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Vegetables as Food and Medicine: Part Two

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Food as Herbs, Health, and Medicine

Spring Volume: 2001 Issue: 8(1) page(s): 17 and 18

In three previous articles, two titled: Fruits as Food and Medicine (Part One in Flavor and Fortune's Volume 7(2) on pages 19-20, and Part Two in Volume 7(3) on pages 15-16. Vegetables as Food and Medicine (its Part One) is in Flavor and Fortune’s Volume 7(4) on pages 15-16. The information is intended to educate about food in the Chinese culture. Usage for medicinal purposes requires professional understanding and treatment. Therefore, do not use any of the fruits or vegetables as Chinese herbals to treat, cure, or prevent any condition or disease without first consulting Chinese-trained medical personnel.

LOTUS is a multi-purpose vegetable, many parts of the plant used for food. Known as lian in Chinese, the seeds are used fresh as is the sausage-shaped pod that houses them. Though commonly referred to as lotus root, this linked food-pod item is really a rhizome and not a root, and it has gorgeous flowers. The seeds are popular fresh and dried then rehydrated as is the rhizome itself; and both are ground and used as flour. The leaf, often three foot in diameter, is more popular dried. It has significance when a Buddha is seen sitting on one. Additional significance can be seen when he is holding the lotus flower. Both represent summer, fruitfulness, and the perfect man. Not only signifying things male, the term ‘lotus hook’ signifies the erotic proportions of a woman’s bound feet.

Botanically known as Nelumbo nucifera, this cottonrose hibiscus, its common nomenclature, is related to the water lily and considered cool and astringent. However, when boiled, the nature the Chinese attribute to it changes to slightly warm. The seeds are also considered astringent, but thought to be sweet and neutral. The stamens are astringent and they are used as cosmetics.

Chefs adore using lotus as seed, root, even leaf. As dried seed, they are long-cooked and used in dishes such as Ten-Ingredient Rice, as a component of stuffings, stir-fried, and mixed fresh or dried with other vegetables. The holes where the seeds have been are frequently stuffed, the rhizome cooked in many ways, and when not stuffed, almost always sliced before use. Fresh leaves are delicious when very young and steamed and when enhanced with lots of garlic. Better known when exceptionally large, the leaves are more often dried to wrap foods before steaming. This wrapping gives them a delicious flavor. They are also used to wrap foods taking them from market to kitchen.

Known to improve blood, many parts of this beloved vegetable are used medicinally as well as for culinary purposes. There are myriads of medicinal uses and as there are no known health hazards but one; this plant when used in proper amounts is a frequent component of Chinese medicinal mixtures. The non-recommendation in the Chinese Materia Medica is that the seeds not be used when one is constipated.

Some examples of medicinal use include the raw rhizome used to calm fever, cool blood, and clear blood poisoning. Seeds mixed with wild jujube to reduce palpitations, relieve insomnia, and get rid of irritability. In addition to these, the fresh plant and its juice are applied as a poultice and astringent to stop or prevent bleeding. However, in the case of a nosebleed, drops are put directly into the nose. Equal amounts of fresh lotus and ground Ligusticum wallichii are used to help those who suffer with sinus troubles. One source advises that this mixture in a bowl of rice soup eases throat inflammation as does a mixture of fresh lotus leaf, water and honey. This and other combinations are also used for dysentery, as are many other herbals.

SOYBEAN or Glycine max is known and popular in North and South China. An ancient food used as a sauce at least since 165 BCE, this vegetable is also used as sprouts, and when green or dried, and steamed and fermented. The latter, when mixed with wheat and a lactobacillus bacteria, becomes a sauce or a paste, be the beans black or yellow. Overall, in its many forms, this vegetable some say, is the cornerstone of Chinese cookery. Sweet in flavor and neither warm nor cool by nature, many parts of this versatile legume are used in cooking and as a medicinal. For the latter, the ripe fermented black seed is used, as is the oil, its lecithin, soy milk, immature seeds, the shoots, and a curd made from the milk called doufu.

For gastrointestinal pains and/or diarrhea, there are many uses in the Chinese pharmacopeia. The bean is used for malnutrition, as it is an almost complete protein. When mixed with sweet wine it is used as both a delicious beverage and for several conditions including beriberi. For that, the green beans alosng with garlic and sugar are simmered with water and taken three times a day. Cramps in hands and feet are treated with yellow soybean, rice bran, and water making a congee to be taken twice a day. The liquid from steamed yellow soy beans is applied on burns because it is thought to reduce scarring and for similar reasons, recommended for use in early stages of a boil.

