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Chinese Herbs: Overview, Talk, and Tasting

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Food as Herbs, Health, and Medicine

Winter Volume: 2013 Issue: 20(4) page(s): 30 - 33

Traditional Chinese Medicine, commonly referred to in the western world as TCM, is both old and new. Some information about it was discussed in Volume 20(3) starting on page 15; there are earlier items as well. Do check them out at this magazine's website at www.flavorandfortune.com Ideas about herbs have been around for thousands of years, at least from the Han Dynasty (202 BCE - 220 CE), if not before, many were first used by the China's early religious leaders.

Newer ideas embrace use of equipment providing technical readings reinforcing or provided newer dimensions. TCM doctors use both tried and true ways and newer items looking, listening, and querying their patients. They still take the pulse, check the tongue, look at the skin, and use other up-to-date electrical and electronic devices as indicators.

Well-trained practitioners also inquire about moral and ethical behaviors serving the common good that benefits mankind when they query and treat every patient as if that person was part of their own family. They do so regardless of race, color, creed, education level, social status, fame, or wealth. It is impressive that many did decline invitations to work as imperial practitioners because they believed this not really serving the people as they were trained to do. Many believe dictums in the Yellow Emperor's Canon of Internal Medicine and really are most ethical and rigorous with diagnoses, knowing ongoing medical research, and being compassionate to all behaving in rigorous and ethical ways.

At one of Stony Brook University Asian Heritage Month events sponsored by the Charles B. Wang Center, the Confucius Institute, and the Special Collections of the University Libraries, a recent talk contrasted western fast food with time-tested ancient traditional Chinese means. Doing so, it looked at the health benefits of Chinese foods and herbs. This talk was titled: Chinese Food and Herbs: Available, Fresh, Healthy, Natural, and Sustainable. It compared fast food chains now purporting their food as providing the above as disingenuous as they try to capitalize on these abstract terms and serve highly processed foods.

This talk just before Asian Heritage Month looked at herbal roots, shoots, stems. leaves, and fruits, the largest part of TCM or zhong cao yao's twelve thousand herbs and animal parts including organs, skin, bones, and blood, and minerals such as talcum, gypsum, and sodium sulfate that the Chinese believe can reinforce, assist, inhibit, detoxify, and/or antagonize the qi and the body.

It did pay some mind, as TCM practitioners do, to season, part gathered, and how an herb is processed because different processes, the Chinese believe, can change an item's impact as it is intended to go directly to the needed organ or meridian, to reduce its toxicity, etc. Practitioners do believe the remedies they recommend retain their properties if pill, powder, decoction, medicated liquor, and/or in another form.

Beside specific herbal recommendations, TCM practitioners also recommend physical and breathing exercises and meditation to promote blood circulation and increase qi. They also tout wuqinxi, the 'five-animal movements' of the tiger, deer, bear, monkey, and bird, and the eight qigong exercises, and martial arts. They believe all of these strengthen the body and promote longevity, as can a quiet retreat, more sun, tonic remedies, and moderation in food intake. They tout essence, energy, and spirit as life's three treasures along with herbals as means of aiding their patients, also acupuncture, massage, and good diets. All of these promote body harmony.

TCM doctors speak about ten herbs that help while the United States Department of Agriculture speaks about a handful that harm. These can include chaparral, comfrey, ephedra, lobelia, and yohimbe, among others. The ones TCM practitioners say help include chamomile for indigestion and/or muscle spasms, echinacea for immunity, feverfew to reduce migrain headaches, garlic to lower high cholesterol, ginger for nausea, ginkgo for blood flow to the brain and increased circulation, hawthorn for heart disease, milk thistle to reduce liver damage, saw palmetto for urogenital problems, and valerian for sleep problems. Using these and other traditional Chinese medicines are prescribed as they counsel avoiding self diagnosis and self-designed treatments.

What follows is an overview of information and recipes shared at the above-mentioned Asian Heritage Event, one that occurs annually. The eight recipes below were for tasting at this session. They were prepared by Wang Center culinary staff for the attendees, the actual herbs and recipes providing historical information, not intended to treat specific medical conditions. For that, licensed medical or TCM practitioners should be consulted.

