The major difference between Chinese and English herbs is that, unlike their western counterparts, the former are not merely crude drugs but are often dried botanically. In some cases, they have been processed through several steps such as selection, cutting, peeling, scrubbing, leeching, roasting, and so on. Performed painstakingly by hand in a carefully prescribed manner that has been handed down from generation to generation, these methods of preparation are thought to alter considerably the quality of the basic material.
Chinese herbs are rarely employed as individual agents. More frequently, they are used as building blocks in conjunction with other materials, so that the materials working in concert enhance or negate certain qualities of one another and produce a more effective pharmaceutical than the crude drugs alone. Chinese herbs are well suited for long-term health restoration because of their low-impact nature on the body and the very low risk of side-effects, even when they are prescribed for long periods of time.
Countless herbal dishes that are considered beneficial either in a curative or supplementary (bu) way are cooked and eaten by Chinese all over the world. Most of the ingredients for these dishes are expensive, either due to their rarity or their supposed efficacy. Understandably, some herbs are consumed more for their symbolic auspiciousness than their culinary flavour, especially during the Chinese New Year period.
A popular method of preparing dishes with such herbs is double-boiling. A standard decoction is made by bringing the same quantities of herb and water slowly to the boil in a covered pan and simmering for five minutes or longer according to the herb used. This is to preserve the beneficial properties of the various ingredients which may be destroyed by ordinary boiling. Check out the following list of Chinese herbs to see how many fit this bill.
Clear and tasteless, bird’s nest is usually served in chicken stock or in rock-sugared syrup. Its subtle fragrance is appreciated by those who believe that regular consumption of bird’s nest will help one maintain a good complexion. True enough, this delicacy is esteemed by many Chinese and is reputed to cleanse the blood of impurities and nourishes the lungs and throat.
Bird’s nest actually comprises of the white saliva secreted from the mouth of the golden shrike – a bird which abounds in Hunan and some of the South Sea islands. Gathering the nests, however, is risky business, as most of them are found embedded between deep crevices and inside dark caves along the coasts. Overall, bird’s nest from China is regarded as superior to that from other regions.
Found mainly in Sichuan, Qinghai, Guizhou and Yunnan provinces in China, cordyceps are used generously in stews as they enhance the flavour of meats. With an incredible ability for self-restoration, cordyceps (or tung chong cho in Cantonese) are said to be extremely effective in replenishing the body’s vital essence.
Dang gui’s beneficial properties are quite similar to that of ginseng. Considered one of the most effective medicines for gynaecological ailments, this root is taken by many Chinese women after childbirth to alleviate pain, lubricate the intestines and prevent haemorrhage. It also serves as a mild sedative, and draws pus from boils. When roasted with wine, dang gui is believed to be more potent.
A favourite ingredient during Chinese New Year, it never fails to show up for the festive period due to its auspicious name – “fa cai” in Cantonese means “get rich”. Surprisingly, this weed which spreads under some cactus-shaped plants is found in some of the most remote areas, like the Gobi Desert, and in parts of Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang. Otherwise known as black moss, this hair-like vegetable in fact has very little taste, but is prized for its slippery texture.
The name “ginseng” derives from the Chinese word meaning “man-shape”. The red variety is sun dried after having been steamed for two hours, while the white variety is sun dried after the skin has been removed. Used medicinally in China and Tibet since about 3000 B.C., ginseng has a reputation as a universal panacea, aphrodisiac and elixir, and appears to adapt to the needs of the body.
The ones from Chang Bai Shan in China are reputed to be of the best grade, with the Korean variety a close second. Wild ginseng is of higher quality than cultivated ginseng. The plants are at their peak for pharmaceutical use at five or six years of age. The roots are dug in the fall.
Small red berries found in East Asia and Inner Mongolia that are frequently used in stews and soups to impart a sweet, fragrant flavour. Said to be good for improving vision, and is sometimes recommended for diabetics.
Sliced thinly and double-boiled, ling zhi is strongly recommended for perking up any physical tiredness, weak heart and palpitations. Can be grounded into powder form and consumed with warm water as well.
The crude drug is the dried fruit that are sold in their shells or as lumps of tightly packed longan flesh. These can be eaten on its own, the delightful sweet flavour being much preferred by young children. A remarkable tonic that is used to treat insomnia and even nervous disorders.
Tian ma is used with chuan xiong (a rhizome which has been dried after having been immersed in hot water) in the preparation of a decoction to treat headaches accompanied by dizziness. Stewed with pig’s and goat’s brain, it makes a tasty and invigorating tonic.