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