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Achieving Balance: Tonic Soups

by Imogene Lim

Food as Herbs, Health, and Medicine

Fall Volume: 1999 Issue: 6(3) page(s): 9, 10, 26, and 28

A soup can begin as well as end a meal. In a restaurant when soup is the last item presented, it is typically sweet and serves as a dessert. At home it is often a slow simmering soup to refresh and balance foods just eaten. Home soups distinguish themselves by a cornucopia of dried ingredients (vegetables, herbs, seeds, and/or fruits) added to a pork and/or chicken soup stock. Rare is the one ingredient soup. The taste of this type of soup is not the sweetness of sugar but of a pleasant melange of flavor, or sometimes even of a slight bitterness. Three examples of soups typically made at home will be presented in this discussion. All of them are made with dried ingredients. They are: Ching Po Leung, Cane and Arrowroot Stock, and Dried Cole.

Food as Medicine: There is nothing as wonderful as fragrance from a simmering pot of soup to whet one’s appetite or remind of family cooking. The soups I recall and make for myself are those not commonly found on restaurant menus. They are slow simmering soups that are as much tonics as they are food. They nourish the body, not with protein and minerals in the western sense of nutrition, but with qi energy (pronounced “chee”).

Qi is a fundamental concept in Traditional Chinese Medicine; it is an invisible vital force that circulates throughout the body along prescribed pathways (known as meridians). If it does not flow smoothly or is stuck, illness is the result. For this reason, stimulation of qi can be in the form of acupuncture or acupressure. Qi is also stimulated by food. As readers of Flavor & Fortune know: 'food is medicine.' There is a truism in Chinese: One cannot draw a line between foods and herbs. That is, there are many plants that are equally foods and herbs.

In Western food ideology, foods are categorized according to proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, and minerals. In contrast, in Eastern ideology they are classified according to their taste, organic action, movement, and energy as they affect qi.

The chart at the end of this article illustrates associations between tastes and their influences on major organs. Only in regard to diabetes does Western medicine associate taste, sweet, with illness. However, in Chinese thinking, these associations need to be considered when using food as medicine because their balance produces harmony, or health.

Yin and Yang includes maintaining balance between opposing forces; this is a fundamental concept in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Any imbalance in these forces can result in sickness and poor health. Yin/yang is a basic concept to the Chinese world view and is analogous to moon/sun, earth/heaven, water/fire, cold/hot, and female/male, respectively. Movement is also associated with them and for yin, there is a tendency to contract and flow downwards, while for yang, there is a tendency to expand and flow upwards and outwards.

The important of understanding the yin/yang concept is the recognition that each is a part of a whole, and one is not isolated from the other. So, when considering food combinations, yang accompanies yin and vice versa. They create movement, but so do certain parts of plants in their effects. This explains the use of plant leaves rather than its roots for certain illnesses. Leaves and flowers produce a tendency of upward movement while roots, seeds, and fruits produce a tendency of downward movement. Movement can also be inward as well as outward. All of these affect qi.

Yin/yang helps explain the dynamic of food in relation to qi, that is its philosophical energy. Foods can be cold, cool, neutral, warm, or hot. These terms do not describe the temperature of the item, but the effect on the body upon ingestion, that is the sensation created in the body.

Foods typically recognized as hot are: Rich in fats, such as mutton, eel, or peanuts, also Spices, such as chili peppers or ginger; and Strong alcoholic drinks. Those identified as cold generally are fruits, as well as bland vegetables including those grown in water, such as seaweed and watercress. Water has a cooling effect. Some foods are neutral, the most common of these is rice. The above are generalizations rather than an itemized list of ingredients. Be aware that there is limited unanimity regarding food energies. For example, in one book mango is identified as cool, yet it is known to me as a hot food.

Although a food itself carries energy, that hotness or coldness can be manipulated by the addition of other contrasting ingredients. Chili is the obvious example to increase hotness in all senses. The manner of food preparation has an effect as well. Deep-frying, grilling, or long baking impart more heat to the food. In the case of a slow simmering soup, the gradual application of heat reduces its energy unlike the suddenness of heat in deep-frying, the hottest of food preparations.

For the serious practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine, foods are not simply identified as healthy or unhealthy. The state of the individual is a variable. For example, a person suffering from a hot illness will not want to ingest hot or warming foods. That person needs cooling foods to balance his or her system. The manner of preparation has an effect as well as when the food is consumed, that is, the season. Certain foods may be more desirable in summer rather than autumn for their movement of qi; for example, the preference is outward and downward, respectively, during those times.