The herbs shown at this event, and tasted there included:
BAI SHAO, a white peony root which TCM practitioners say alleviates pain, improves blood deficiency, and reduces cramps in tendons and muscles. Chinese philosophy says this herb is bitter, sour, and cool. We know its botanical name is Radix Albus Paeoniae lactiflora. It is famous in China as a blood tonic said to regulate a woman's hormonal cycle. They also say that women who use it regularly 'can become as beautiful and the peony itself.' The root, they believe, reinforces yin, stops sweating, nourishes liver pain, and cleanses blood. They recommend it prepared with licorice to mask its bitter taste.

CILANTRO, also known as Chinese parsley is in the Umbelliferae family and was recently renamed as one in the Apiacea family. Botanically known as Coriandrum sativum, TCM practitioners say it is warm and acrid. They they tout it as an effective anti-inflammatory and for digestive upsets. Some report it kills some bacteria, improves appetite, relieves flatulence, and heals sore muscles. Westerners may know it as coriander, the Chinese believing it confers immortality and is valuable undoing some types of food poisoning.

DANG SHEN, also called Poor Man's Ginseng, is botanically known as Coronopsis pilosula. The Chinese use it to increase qi which is roughly translated as one's 'energy.' The flowering part of this herb, they believe, increases immunity and nourishes the body. TCM practitioners say it is sweet and slightly warm, increases appetite, and can be taken with other herbs.

ROSE, both leaves and flowers, are said by TCM practitioners to be sweet, warm, and slightly bitter. Commonly used as a tea and best when young, the buds and leaves are often taken with other teas, even with tisanes, the leaves are used as a tea as are leaves of the Camellia sinensis family. TCM practitioners recommend ingesting them to reduce depression, increase circulation, boost the immune system, provide healthy skin and bones, and calm nerves.

FU LING is a Chinese root that is also known as Tuckahoe or Poria skin. It is said by TCM practitioners to be sweet, neutral, and bland. They recommend this herb to treat many problems with lung, heart, kidney, and spleen, and to calm emotions, quiet the heart, strengthen the body, and increase appetite. Some say it reduces edema and functions as an aid when there are urinary difficulties.

TSAOKO FRUIT or CAO GUO, is botanically known as Fructus amoni Tsao Ko. It is a perennial herb related to ginger. In China, it is often found in the Yunnan, Guizhou, and Guangxi Provinces, the best ones dried in the sun after ripening in Fall. TCM practitioners consider this herb warm and acrid, and report it does have some antibacterial and antifungal properties. They believe it good for the digestive system and for some types of malaria. They suggest patients take it with betel nuts and various other roots.

Two other herbs, used in some of the following dishes include: SICHUAN PEPPER, also known as fagara that is a berry in the Zanthoxylum family. Not a pepper nor related to black pepper or Piper nigram, TCM practitioners say it is warm and acrid, while a few refer to it as hot in the philosophical, not temperature sense. They believe it can kill parasites and reduce pain, and can be used with many other herbs.

STAR ANISE, sometimes called the 'moon herb' can, if a person carries one or burns some, be a lucky thing to do. Botanically known as Illicium verum, some put some under the pillow to dream about someone far away. TCM practitioners say these herbs are neutral and acrid, and they tout them as effective against some bacteria, fungi, and viruses. These eight-pointed star-shaped seeds are recommended to relieve colic in babies, but everyone needs to know they do not mean the Japanese varieties, as they can be poisonous. Touted as pain relievers when used as a poultice, these seeds are said to settle upset stomachs. They do, some say, taste as does licorice.

