To a Western shopper, the cluttered interior of a Chinese herb shop suggests unsolved medical mysteries.
Perhaps it's the dusky scent of bitter mixed with sweet that hovers above the banks of polished wooden cabinets with their rows and rows of tiny drawers. Inside each compartment hide gnarled dried roots, rough barks and wizened berries, arranged library catalog-style, as logical as the canons of Asian medicine.
Some of the merchandise isn't particularly medicinal. Those bird's nests, sharks fins and dried abalone, which can run about $160 a pound, are gourmet delicacies cherished as much as caviar or foie gras and eaten at celebrations or ceremonies. And the herbs (the word "herb" is used loosely to describe all sorts of dried plant matter) often end up in delicious soups.
You also see lots of familiar items like red jujubes and dried mushrooms, which can be purchased in Chinese markets. "But [supermarket products] are not the same high quality," one Chinese connoisseur insisted.
These herb shops seem to have a dual function: medicine shop and gourmet store. You can, for instance, buy the highest-quality black mushroom, the costly kind with the prized crackly tops. Yet even the epicurean items are purported to induce one bodily effect or another; oysters, for example, are believed to be an aphrodisiac.
"For the Chinese, there is a hazy line between food and medicine," said Peggy Brevoort, owner of East Earth Herbs Inc. in Eugene, Ore., a company that imports Chinese herbs to produce drinks and other products for the health-food trade.
In the Chinese tradition of medicine, doctors first suggest modifying the diet before trying more severe methods. Even some common foods can be medicinal (scallion congee is supposed to chase away colds) and many medicinal herbs are administered by cooking them in soups, stews or congees (soupy rice porridges).
"Wherever they live in the world, Chinese mothers have a delicious edible remedy for just about everything," said Baldwin Marchack, a wine connoisseur of Chinese heritage who grew up in Trinidad. "You've heard of 'Jewish penicillin.' Well, the health-giving attributes of herbal tonic soups are just as familiar to every Chinese."
Everybody knows, for instance, that black chicken soup with Chinese angelica root (in Cantonese, dong kwai; in Mandarin, danggui) is a blood tonic given to old people and to women after childbirth.
Many of the tonic soups are so familiar that there's a whole array of soup mixes packaged as convenience products. Dry items--ingredients like Chinese angelica root, Chinese wolfberries (fructus lycii) or dried tangerine peel--come together in the proper proportions for a given soup. The packages even have recipes on the back but, unfortunately, they are usually written only in Chinese.
I shop a lot in Chinatown, but I hadn't a clue about how to manage in the herb stores, so Marchack agreed to accompany me to several of them. At Ten-Chain Co. on Broadway, we talked to Howard Thi, an herbalist. He explained the uses of many barks and herbs as Marchack translated.
Thi recommended several ingredient mixtures designed to be put in healthful soups. These unfamiliar concoctions of root slices, dried fruits, apricot kernels and other ingredients were folded into pink butcher's paper. "My wife will know what to do with them," Marchack said, patting the packets. "She knows how to make wonderful soups."
Indeed, looking at the contents, Doreen Marchack knew exactly what to do with each. One Sunday she used them to prepare three of China's most familiar tonic soups. Our dinner was a banquet of all three, and we felt deliciously fed, if not entirely impervious to disease.
The first soup, choi guo tang, was a light beef broth that contained dried Chinese cabbage (choi guo in Cantonese; in Mandarin, cai guo), a dried fruit the size of a tennis ball (luo han guo) and hang yen, the kernels of apricot pits. In ancient times, the soup was part of the daily ration for sailors on long voyages; it helped keep them regular and in good health. We know why it worked: The cabbage probably provided most of their fiber and its vitamin C prevented scurvy.
To make choi guo tang, you boil about a pound of beef shank, trimmed of fat, for several hours in two quarts of water with half a package of dried cabbage, one peeled luo han guo and a few apricot kernels, then season with a little salt.
The second soup, the blood tonic given to new mothers, is intensely flavored with a whole black chicken and very lean pork chunks. The black chicken (available at 99 Ranch markets and other Chinese and Vietnamese supermarkets) looks weird, but it produces an amazingly rich stock, even though it has no fat under the skin. The meats are simmered together for several hours along with danggui mai, the leading herb in the soup's large assortment that includes dried radish slices, dried bright orange wolfberries, dried tangerine skin and salt.