Bean curd or doufu, as the Chinese transliterate it now, is a component of ever so many fine Chinese dishes, and it has a role in curing the common cold. For this it is not used plain but rather simmered with leaf mustard, Chinese olives, and fresh ginger. Toothaches are also treated with doufu in the Chinese Materia Medica when mixed with salt and used as a gargle. Coughs are not immune to a doufu treatment, either. For them, the recommendation is a large piece of bean curd prepared with a well in its center and filled with sugar then simmered in some water, an hour will do; the recommendation is to eat half of it twice each day. The bean sprouts are thought to be of value should you have poor blood. Cook some, Chinese herbal medical doctors say, for a few hours with pork bones, salt and water. Even warts get a sprout treatment boiling them with water. That soup is to be consumed three times a day. For reasons no one could explain, that recommendation also comes with an admonition not to eat fats or oils or cereals when taking this decoction.

Medical literature in the United States recommends sprouts and soybeans, particularly as curd, to reduce levels of cholesterol. Some western medical literature also suggests the soy bean itself as having a role in treating chronic hepatitis.

WATER SPINACH, botanically known as Ipomoea aquatica has several names in Chinese. These are: weng cai, kong xin, and tong cai. One variety of this hollow stem vegetable actually does grow in water; that one is called shui weng, while the variety that grows on moist ground is called han weng. No relative of the spinach known in the west, this vegetable has many relatives, hence its many names. Some say its flavor is insipid while others adore it. For the lovers, and there are many, a favorite in their culinary is to steam it mixed with fermented doufu and lots of garlic.

As its nature is cool, water spinach is thought to affect the stomach and the large intestine. That said, the Chinese use it to cool fevers, disperse poisons, moisten internal organs, and stop bleeding. Most references say only to use the leaves and stems, however, one did say to use the roots, but how was not discussed. Some caution needs to be used when selecting water spinach because overdosing on a related plant Ipomoea orizabensis will cause vomiting. There is also a caution that people with a cold in their stomach should avoid this vegetable; no reason given.

Those concerns in mind, the Chinese use this vegetable to reduce pus in the ear and to relieve headaches. For the latter, they mix it with dog meat and simmer it. To reduce nose bleeds, they mix it with crushed sugar and boiling water. For toothaches, it is mixed with vinegar and water and simmered for use as a gargle. When treating boils, the Chinese suggest that it is crushed with star anise (Illicium anisatum) and brown sugar and used as a poultice. For those with blood in urine or feces, Chinese herbal doctors say to make a juice of the vegetable, add honey, then drink the mixture.

WINTERMELON is called dong gua in Chinese. Botanically known as Benincasa hispida, this vegetable has many common names including wax gourd, east melon, and white melon. Cool in nature, the melon itself is thought to be sweet, the seed is not said to be cool but rather cold and sweet. Both affect lungs, spleen, and heart. Chinese Materia Medica indicates that the melon’s flesh promotes urination and cools fevers as does the skin, which also cools fever and diminishes swelling. The melon’s seeds are used as a poultice to clear pus from boils.

It is recommended that not too much of any of the parts of wintermelon be consumed because gastrointestinal pain is a problem if eaten in excess. That caution is particularly applicable in terms of the seed; one should eat only a little of that, and if suffering from a cold they say not to eat any. Chinese medical practitioners recommend this vegetable to diabetics. They say to take a six- or seven-pound melon and reserve the top and remove seeds, then add two tablespoons of huang lian powder, put the melon in a charcoal fire and cook until juicy. Then eat some three times a day until all of the melon is consumed. They also tell those who complain of inadequate flow of urine to take the pith of the melon and simmer it in water and then drink this decoction as a tea. They also offer ways to help men with cloudy urine, everyone with food poisoning from fish, women with inflamed breasts, and more.

WOOD EAR, also known as 'cloud ear' or 'tree ear fungus,' is known as mo er if black, yin er if white. They are also referred to as yun er. Botanically known as Auricularia auricula, this gelatinous fungus or mushroom is considered sweet in nature and neither warm nor cool. Almost always sold dried, the entire ear is used and thought to benefit one’s qi, nourish the blood, stop bleeding, and ease pain. As with any item in the mushroom family, a word of caution, perhaps the only one. Do not consume wild varieties as a few will make you deathly ill. That said, leave the collecting to experts, use cultivated varieties, and/or buy yours from reputable dealers.

For those with diarrhea due to a weak spleen, Chinese herbalists recommend one part wood ear to three parts sugar and to simmer both in water. For blood in the stool and bleeding hemorrhoids, the recommendation is to simmer some with sugar and to take this decoction for many days. For sores that do not heal well, particularly in the elderly, they say to bake some crushed to powder and mixed with half as much sugar and a little water; then to apply it directly to the affected part and cover with a bandage. For weakness after childbirth, practitioners say to soak some for a couple of hours in aged vinegar, then chew that twice a day or mix some with honey and brown sugar and steam until cooked; this they say to take three times a day. To reduce irregular uterine bleeding, the suggestion is to stir-fry until fragrant, add water and then boil with a little brown sugar. Western doctors recommend eating some cooked tree ears as one means of reducing cholesterol.
Note: This article, and the three others mentioned at its start, are expanded from a talk titled: Chinese Herbal Remedies: Rationale and Recipes. They were given at a November 1999 conference at Queens College-CUNY that was titled: Alternative Health: Practices and Philosophy.

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