Below are the recipes prepared for tasting at the above talk the Wang Center at Stony Brook University. Their library in the Special Collections area has many books about these and other herbs.
Hot and Sour Soup with Bai Shao
2 Tablespoons bai shao
1/4 cup pork, slivered
1 Tablespoon dark soy sauce
1 pound firm bean curd, cut into half-inch cubes
1/4 cup wood ear fungi, soaked for fifteen minutes, then drained and finely sliced
1 sweet red pepper, seeded and slivered
1 fresh hot chili pepper or 1 Tbsp Chinese hot chili oil
2 Tablespoons cornstarch mixed with one tablespoon cold water
2 slices fresh ginger, slivered
1/2 teaspoon hot sesame oil
2 Tablespoons Chinese black vinegar
1 large egg, beaten well until almost stiff
1 scallion, cut into one-quarter-inch pieces
1. Boil bai shao with two cups water until liquid reduced to one cup. Discard all solids; reserve liquid.
2. Mix pork and soy sauce and marinate fifteen minutes.
3. Put the pork and its marinade into a large soup pot with the minced ginger, scallion, and garlic and ten cups of water. Reduce the heat and add the wood ear fungi and simmer for three to four minutes, then add the cornstarch, ginger and fresh sweet and dried or fresh hot pepper slices and simmer two minutes before adding the sesame oil, black vinegar, and the liquid from the bai shao. Mix well and bring to the boil, then turn off the heat source.
4. Add egg and scallion, stir well for about half a minute. Serve in pre-heated soup tureen or soup bowls.
Clams with Fermented Black Beans
1 pound fresh shelled clams
2 Tablespoons fermented black beans, rinsed
1 teaspoon cornstarch
2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
1 teaspoons seeded fresh red chili pepper, minced
2 Tablespoons fresh ginger, minced
2 large cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 two-inch square pieces tangerine peel, soaked until soft
1 teaspoon each, light and dark soy sauces
1/4 pound yellow Chinese chives, each cut in one-inch sections, rinsed and drained well
1. Rinse clams to be sure there is no sand or shell pieces with them; then drain them well.
2. Separately mince black beans and tangerine peel, drain the peel; and set each aside separately.
3. Mix the clams with the cornstarch.
4. Heat wok or fry pan, add oil and fry the black beans for one minute. Then add the chili pepper, ginger, and garlic, and stir-fry for another minute. Be careful not to burn them. Then add both soy sauces and bring to the boil.
5. In an oven-proof bowl, add the clams, chili pepper mixture, and the chives, then pour the black bean-chili mixture and the soy sauces over them, and stir well, and put the bowl over boiling water in a steamer, cover, and steam for four minutes.
6. Re-Preheat the rest of the oil in a small pan.
7. Pour pre-heated oil over clam mixture, and serve.
Rose Tea with Pork Belly
Two pounds of pork belly should be simmered in three cups of rose tea until the meat is soft and can be pierced with a chopstick. This takes about two hours. When soft, add half a Chinese pumpkin or squash, its seeds removed, and simmer about another half an hour. Remove from the steamer, and peel and cut the squash into half-inch slices; and also cut the belly pork into half-inch slices of the same width and length. Alternate the slices on a platter and serve them. Discard the rose tea.
Duck with Cloves
1 duck, rinsed and dried and cut in two-inch pieces
4 Tablespoon vegetable oil
2 teaspoon dark soy sauce
2 teaspoon whole cloves
3 slices fresh ginger, each one cut in half
3 scallions, cut into one-inch pieces
2 Tablespoon Chinese Shaoxing wine
1/4 cup goji berries
1 teaspoon salt
1. Brush duck pieces with soy sauce. Set aside for half hour.
2. Heat oil in wok or large fry pane and fry the duck pieces until golden brown, about twenty minutes, on a low light. Then drain and set them on paper towels.
3. Put two cloves into each piece of duck on skin side.
4. Stir-fry ginger slices in the remaining oil, add the scallions, wine, goji berries, and salt and two cups of cold water, and duck. Cover and simmer ten minutes until liquid thickens and is reduced to about three tablespoons, then put in a pre-heated bow, then pour any remaining sauce over the duck and serve.
Meat Balls with Fu Ling I
1 pound ground pork
1/2 onion, minced
1 teaspoon ginger, finely minced and mixed with one tablespoon hot water
1 egg, beaten well
1 Tablespoon dark soy sauce
2 Tablespoon cornstarch
3 Tablespoon vegetable oil
2 cups chicken stock
6 fu ling, soaked until soft, drained and cut in quarters, the long way
2 Tablespoon Chinese rice wine
2 Tablespoon thin soy sauce
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
4 whole Sichuan peppercorns
6 small Shanghai cabbages, boiled for three minutes
1 scallion, minced
1 Tablespoon cornstarch mixed with one tablespoon cold water
1. Mix the ground pork, onion, ginger, beaten egg, dark soy sauce, and corn starch and make one and a half-inch meat balls. and in a wok or fry pan, brown them in the oil just until lightly browned. Then remove them from the fry pan and set aside on paper towels.
2. Bring the chicken stock to the boil, reduce the heat to the simmer, add the meatballs and simmer for ten minutes. Next, add the fu ling pieces, rice wine, thin soy sauce, sugar, and the peppercorns, and simmer another five minutes.
3. Remove the meatballs and put them on a pre-heated deep platter, add the Shanghai cabbage just until hot, then drain it and place them around the meatballs.
