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An Ancient Medicinal: Cordyceps Sinensis

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Food as Herbs, Health, and Medicine

Fall Volume: 2001 Issue: 8(3) page(s): 11 and 23

Eat a moth or its larva? Not exactly. Want to live longer? Most do. Is there a relationship? Some say there is. Is this about creatures of interest not only in Chinese materia medica but also in their culinary? You bet!

Cordyceps sinensis comes from the larva of a moth called Herialis amoricanus. It is a fungal growth from a caterpillar that is three to six centimeters long. Stumpy legs and all with a fungal protuberance that grew after its death, this larval-animal is an ancient tonic food believed to promote longevity. Blackish-brown and club-shaped, it is a material that comes out of the head of a dead insect, not only from this one moth. Along with other medicinal mushrooms and other fungi, it has a long history in both eastern and western cultures. This important Chinese tonic is used to help a person live longer and improve and enhance their qi. No need to arch backs or settle upset stomachs, nowadays it can be purchased without insect attached. This most active medicinal is no longer reserved for Chinese Emperors and their retinues.

Popularity and use of this tonic food is ever increasing, perhaps because it is now cultivated, that is grown on grains without any insect body attached or even present. True believers would not consider this option, but many do take it that way when taking what the Chinese call dong chong xia cao. They take this tonic food for restoring both lung and kidney qi.

Years ago, Cordyseps sinensis was rare and only available from a creature known to hibernate under grass in the mountains. Then, when only royals could partake of it, and now, too, it is cooked with duck or chicken to increase its potency and improve a person’s jing or essence. With depletion of jing in the elderly, as more and more people are living longer, the use of these dried larvae with their yellowish insides are ever increasing.

In addition to its value for qi, jing, and senior citizens, Cordyceps sinensis is reported to be effective in the treatment of bronchitis, to settle arrhythmic hearts, treat kidney failure, lung carcinomas, and liver disorders, and to reduce high cholesterol. Many people prize and indulge in this protuberance not only to restore their vitality, but also to increase sexual ability, clear their lungs, and enhance their endurance. They do so even though this medicinal wonder reduces their economics. Recently five little ones of not the best quality, cost us seventeen dollars. No cultivated wonders these, they were from the wild, we were assured.

These medicinals have been written about at least since 300 BCE, when they were called winter-worm summer-grass and said to regulate sexual organs. Over time, these small blackish-brownish sometimes even grayish-tan items which in summer the Chinese consider a vegetable and in winter think of as an animal, we now think of as a caterpillar transformed into a solid mass of edible fungus. We know that they are commonly found at altitudes from ten to sixteen thousand feet and that they are known by other names including summer plant, club head, and deer fungus. We know that they are parasites that grows on the larvae of many insects that live at high altitudes on snowy or marshy land. We know that they consist of a body protruding from the head of a caterpillar or butterfly, a cricket, even a moth. And now we also know that when cultivated, they grow without the need of a single insect.

Before cultivation, Cordyseps sinensis was collected from summer through autumn in Sichuan and Yunnan, and in Qinghai where I first tasted some, also in Gansu, and in Deqen--which is an autonomous prefecture of Tibet. They are also found elsewhere in Tibet where locals gather and dry them in the sun; and they are found in other countries, as well.

Chinese herbalists recommend and attribute to them many of the same things as they do for ginseng. One old recipe states that if about nine grams are eaten after cooking in a duck, their medicinal value is equivalent to five times that dosage of ginseng. Whether in duck, pork, chicken, wine, or water, or when made into a powder, this tonic food is known for its excellent flavor which some people liken to licorice.

Considered sweet, warm, and mild, this tonic starts its life before any insect cocoon is formed. Later it puts its energies into the front end of a dead host. After drying, it is also used to combat jaundice, treat asthma, suppress coughs–-particularly those where there is coughing of blood, and many serious injuries. Traditional usage includes many more respiratory, immunologic, endocrine, and other conditions than those already mentioned.

In some ways, this expensive and rare material is thought of as a panacea for all who can afford its indulgence. Now available as a dietary supplement, in instant teas, even in lotions, Chinese Olympic athletes are said to consume this herbal both before and after strenuous exercise and before and after their Olympic events. Most traditional medicinal prescriptions recommend up to nine grams twice daily.

