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Licorice is a Chinese Herb

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Food as Herbs, Health, and Medicine

Fall Volume: 2012 Issue: 19(3) page(s): 17 and 35

Star anise and the seeds of anise and fennel taste similarly to licorice, a rhizome or underground stem of a plant in the legume family. This root is different from these other items which are seeds. Furthermore, it is fifty to one hundred times sweeter than sugar. An interesting item about its taste perception is that it has a slow taste onset. The microflora of the human intestinal tract release a sugar, known as glucuronic acid, and its taste comes on slowly until it binds to a plasma protein and is virtually totally metabolized. Therefore, before it is perceived, it enhances many other flavors, and that is why the Chinese use it a lot in their pharmaceuticals.

Licorice masks many bitter tastes and it has a sweet earthy flavor. Its roots, called its sticks, are often chewed even though famous for turning ones teeth black. Licorice is used not only in medicines but also in many dishes in Chinese cuisine. It is also popular world-wide, offering foods not just for flavor, but also for its aroma thanks to one of its essential oils.

Chinese medical practitioners say licorice has anti-ulcer activity, is anti-inflammatory, anti-viral, and anti-spasmodic. They also report its corticoid activity and that it maintains blood pressure and regulates the body's glucose/glycogen balance. That latter reason might be why they recommend it for those with diabetes.

There are about twenty different species of Glycyrrhiza genus, with G. glabra the most common worldwide. In China, the most popular is G. uralensis. Both, in English, are known as licorice and both are basically used the same way; the Chinese call all licorice, gan cao.

Propagated from seed or tips, this plant tends to grow in clumps, has fern-like leaves and small flowers that are most often blue. Ancient recipes used the leaves, flowers, and seeds from the pods of this plant, but they are less popular today.

Usable licorice sticks need three years to harvest. One can find them sliced in herbal stores and as a syrup or as what many call a black juice. Licorice is most often used in candies, beverages such as in Guinness stout, and in liqueurs. Those that purchase it as an extract need to know the extract usually has up to ten percent juice from the stick or root and it is fifty times sweeter than sugar.

Chinese medical doctors prefer G. uralensis from Inner Mongolia and from the Shanxi and Gansu Provinces. They like theirs collected in spring and fall and dried in the sun. They use it plain or stir-fried with honey before adding it to decoctions, pills, and other herbals. Sweet in flavor and neutral in its properties, these medical practitioners tell us it acts on heart, lung, spleen, and stomach channels, benefits spleen and qi, and moistens lungs, relieves pain and spasms, and moderates other herbs. They also suggest using it for shortness of breath, general weakness, loose stools, cough and asthma due to wind-cold, to heal sores and other skin infections, and to heal all sore throats.

Chinese cooks use licorice in baked items, sweets, and in quite a few long-cooked dishes. They say it is valuable as a component in spicy liquids and as a preservative along with cassia, cloves, fennel, star anise, tsao-kao, galangal, ginger, and star anise. In China's south, one or more of the above and tangerine peel along with Buddha's hand, soy sauce, Mao-tai or gin, rock sugar, and onion are used when marinating pork, chicken, beef, duck, and other meats.

Most Chinese markets sell one or more kinds of preserved mei fruit, Chinese olives, kumquats, and/or other dried fruits. Most of these are prepared with licorice alone, licorice with salt and/or sugar, and/or with other seasonings. Some use one or more of these preserved fruits with orange peel and sugar, and call them chen-pei-mei. These fruits look black, are often wrapped in paper or rice paper, and frequently can be found in small plastic containers. They taste sweet, salty, and of licorice all at the same time. Used as snacks, they are also popular in liquids when braising or stewing poultry and other meats.

Licorice is also popular in herbal teas, the most common called Seven Stars Tea. This decoction contains a half dozen licorice root slices, some false bamboo, a tablespoon or more of Job's tears, a like amount of barley grains just beginning to germinate, several slices of dried hawthorn fruit, a sheet or two of rice paper, and three or four purple perilla leaves. Different Chinese herbalists use different amounts of these ingredients. The three we visited each had seven or eight items in their mixtures. Each told us to boil their contents for half an hour or more, then strain and dry the solids for one or two more uses. Then we should drink the liquid after warming it and before going to sleep. Only one provided an actual recipe for an herbal tea made with licorice. It is below.

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