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Fruits As Food and Medicine: Part One

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Food as Herbs, Health, and Medicine

Summer Volume: 2000 Issue: 7(2) page(s): 19 and 20

The Chinese consider foods for their culinary and for their medicinal properties. To them, foods are herbs and herbs are foods. Their medical literature is rich with discussions about food for healing and food for eating. Much can be learned about both. The information that follows was found in both cookbooks and medicinal volumes. Therefore, the purpose of this article is to begin the investigation of some foods along both these veins. At the November conference co-hosted by this magazine’s parent organization and an Alumni Association at Queens College, your editor spoke about the food and medicinal considerations of ten fruits and ten vegetables. Five of the common fruits discussed there are discussed below. The others and the vegetables will follow in future issues.

The five fruits that follow, fig, gooseberry, hawthorn, loquat, and the Chinese date, are explored in terms of their botanical and common names, parts used for healing purposes, their use in the yin/yang dichotomy of for qi, reported health properties, and known major health hazards. Included will be a few recipes, most medicinal. Not all known formulae nor all medical uses will be included; to do so requires volumes as does all the ways they are used for any specific condition. The information that follows is intended to educate about the broader food uses in the Chinese culture. Usage for medicinal purposes requires professional understanding and treatment. Therefore, do not use any of these fruits as herbals for treatment, cure or prevention of any condition or disease without first consulting Chinese-trained medical personnel.

Fig, called wu hua gao, is botanically known as Ficus carica. It is a fruit in the Moraceae family. There is a second type of fig, Ficus pumila, more commonly known as creepy fig, that is also used in many regions of China. This fruit has several common names including honey fruit, milk fruit, and flowerless fruit. That last name is because the flowers are hidden inside the fruit.

Grown on trees, figs can be any color from yellow-purple to purplish-brown. They are high in several sugars including glucose, fructose, and sucrose and they have some enzymes thought to be healthy, as well as citric and malic acids, and some steroids. In the south of China, figs are added to many soups and stews because they are believed to be very nourishing and good for general fitness. Greeks and Romans believed that, too.

The Chinese medical literature says that for appetite loss, ingest one fig in the morning, another in the evening. Lactating women are advised to make a fig stew with two fresh fruits or two tablespoons of dried figs and cook this for about twenty minutes with twice a much pork, two Chinese dates, and a cup of water. Some fig stew is to be good once daily if they want to increase their breast milk.

The Chinese speak of all figs as both neutral and yang, depending upon usage. They are known to moisten lungs, lubricate the colon, and be valuable for pain in the joints--something the Chinese refer to as 'wind-wetness.' To cure this type of pain, they recommend simmering a few fresh figs with an egg, a tablespoon of rice wine, and a few tablespoons of water for about fifteen minutes. They suggest consuming it all any day that it is needed.

Medicinal parts of the fig include the fruit itself and juice made from it. The fruit is recommended for coughs when one or two are mixed with a couple of candied dates. For warts, the recommendation is to get some unripe fruit and squeeze and retain the juice and rub it on the wart once a day.

Prepared properly, the stems and leaves are used for fever and the roots to increase urination. Cooked roots can be made into a decoction, a liquid used to treat bladder inflammations. The fig is also believed to invigorate the spleen and Chinese herbalists say to cook two pounds of fruit with a cup of water until thick, add two or three cups of sugar and mix until dissolved. The fig is valuable for moistening the bowels and when used to relieve constipation, they recommendation is to eat one before going to bed.

Gooseberry, now better known as kiwi fruit, in Chinese is called mi hou tao. The botanical name is Actinidia chinensis. This is not the true gooseberry, rather an ancient Chinese fruit introduced to New Zealand in 1906. Some people call it the 'monkey peach.' Everyone uses the fruit without the skin fresh or dried, the Chinese say to use it for 'wetness' properties. They also say to eat one or two up to three times a day if your throat is dry, you have a fever, or you feel weak from sunstroke. Nowadays, Chinese practitioners also tell those with vitamin C deficiencies to make some into juice and drink two tablespoons three times a day, preferably at meals. More on this fruit in the next issue.

Hawthorn, known in Chinese as shan zha, is a member of the Crataegus family. There are many varieties including Crataegus scabifolia, cuneata, or pinnatifida, and Fructus crataegi. All varieties are known as the red fruit (hong guo), white thorn, May fruit, and either Northern or Southern hawthorn. Some say the northern hawthorn is best.