Once used as an antidote for opium poisoning, a cure from this addiction, and for its calming effects, there are many tales about this medicinal. Many studies are currently underway to substantiate its use. While laboratory studies and clinical trials are in their infancy, culinary applications are not for this fruiting body found in China, throughout Asia, and even in Europe that grows in soil near bamboo, oak, and pines. Though some reports say that when cooked in the cavity of a duck for the emperor, this ruler only ate the duck not the fungus, nonetheless, he did eat the duck twice a day for ten days to cure his ailment, whatever that may have been. Now, you can eat it whenever you can afford to; even the cultivated variety takes a mite of change. So why not eat a caterpillar or its cultivated mimic, savor its delicacy, partake of its potential properties, and perhaps even extend your own lifespan.

We share the recipes that follow to entice you to learn about and appreciate more fungi and their reputed abilities. Look at them, even drink some in beer, wine, liquor, and non-alcoholic beverages. Look, learn and taste them and other mushrooms and fungi in a variety of ways. Delight in monkey head mushrooms in dumplings, be captivated by caterpillar fungus in soup, and taste different mushrooms, many in turtle casseroles. Think about the lowly structure of any of them and envision and see their succulent textures. Think of them in markets and visualize them alone or tied in bundles with fine silk thread. Many are illustrated in the hard copy of this issue to help you seek them out. Seek them out in herbal stores, read about them in herbal catalogues, some even in holiday gift catalogues. Live, learn, and linger over their lusciousness. Keep in mind that ancient Taoist writings mention mushrooms as plants that bring happiness as well as immortality; they see them as rejuvenating for all; will you?

The two recipes below and others in this magazine and in cookbooks are for those wanting to try their hand at cooking with them. We hope you do just that!
Longevity Soup
1 duck, skinned and cut into eight pieces
1 chicken, skinned and cut into eight pieces
5 to 10 dong chong xia cao or Cordyseps sinensis
2 Tablespoons mushroom soy sauce
15 cups water or chicken stock
1/2 to 1 teaspoon ground white pepper
1/4 teaspoon coarse salt
1 pound pea shoots or spinach, rinsed well
1. Put duck and chicken pieces, dong chong xia cao, mushroom soy, and chicken stock in a large pot and heat until just before it boils, add the pepper and reduce the heat to low and simmer covered for two hours.
2. Remove all solids from the stock, discard bones, tear the meat into small pieces, then return them to the pot.
3. Add pepper and salt and heat stock until it almost boils, then add the greens and remove the pot from the heat. Stir well, and serve ladling meat, greens and stock into each individual pre-heated serving bowl.
Failing Energy Chicken
8 chicken legs and thigh pieces, each cut into two pieces
1 pound boneless pork loin, cut into sixteen pieces
16 red Chinese dates
10 pieces dong chong xia cao or Cordyseps sinensis 32 Chinese wolfberries
1 Tablespoon thin soy sauce
1 Tablespoon mushroom soy sauce 2 Tablespoons caterpillar fungus liquor (see the Note below)
4 sprigs coriander
1. Put chicken pieces, pork pieces, Chinese dates, the dong chong xia cao, half the wolfberries, and both soy sauces in a heat-proof bowl or casserole. Cover and set inside a steamer over rapidly boiling water. After half an hour, reduce the boiling water to a slow boil and continue to cook for another ninety minutes replenishing the water with boiling water, as needed.
2. Remove chicken pieces and discard the bones. Tear apart chicken meat into smaller pieces and return to the pork mixture in the heat-proof bowl or casserole. Add the rest of the wolfberries and the liquor, stir gently, re-cover the dish, and steam for another half an hour.
3. Remove the bowl from the steamer, drain the liquid into a pitcher or serve it in heated individual soup bowls. Put the heat-proof bowl or casserole on a trivet and serve the chicken, pork, and wolfberry mixture with coriander sprigs put on top.
Note: To make the fungus liquor, soak one Cordyseps sinensis in two tablespoons rice wine overnight. Then drain and use it and the liquor in the above recipe, or an other recipe that calls for this ingredient.

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