4. Boil the remaining liquid with the cornstarch water, and liquid with the cornstarch water, and when thickened, pour over the meatballs and the fu ling, and serve.
Scallops with Chinese Parsley
2 large bunches cilantro rinsed and dried with paper towels
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cornstarch
2 teaspoons vegetable oil
1 and 1/2 pounds fresh scallops, cut in half so there are two circles from each scallop
2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger
1 teaspoon peeled and grated fresh garlic
2 teaspoons Chinese Shaoxing rice wine
2 teaspoon Chinese sesame oil
1. Cut the cilantro/parsley in two-inch pieces. Mix with the salt and cornstarch and set aside.
2. Heat the oil in a wok or large fry pan, and fry the ginger and garlic for one minute.
3. Add the scallops and stir-fry one minute, then add the wine and stir just one more minute. Next stir in the cilantro and stir once or twice, sprinkle with sesame oil, stir, and serve.
Flank Steak with Sichuan Peppercorns and Star Anis
1 pound flank steak, cut across into thin slices
2 Tablespoons dark soy sauce
1 Tablespoon thin soy sauce
3 Tablespoons dried tangerine peel, soaked in warm water until soft, then minced
2 Tablespoons cornstarch
1 Tablespoon Sichuan peppercorns
2 whole star anise
3 slices fresh ginger
1/4 cup goji berries
2 large cloves fresh garlic, peeled and minced
2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
1. Mix steak and both soy sauces and the star anise, Sichuan peppercorns, tangerine peel, and the cornstarch.
2. Mix garlic and the ginger separately.
3. Heat a wok or fry pan, add the oil, and stir-fry the ginger and garlic for one minute, then add the meat mixture and the goji berries and stir fry this one to two minutes. Add half cup of water and bring to the boil, then add the rest of the ingredients. Quickly reduce the heat somewhat and simmer until all the liquid evaporates (about two to three more minutes), then serve.
Oysters, Bean Curd, and Huang Qi
1/2 pound small fresh oysters
1 pound box of soft or silken bean curd
2 Tablespoons huang qi
2 scallions, diced
2 teaspoons thin soy sauce
1/4 teaspoons ground white pepper
2 teaspoons sesame oil
2 teaspoons cornstarch mixed with two teaspoons cold water
1. Rinse, drain, and dry on paper towels, the fresh oysters.
2. Cut the bean curd into one-inch pieces.
3. Simmer the huang qi in two cups of cold water until only half cup of the liquid remains.
4. Next, add the oysters, bean curd, soy sauce, ground pepper, and sesame oil and simmer for ten minutes.
5. Thicken by boiling and stirring in the cornstarch mixture. Pour this into a pre-heated bowl and serve.
Note: Additional boiling water, up to four cups, can be added at the end to make this dish more soupy.
Spinach Noodles with Dang Shen
3 thick strips dang shen, soaked and coarsely minced
3 tomatoes, peeled and coarsely chopped
1/4 pound ground beef mixed with two Tablespoons thin soy sauce and two Tablespoons cornstarch
1/2 pound spinach noodles, cooked, drained, then mixed with one Tablespoon vegetable oil
3 eggs, scrambled with one Tablespoon vegetable oil
1 Tablespoon Chinese toasted sesame oil
1 Tablespoon fresh ginger, minced
2 large garlic, peeled and minced
1 scallion, minced
1. Soak the dang shen in one cup warm water. When soft, mince coarsely and set aside.
2. Prepare the tomatoes, beef, spinach noodles, and eggs, each set aside separately.
3. Heat sesame oil in a wok or large fry pan, and stir-fry the dang shen, ginger and garlic for one minute until they start to brown, but not burn. Then add the beef and cook until no longer pink, and put them around the edges of a preheated deep platter or large serving bowl.
4. In the same wok or fry pan, stir-fry the spinach noodles until heated through, and put them in the center of that bowl of meat.
5. Re scramble the eggs just until they are warm, add the tomatoes, and when hot put these on top of the noodles, and serve.
Meat Balls with Fu Ling II
1 pound ground pork
1/2 onion, minced
1 teaspoon ginger, finely minced and mixed with one tablespoon hot water
1 egg, beaten well
1 Tablespoon dark soy sauce
2 Tablespoons cornstarch
3 Tablespoons vegetable oil
2 cups chicken stock
6 fu ling, soaked until soft, drained, and cut in one-inch pieces
2 Tablespoons Chinese rice wine
2 Tablespoons thin soy sauce
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
4 whole Sichuan peppercorns
6 small Shanghai cabbage, boiled for three minutes
1 scallion, minced
1 Tablespoons cornstarch mixed with one tablespoon cold water
1. Mix the ground pork, onion, ginger, beaten egg, dark soy sauce, and corn starch and make one and a half-inch meat balls. and in a wok or fry pan, brown them in the oil just until lightly browned. Then remove them from the fry pan and set aside on paper towels.
2. Bring the chicken stock to the boil, reduce the heat and add meatballs, then simmer for ten minutes.
3. Add fu ling pieces, rice wine, thin soy sauce, sugar, and peppercorns, and simmer five minutes more
4. Remove the meatballs and put them on a pre-heated deep platter, add the Shanghai cabbage just until hot, then drain it and place them around the meatballs.
5. Boil the remaining liquid with the cornstarch mixture, and when thickened, pour over the meatballs and fu ling, and serve.
Eggplant, Shrimp, and Cao Guo

