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Grandma's Kitchen:   Chinese Kitchen Medicine
Grandma's Kitchen

by Eyton Shalom

Anyone who viewed the Chinese film Farewell My Concubine will remember the scene in which the wealthy patron entertains the lead singer of the Beijing opera. At the climax of their feast a servant brings in a large clay tureen of soup and the patron serves his guest with the words, "Drink this soup and your voice will remain clear for a thousand years!"

While a thousand years may be a lot to hope for, since ancient times the Chinese have been concerned with longevity and good health. The Taoists, in addition to cultivating their Qi (Chi or life-force) with inner exercises and martial arts, sought secret herbal elixirs to maintain youthfulness, stamina, and a long healthy life. In turn, the Confucianists taught filial piety, respect, and honor towards age and the wisdom that can accrue with its experience. Perhaps this respect towards the aged may even have created a climate where desire for longevity became popular. Even under the Communists, the political leaders in China are composed of octogenarians and septuagenarians. If a leading power player is 64 he is considered young. Old habits die hard.

One of the secrets of Chinese longevity is the practice of Chi Gong, Tai Chi and other martial arts. It is common to see people old and young doing their exercises in the parks early in the morning in Beijing and other large cities. Even disco-dancing is adapted into a group practice done outdoors to exercise the body/mind. Finally, the Chinese have relied upon acupuncture and medicinal herbs ingested in both tea and pill form to prevent and treat illness. But in addition, for centuries and centuries, mothers and grandmothers of mothers have prepared herbs with food. This is called Kitchen Medicine.

Which takes us back to our opera singerís fantastic soup. What was in it? Well, besides the exotic meats such as goose and tortoise, there were, no doubt, Chinese herbs. One of the methods by which the Chinese prepare herbs as food is in soups and stews traditionally prepared on the top of the stove in clay pots with close-fitting lids. This preparation utilizes meats, vegetables, and Chinese "tonic" herbs; herbs that increase strength and stamina and in the imagistic vocabulary of traditional Chinese medicine, increase Qi, build blood, moisten the Yin, warm the Yang, and improve organ function. Added to this are other herbs that aid in digestion and eliminate "dampness." These delicious soup/stews are used not only to promote health and wellness, but also to assist in recovery from childbirth, illness, surgery, trauma, and even excessive menstruation.

There is a second method of herbal food preparation involving rice and other grains called Congee. It is a common breakfast item in parts of China and is especially favored in patients with weak digestion. (We will save discussion of Congee cooking for another time.)

Today, you can prepare Chinese tonic stews in any heavy non-aluminum pot with a tight-fitting lid. Herbs can be purchased at any one of the Chinese herb shops listed in the your local Yellow Pages. Some of the most popular cooking herbs can even be found in the spice and tea sections of the many Chinese and Vietnamese markets. There you will find red dates, lotus seed, apricot seed, licorice, dried dioscorea yam, polygonati root, as well as the various dried mushrooms that are excellent in soups and stews. At the herb shops you can buy the more expensive herbs, like Chinese ginseng (the most famous tonic herb in the world), Siberian Ginseng, American Ginseng, Peony Alba, Dried Tangerine Peel, Cordyceps fungus (used most recently by Chinese Olympic athletes) and others.

Chinese herbal stews can range in complexity from simple Chicken and San Chi Ginseng steamed in the double boiler to the elaborate preparations found in Chinese herbal restaurants and in the homes of the wealthy. Here are some of my favorite recipes.



  • 1-2 Tbl organic cold-pressed sesame oil
  • 3-4 slices fresh ginger root
  • 1 medium brown onion, sliced
  • 1-2 cups chopped root vegetables of your choice (carrot, turnip, rutabaga, daikon)
  • 2-3 skinless hormone-free chicken legs. Other pieces if you like.
  • 1 Tbl dark miso paste
  • 1 tsp white pepper (more or less to taste)


  • 2-3 oz. Astragalus Root (Huang Qi)
  • 1 oz. Chinese Red Ginseng Root (Ren Shen)
  • 1 oz. American Ginseng Root (Xi Yang Shen)
  • 5-6 pieces Cordyceps fungus (Dong Chong Xia Cao)
  • 3 pieces Dioscorea Yam Root (Shan Yao)
  • 1-2 pieces aged Tangerine Peel (Chen Pi)
  • 3-4 pieces Chinese Red Date (Da Zao)
  • 2-3 Indian Green Cardomon pods or Chinese Cardomon (Sha Ren)
  • 3-4 pieces Poria Fungus (Fu Ling)


Fry the sliced brown onion and thinly sliced ginger root in the sesame oil. When slightly browned, add as much chicken as you like. Vegetarians may substitute tofu or tempeh at this stage. Saute 5 minutes longer and then add the root vegetables and herbs with enough water to reach 2-3 inches above the ingredients. Bring to a boil and reduce to medium-low. Cook for 45 minutes to 1 hour in a heavy pot with a tight lid. 10 minutes before finishing, add the miso paste (after mixing it in a little water) and the pepper and let it simmer to perfection. Salt can be added if the miso is not salty enough. Those on a low-fat diet can reduce the oil to 1 teaspoon, but generally fat is not the issue for those eating this soup.

This is an excellent soup for recouping energy after surgery or prolonged illness. Chicken is a warm blood tonic food which when combined with these herbs raises, the Qi and warms and tonifies the blood which is important as our bodies become very cold during surgery. The cordyceps fungus replenishes the "essence" (jing) which is depleted by surgery, and the ginger, tangerine peel, and cardomon harmonize the digestion and help to relieve the nausea that often occurs post-surgically. The herbs used here are warm so be careful with this recipe if you are recovering from an illness and you still feel heat in your body.