The third soup, said to enhance one's sex life, was a rich hearty brew based on lamb shank. The upper portion of angelica root (danggui mai) and the tail part of the root (danggui tao) are added--each apparently having a slightly different effect. Additional assorted herbs, two whole dried tangerine skins and port wine also go into its clay cooking pot, which is set in a water bath in a wok. This method allows the cooking to go on all day, extracting maximum flavor and tonic essences from the herbs and meat.
But do these medicinal foods really work? The Chinese made nutritionists members of the court's highest medical staff as early as the Zhou dynasty (1000-480 BC). Over thousands of years, Chinese doctors observed the effects of certain herbs and herbal compounds and by trial and error came up with remedies. Now people are attempting to discover why.
"China is the world leader in medicinal plant research," said Ron Teeguarden, a Los Angeles importer of Chinese herbs and author of "Chinese Tonic Herbs" (Japan Publications). "Researchers there often use Western empirical methods to investigate the effects of these herbs. Certain plants, including astragalus, believed to be an immune system booster, turn out to contain free radical scavengers, antioxidants that we know consume body toxins."
The Chinese value these herbs not only as specific cures but also for what they believe to be their long-term effects as blood fortifiers and immune system builders. As tonics, Teeguarden advised, the highest-quality herbs are the most potent.
Teeguarden's shops are a boon for people who don't speak Chinese because they carry all the commonly used Chinese herbs and have an English-speaking staff who can explain their uses.
On the other hand, the shops aren't quite as exotic as the Chinese stores, nor do they carry bird's nest, dried abalone and other Chinese luxury comestibles.
* Flower Mushrooms: Related to shiitake mushrooms, flower mushrooms are a species of Asian black mushroom always sold dried. You can recognize them by their rounded caps marked with deep white fissures. They come in many sizes and grades, the thickest with the deepest fissures being best. The best, which can cost more than $30 per pound, have an especially aromatic flavor when cooked. Like all dry mushrooms, they must be soaked about 20 minutes in tepid water until they soften. Discard the stems or use them along with the liquid in a stock. Black mushrooms are eaten to clean toxins from the intestines, often in a soup using the mushroom soaking liquid and a little ginger. They are said to lower cholesterol and blood pressure and strengthen the stomach.
* White Fungus: These puffy, crinkled pale yellow fungi are a favored dessert ingredient. They're served in warm sweet porridges and are prized mostly for their texture. Some cooks use white fungus in savory dishes too, especially in chicken soup and sauced chicken dishes. Although it is not considered a tonic herb, some believe that it helps to promote long life. Like all mushrooms, they must be soaked in tepid water until soft before cooking.
* Ganoderma Mushroom: Lingzhi, the "mushroom of immortality," grows on rotten logs the way tree ear fungus does. It's not the sort of mushroom with a cap but a rather thick, ripple-shaped bracket fungus, even more substantial than a large portobello mushroom. Japanese scientists have recently begun intensive studies to establish why ganoderma promotes radiant health. The mushroom is believed to be a tonic for all the body's systems, especially the lungs, liver and coronary and cerebral blood flow.
In recent years, ganoderma has gained a huge following and is being cultivated in Japan. Teeguarden says he imports organically grown wild ganoderma, which he prefers. He advised, "To extract their essences, lingzhi should be cooked a very long time." They are particularly good in chicken soup.
* Chinese Red Dates (jujubes): These wrinkled red fruits, unrelated to palm dates, were brought to China from Iran centuries ago; their Mandarin name is da zao. Their red color symbolizes good fortune. They are used not only in cooked dishes, especially desserts, but also as the base for a ceremonial wine. Their role as a Chinese herb tonic is as a purifier and dispersing agent. They are said to "clear the nine openings," including eyes, ears, sinuses and nose. Working synergistically with other herbs, they help give the herbs, especially such yang herbs as Korean ginseng, a smooth passage through the system. The dates should be soaked about an hour before being used.
* Chinese Wolfberries: Some Chinese herb sources refer to this fruit by the Latin name fructus lycii, meaning fruit of Lycium chinense, also known as Chinese matrimony vine. (Don't confuse lycium with litchi, by the way--it's not the familiar red-skinned litchi berry that many Chinese restaurants serve after meals.) In Mandarin, the name is gouqizi; in Cantonese, it's gae ji. These orange berries are a popular blood tonic that is supposed to brighten the spirit. They reportedly improve night vision (perhaps the orange color carries Vitamin A, but I haven't verified this). The berries should be vibrant orange-red, never brownish. They are considered cooling and are prescribed to reduce fevers and treat bronchial inflammation. In soups and teas, the cheerful little berries add a delicious sweet taste that is also particularly good in meat preparations.