Rather than spend inordinate amounts of time determining which foods are best for you at any given moment, consider preparing a tonic soup to achieve that balance. This is particularly true as the seasons change: spring to summer, then autumn to winter.

Tonics: As with many Chinese food preparations, manufacturers have made cookery tasks easier. Either the tonic has been processed so that the addition of only hot water is necessary, or standard measures are pre-packaged ready to be added to soup stock. Examples of the former include: Lo-Han-Kuo Beverage, and Cane and Imperatae Beverage. In my youth, this mass marketing did not exist. If one wanted to make a particular soup, one needed to consult an herbalist or a knowledgeable person about the specific ingredients.

With a multitude of filled bins gracing the storefronts and the shelves of Chinese markets these days, the casual shopper might be at a loss as to choice, or even the knowledge of the necessary items to get. They can benefit from tonic soups without acquiring the expertise of an herbalist. As noted in an insert accompanying Lo-Han-Kuo Beverage: “Long time drinking of this beverage will improve liver and strengthen spleen, stimulate spirit and promote the flow of saliva. It is reputed as the choice of the cooling beverage. Besides, it can also be used as subsidiary material for making tonic soup. It is convenient to take and easy to carry.” Foods that generally have tonic action on the body are said to be pu, that is strengthening, supplementing, and/or restoring. Although pu foods are hot, by slow simmering they are reduced to gentle warming. Basically they help to correct bodily imbalance. The following soups are all-purpose tonics. Many can be fund pre-packaged. Read the nutrient infrmatin carefully as some make a single serving while others make enough for several diners.

TASTE------YIN organ-----YANG organ
Sour----------Liver-------------Gall Bladder
Bitter---------Heart-------------Small Intestine
Pungent-----Lungs------------Large Intestine
Dr. Imogene Lim teaches anthropology at Malaspina University College in Nanaimo BC Cabada, She took all the accompanying protographs that appeared in the hard copy of this issue. Professor Lim is a long-time foodie whose research interests and professional efforts include food and ethnicity. An example can be seen when as a visiting professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, she taught a course titled: Consuming Identites: At the Table of Asian America.
Basic Pork Soup Stock
2 pounds meaty pork neck bones
half tablespoon salt
12 to 14 cups water
2 Tablespoons yellow rock sugar
1. Place ingredients into a large stock pot. Bring to a boil then skim the surface.
2. Add packaged ingredients and simmer for several hours or as directed.
Ching Po Leung Soup
1 package Ching Po Leung
10 honey dates
1/2 of adried Lo-Han-Kuo fruit
1 recipe Basic Pork Soup Stock
1. Rinse packaged ingredients and drain.
2. Add to soup stock with remaining ingredients. Dried figs can be substituted for the honey dates, but use only five or six as they are sweeter and larger.
3. Simmer for at least two hours, the longer the better.
Note: Lo-Han-Kuo is also known as momordica. It requires a degree of force because the rind is rather hard. Keep in mind that neither the rind nor its seeds are edible. Also, care should be taken with the honey date because the pit is sharp.
In addition: Packaged ingredients for Ching Po Leung are sometimes identified as such in English, but more often than not, they are simply labeled Dried Assorted Vegetables. See the photograph with seven dried ingredients in the hard copy of this issue; it illustrates Dioscorea, lotus seeds, fox nuts, dried longan, dried lily bulb, pearl barley, and polygonatum. The pre-packed ingredients can be bought individually. I regularly add more of each to soup pots as I enjoy eating them.
Cane and Arrowroot Soup
1 package Cane and Arrowroot Stock
1 recipe Basic Pork Soup Stock
1. Rinse and soak the packaged ingredients overnight.
2. Add them to the prepared soup stock then simmer for at least two hours.
Note: The packaged soup has four ingredients: Sugar cane, imperatae, arrowroot, and dried carrots. Discard the sugar cane and imperatae as they are indigestible after the soup has been made.
Dried Cole Soup
1 package dried cole*
2 Tablespoons bitter almond
12 honey dates
2 Tablespoons sweet almond
1 dried orange peel, about 2 by 2 inches
1 recipe prepared Basiv Pork Soup Stock
1. Rinse and soak the dried cole overnight.
2. Drain and reserve the liquid. Cut the cole into four-inch pieces.
3. Add cole and reserved liquid to prepared soup stock with the other ingredients. Simmer for at least two hours.
Note: Depending on the package, the ends of the bok choy may be somewhat tough so discard them as they are used to provide flavor. Please note that 'cole' can be a misnomer--perhaps a poor translation because 'dried cole' is bok choy. The soup can be made with either dried or fresh bok choy.

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