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Caterpillar Fungus

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Unusual Ingredients

Summer Volume: 2013 Issue: 20(2) page(s): 34 and 35

Cordyceps sinensis is technically its correct name, in Chinese called dong chong xia cao. This item is mistakenly called a worm but it is not one, rather it is a fungus. Used by Asian populations for hundreds of years, it is so named because it does grow from what looks like an underground worm forming a 'stroma' that pokes out of the earth like a small elongated tan pod. It is revered and expensive.

Actually, it is one part of the life-cycle of a moth known as the 'ghost' moth that lays its eggs on grass, leaves, or on the dirt, then develops into larvae. They hatch and burrow down into the ground. Fungal spores infect the larvae and then they are consumed from within. They grow upward and above the surface in what appears is a club-like 'stroma' or pod above ground that ripens and disperses spores the wind carries afar. After landing, these eventually develop and produce another ghost moth thet grows and develops, and the life cycle begins again. These stroma and the leftover caterpillar-like body bring big bucks to those who collect and sell them.

The best of them thrive at high altitudes. In China, some are found in the Sichuan, Qinghai, Guizhou, and in the Yunnan Provinces, but the very best are said to be located low to the ground and in Tibet where they call them yartsa. A smaller number and smaller ones are also found in Nepal. Now some are being nurtured in the United States.

Harvested in summer, and dried in the sun, Traditional Medical Practitioners and other believers say they act on kidney and lung channels, are sweet in flavor, warm in nature, and used most often decocted in water or cooked with poultry. Adored and believed to cure impotence, seminal emission problems, pain in the loins and knees, and to reduce chronic cough, asthma with blood and sputum, spontaneous sweating, and used for general malaise, the Chinese like to prepare theirs with pork or poultry, or in a soup.

How long have they used these items once called caterpillars or worms? Were they always thought to be of high health value? Answering the last part first, the Chinese provincial governor, Bo Xihue whose wife is now in jail, believes they were poisoning her. Why she was taking them is not clear. The best we could learn about them was when they were first recommended. They first appeared in print in the Revised Materia Medica as remains of Hepialus variens larvae and were used to improve a person's yang.. They were also prescribed for sore and weak lower back and lower extremity ailments and as a poultice to stop bleeding, also to extend life.

Traditional practitioners only recommend small doses. They believe they may have some antibiotic effect in vitro, may be valuable against tubercular bacilli, and that they inhibit contractions of smooth and cardiac muscles. Many also say they may be hypnotic and tranquilizing.

In the 2012 August National Geographic, in article by Michael Finkel titled: Tibetan Gold, one is reminded that when translated into English, their name means 'summer grass winter worm.' He advises this fungus devours the caterpillar's body leaving the exoskeleton intact. He cites that from the 15th century Tibetan text, An Ocean of Aphrodisical Qualities. He also reports their cost in the 1970's was one pound for one to two dollars. In the early 1990s that cost was less than a hundred dollars, and now it is thousand of dollars or more for a single pound.

These medicinals are judged on size, color, and firmness, the most purchased from Three Rivers Source Medicine Company. That, the largest brand, have annual sales above sixty million dollars. This company has five hundred employees and twenty stores including on that is a block long, and in Langzhou.

To put this in perspective, that is when counting them, if one purchases two pounds, it can cost one hundred thousand dollars, and may include some fifteen hundred of them. Finkel advises it is buyer beware because they can be tainted with mold and have some pieces of lead among or in them making them heavier and, therefore, less healthy. The dealers we spoke to said to check for both before purchasing any.

Experts say one should consume very little of them. One study found thirty to fifty grams or a couple of paper clips worth when injected in mice were fatal. Another research study found that five grams of them powdered and administered the same way produced no fatalities in mice. What should one believe? We know not.

While there have been a few hundred studies, many are questionable, some were done by researchers with vested interests. Some consumers believe that when taken as a medicinal, they may increase oxygen to the lungs, help heart and immune systems, boost energy levels of those with aching muscles, and act as a male viagra. This latter notion comes from Indian researchers who say they improve sexual ability.

The fungi are said to be best if found at alpine levels above nine thousand feet, whole or in pieces, and if purchased in herbal emporia.
Duck with Chinese Caterpillar Fungus
I four-pound whole Pekin duck, all innards and organs removed and discarded
6 to 10 Chinese caterpillar fungi, soaked in tepid water for half an hour, then removed, the water discarded
2 quarts Chicken stock
1 teaspoon salt
3 scallions, each tied in a knot
3 slices fresh ginger, each smashed with the side of a cleaver
2 cloves fresh garlic, smashed with the side of a cleaver
1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper
2 cups Chinese rice wine
1. Put the duck into eight quarts of boiling water for three to five minutes, remove, drain, and discard the water.
2. Put all the ingredients in a large stock pot, bring to just below the boil, cover, reduce the heat and simmer for three hours.
3. Remove and discard the scallions, ginger, and the cloves of garlic and discard them. Then serve up to one cup to each of six to eight persons along with one caterpillar fungus.
Chicken Soup with Caterpillar Fungus
2 large chicken breasts
1 teaspoon coarse salt
1 cup Chinese Shao Xing wine
3 cloves fresh peeled garlic slivered
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
4 Tablespoons vegetable oil
2 Tablespoons thin soy sauce 6 to 10 whole Cordyceps sinensis, soaked for half hour in two cups of tepid water
2 quarts chicken broth
1. Cut chicken breasts into two- to three-inch cubes, and mix then marinate them for half an hour with the salt, wine, garlic, and sugar. Next drain them in a strainer for at least fifteen minutes. Reserve the marinade.
2. Heat oil, and fry the chicken pieces until they turn white, then drain and discard the oil.
3. Put the marinade in a two quart pan, add the chicken pieces and the soy sauce, Cordyceps sinensis and its soaking water, and the broth. Cover and simmer for half hour, then serve.
Cordyceps Chicken Soup
1 three-pound black chicken
1 one-inch knob peeled and crushed fresh ginger
10 cordyceps, rinsed and dried
2 small onions, peeled, each cut in quarters
1 teaspoon salt
1. Clean, rinse, and dry the chicken and cut it into eight pieces.
2. Put it into a five or six quart pot, and all all the other ingredients, and four quarts of water or thin stock.
3. Bring to the oil, reduce heat, and simmer for three hours.
4. Remove all solids and discard all except the chicken meat, but do not discard its skin and bones. Tear the meat into small pieces before returning it to the pot and bringing it almost to the boil. Then serve the meat and the stock.
Note: The remaining bones can be boiled for half an hour in two quarts of water, that liquid consumed as a soup.
Cordyceps Fish Soup
1 large fish, about two pounds 1 one-inch knob peeled and crushed fresh ginger
16 cordyceps, rinsed and dried
2 small onions, peeled, each cut in quarters
1 teaspoon salt
1. Clean, rinse, and dry the fish, and scale and gut it.
2. Put it into a five or six quart pot, and all other ingredients, and four quarts of water.
3. Bring to the boil, reduce heat, and simmer for half and hour.
4. Remove the fish and put it into a clean soup tureen. But all else back into the pot and return it to the boil, reduce the heat, and simmer for one hour. Then pour the liquid over the fish, and serve.

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