  • 1/2 to 1 lb. lean lamb pieces with the bone. Lamb leg bones can be purchased at mideastern markets.
  • 3-4 large leeks, sliced
  • 3-4 slices fresh ginger root
  • 3-4 crushed garlic cloves
  • 1 cup sliced Daikon radish root
  • 1 Tbl barley miso paste
  • 1 tsp black pepper
  • 2 tsp organic cold-pressed sesame oil


  • 1 oz. Chinese Angelica Root (Tang Kwei)
  • 1 oz Rehmannia Root (Shu Di Huang)
  • 1-2 oz. Polygoni Multiflore Root (He Shou Wu)
  • 2 pieces Dioscorea Yam Root (Shan Yao)
  • 2-3 pieces Peony Alba Root (Bai Shao)
  • 2-3 pieces Poria Fungus (Fu Ling)
  • 1 2" x 1" Saigon Cinnamon Bark (Rou Gui)
  • 1-2 pieces aged Tangerine Peel (Chen Pi)
  • 1 oz. Astragalus Root (Huang Qi)
  • 2-3 oz. Chinese Barley Jobís Tears (Yi Yi Ren)


Saute the ginger and garlic in the oil until brown and fragrant. Add the cleaned leek slices (slice them in half and soak for a minute in warm water to remove all the dirt) and lamb and saute a little more. After 5 minutes add the daikon, herbs, bones (if separated), and enough water to cover the ingredients and then some. Bring to a boil and then cook on medium-low for about an hour. As the Jobís Tears tend to absorb water you may have to add more during the course of cooking. Near the end add slightly diluted miso paste and black pepper. The miso paste is optional. It is a traditional Japanese ingredient, but I love the mellow flavor it imparts to all soups. A little red wine or Chinese rice wine could be added at this point also. Serve with a little soy sauce if more salt is needed.

This is a slightly sweet warming soup, excellent for building blood in the winter time. Lean lamb is very rich, and the "blood tonic" herbs in this recipe can, combined with the lamb, produce "dampness in the middle jiao," so this recipe includes daikon radish, a vegetable known for its damp transforming qualities. In addition the recipe calls for Jobís Tears and Pore, two damp draining herbs.


This is an excellent soup for Santa Ana season when peopleís lungs and skin are attacked by hot dry wind from the desert. It features foods and herbs that are cooling and moistening. The cold nature of the tofu is balanced by the inclusion of a little ginger root. This recipe lubricates the lungs, clears heat, gently expels wind through the skin, and strengthens the spleen and lungs. It can also be used for a dry cough in the aftermath of a common cold. For increased tonification chicken may be substituted for the tofu, which will, however, make it less cooling.


  • 1 lb hard or soft tofu
  • 2 Asian or Bosc pears, sliced
  • 2 slices fresh ginger root
  • 1 small onion, sliced
  • 1 dash Chinese five spice powder
  • Soy sauce and white pepper to taste


  • 1 oz Pueraria Root (Ge Gen)
  • 1 oz Fritillariae Bulb (Chuan Bei Mu)
  • 1/2 oz Lotus Seed (Lian Zi)
  • 1 oz Lily Bulb (Bai He)
  • 1/2 oz Polygonati Rhizome (Yu Zhu)
  • 2 pieces Dioscorea Root (Shao Yao)
  • 1 oz Glehniae Root (Bei Sha Shen)
  • 1/2 oz dried Longan Fruit (Long Yan Rou)


Saute the ginger, onions, and tofu in a little sesame oil. If using hard tofu, cut it into strips; if using soft tofu, just mash

it up a bit. After the onions are a little brown, add five or six cups of water with the sliced pears and the herbs. Bring to a boil and simmer for 45 minutes. Add a dash of five spice powder near the end. Serve with soy sauce and pepper to taste.

A word of caution – while all the herbs listed in these recipes are perfectly safe kitchen herbs, as with all herbs there are contraindications and cautions. One should not overdo tonic herbs or rich tonic food as this can lead to excessive heat and digestive congestion. If one is yin deficient and suffering from "deficiency heat" or a very weak digestion, some of the tonic herbs can cause additional heat or congestion. Lastly, if you are sick and still carrying a pathogen you should be careful in your choice of herbs. Please consult a local herbalist who practices dietary medicine if you are in doubt. The recipes given here are only meant to promote wellness in otherwise healthy individuals.

You will notice when cooking with herbs that some of the roots, like Ginseng, appear quite edible after cooking and others, like Astragalus appear too stringy and fibrous to eat. You are right! Just eat the ones that look good. Bon Appetit!

Eyton Shalom is an acupuncturist practicing at Park Blvd Health Center in University Heights, San Diego, CA. He can be reached at (619) 296-7591.

Other recipes from Grandma's Kitchen:

Soybean Magic
Fiesta Ė Filipino Style
Filipino Party Foods
Healthy Summer Eating
Vietnamís Chicken in Lemon Grass
Korean Homestyle Cooking
Prosperity for the New Year
The Fine Art of Korean Cooking
The Ever Pan-Tropic Bamboo and Indonesian Soup
Tofu Bubble and Chinese Cabbage
Shrimp Hui Tofu
Fighting the "Baby Fat" Blues with Asian Food
Connie's Cuisine
Eat Drink Man Woman - Starring .... Food
Asian New Year's Recipes
More Asian New Year's Recipes

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