Hawthorn fruit is considered warm in the Chinese yin/yang dichotomy and sometimes it is said to be neutral. How it is used determines the difference. Chinese believe that this fruit improves the flow of qi, breaks up blood stasis, improves appetite and digestion, and reduces both cholesterol and high blood pressure. In addition, they believe that it improves circulation, eases diarrhea, prevents scurvy, and should be eaten fresh after childbirth. Their medical practitioners also recommend using it when there is mild heart insufficiency but not for more than six weeks at a time. The fruit is the only part of this plant used as medicine. However, other cultures do use flowers, leaves, fruit and a mixture of them for other health considerations.

When green, this fruit, like many others, tastes sour and then becomes sweet when red. Chinese herbalists sometimes recommend that it be charred for better digestion. As a fresh fruit, one recipe calls for using it with sprouted barley and bitter orange. Another makes a it into a drink. Dried, haw wafers are used for snacking and cooking. A Chinese doctor advises patients to take a few of them after very bitter medication. Another said three fresh fruits and one tablespoon of orange peel is good tonic when mixed with a small amount of water, to be consumed as needed.

For a hernia and as a pain reliever, medicinal recipes suggest two tablespoons of the dried fruit and a quarter of a teaspoon of powdered fennel (Foeniculum vulgare). For stomach pain after childbirth, they recommend taking this twice a day or to steam the same amount with a tablespoon of Chinese angelica (Angelica sinensis) for fifteen minutes and do the same; incidentally, Angelica sinensis is also known as dong quai. Haw is recommended for scurvy; steam two tablespoons with an equal amount of chestnuts (not waterchestnuts) and a cup of water for an hour, then add two tablespoons of sugar. This they suggest be taken on an empty stomach.

Loquat, known as pi pa guo is Eriobotrya japonica and commonly called the reed orange, Japanese medlar, or the Japanese plum. This fruit is neither hot nor cold; and it surely is bitter if not ripe. The leaves are thought to-suppress coughs, and when dried are used to treat stomach aches. The bark is said to relieve nausea, the fruit used to relieve coughs, and the flowers used for asthma and to relieve breast pain. Chinese herbal doctors advise their patients not to use this fruit if they have diarrhea or a weak spleen.

For throat inflammation, these herbal doctors suggest ninety grams of fresh fruit and fifteen grams of sugar steamed in a quarter cup of water. This decoction should be had in the morning and again in the evening but only when eating solids. For coughs, they suggest just eating the fruit. They say it eliminates phlegm and heat in both lungs and stomach. For those with excessive thirst, these same practitioners suggest using half of an over-ripe fruit in the morning, the rest in the evening.

Should a person have a cough, the prescription given is to take a tablespoon of crushed pit with three slices of ginger and a quarter cup of water, to simmer this mixture for twenty minutes then take it morning and evening. For constipated elderly patients, they use the same amount of crushed pit with two tablespoons of honey and a quarter cup of water, and suggest straining then drinking it once, only in the morning.

Chinese date, Zizyphus jujubai--called zao in Chinese--can be found in three colors, red or hong zao), and black or nan zao) the most common; black the most medicinal. There are also brown dates commonly called jujubes or the Great Date and in Chinese called mi zao or de zao. It is interesting to note that in Australia these fruits are called Chinese apples and are thought to be a pesty plant.

Black dates tone the yang of stomach and spleen when made with angelica, red ones do the same for the yang of the circulatory system; brown ones moisten all internal organs. Many parts of the Chinese date plant are considered medicinal. The fruits and seeds are used for anxiety, insomnia, and dizziness, the bark for fever and diarrhea, the root thought to promote hair growth and reduce fever, and the leaves used for scorpion stings. To use them, Chinese like to dry them in the sun no matter their color.

Cooking black dates for half an hour and then cooling and using them as a poultice is thought to be good for dry skin. All dates are thought good for vital energy or qi; and though Chinese medicine does recommend any date, they specifically mention black ones to tone the spleen but to take them for only ten days, no reasons given. To nourish blood, especially after childbirth, the recommendation is to make a syrup with three times the amount of dried dates as sugar. This date mixture, they believe, also eases the mind (from what I’ve never read). Chinese medicine recommends to those recouping from tuberculosis or hepatitis that they take a tablespoon in their chicken soup and have it twice a day.

For insomnia, Chinese herbalists suggest a stew of three to five grams of dates cooked with white onions until soft; and that they be eaten before bedtime, as needed. Cooking ten times the amount of dates without the onions is recommended for allergies and that it be taken for only five days. These practitioners also tell their patients not to eat too many dates because they can hurt the stomach. On the culinary front, chefs and homemakers use red dates in soups and braised dishes, and everyone eats them as a snack. Brown dates are used in both soups and candies because and they are considered moisturizing.

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