1 pound shrimp
1 Tablespoon Chinese rice wine
1 Tablespoon Chinese black vinegar
1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
5 Chinese eggplants
1 cup vegetable oil
1 teaspoon cornstarch
2 cao guo, smashed with end of the handle of a cleaver

1 Tablespoon Sichuan peppercorns

1 teaspoon vegetable oil

1 Tablespoon thin soy sauce

2 teaspoons Chinese white vinegar

1 Tablespoon peeled grated fresh ginger


1. Peel and remove veins of the shrimp, and mix them with rice wine, black vinegar, and grated ginger.

2. Remove ends of the eggplants, and cut the rest into two inch strips or angle-shaped pieces.

3. In a wok or deep fry pan, deep fry half the eggplant until golden, then drain on paper towels. Repeat with the rest of the eggplant.
4. Remove all but two tablespoons of the vegetable oil and reserve for another use.

5. Mix the cao guo and the Sichuan peppercorns with cornstarch and fry in the oil until fragrant, then discard them and add the shrimp and stir-fry one minute. Return eggplant to the pan and stir once or twice before adding the soy sauce, vinegar, and grated ginger. Stir-fry all this together for one to two minutes, then serve.

Rose Tea
20 dried whole roses
5 Tablespoons oolong tea leaves
1 star anise seed
1 slice fresh ginger
1 scallion, tied in a knot
1. Put ingredients in cheesecloth bag and tie it closed.
2. Bring a gallon of water to the boil, add the cheesecloth bag and simmer until aromatic and as strong a taste as you like, we suggest five or more minutes.
3. Next, remove the bag and set it aside in a strainer to use another time. Serve the rose tea hot, warm, or cool, as preferred.

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