* Conpoy (Dried Scallops): These yellowish disks (whose Cantonese name is ganbei) remind me of the bee's wax rounds used in sewing. Conpoy are not actually scallops, though; according to Asian food expert Bruce Cost, they are a close relative. Their flavor is strong, so a little goes a long way to season fish soups or a dish of winter melon. Some cooks like to steam conpoy for half an hour, then shred them to use as a garnish. Conpoy vary widely in quality, so choose a discriminating herb vendor from which to purchase them.
* Dried Abalone: They look for all the world like wizened hockey pucks, and they're expensive. They're the kind of thing you find at wedding banquets that go on for several days.
Dried abalone must be soaked in several changes of water, then cooked in a pan with plenty of water inside another pan of water. This allows them to absorb the proper amount of moisture slowly and evenly. Seasoned with a little oyster sauce, they are ready for the table when meltingly tender--after about four hours of cooking. Serve them with braised flower mushrooms or Chinese greens.
Larger dried abalone come sliced almost as thin as paper. The slices are less expensive and cook more quickly than the small, whole abalone, but aren't considered as luxurious.
* Dried Oysters: Cooked in much the same way as abalone, dried oysters may be made into a dish similar to minced squab in lettuce leaves. The cooked dried oysters are roughly chopped and combined with minced water chestnuts, seasonings and perhaps crunchy, deep-fried rice noodles. They are served with lettuce leaves for wrapping to eat burrito-style.
* Bird's Nests: Cave-dwelling Southeast Asian swifts use their own gelatinous saliva to make their nests. Somehow the nests became a great delicacy among Chinese gourmands, who pay dearly for the best of them. Although bird's nests are completely dependent on other ingredients for their flavor, they turn up on Chinese banquet tables all over the world. The finest are whole, clear and white with no extraneous feathers or other material. Broken nest pieces are much less expensive.
As medicine, they are considered valuable for convalescents. They are also said to work miracles on the complexion and are thought to stave off old age.
Many cooks insist on soaking soak bird's nests overnight in cold water before removing any foreign matter. The nests, or pieces of them, are then simmered in stock or water for 10 minutes. Alternatively, the nests can be softened in an hour if soaked in very warm water.
Bird's nests usually show up in luxurious soups. One exotic way to serve them is as a stuffing for steamed air-dried duck (Westlake duck). Another is to steam them in a rock sugar and water solution and serve them chilled as a dessert.
* Sea Horses: Most cooks say dried sea horses are to be used only as a seasoning for soups, particularly the soup of young rooster that is believed to aid the kidneys. Sea horses are also supposed to enhance amorous relations. They must be soaked in several changes of water and double-steamed or braised.
MEDICINAL HERBS USED IN COOKED DISHES
The Chinese consume tonic blends designed to strengthen the body against aging by bringing its opposing energies--its yin and yang forces--into balance. Here are some of the major tonic ingredients:
* Astragalus: This long, thin root (huangqi in Mandarin, bok kay in Cantonese), is one of the most important Chinese tonic herbs. An ingredient in many tonic soups and hundreds of herbal blends, the root is always sliced lengthwise, resulting in a long white oval framed by a ribbon of brown skin.
Astragalus is often combined with ginseng and favored for its warming properties by people who work in the cold. It is said to be a blood tonic that regulates the body's fluid metabolism. Writing in the Health News and Review last January, Daniel B. Mowrey reported that astragalus extracts can enhance the immune system's natural defense function in patients undergoing chemotherapy.
* Chinese Angelica: Known in Chinese as danggui, this is one of the most widely used medicinal roots. Danggui is a favored blood tonic thought to be especially beneficial to women. Millions of Asian women rely on it to protect their reproductive systems.
You can buy the root whole, but most prefer slices that come either from the top or the lower part of the root. The top is considered stronger. Sweet-tasting roots are regarded as higher in quality than bitter ones.
* Codonopsis: This root, known as dangshen, is sometimes called poor man's ginseng. Codonopsis is milder than ginseng but often substitutes for it. It's a major element in many chi tonics, which, in the Chinese concept of well-being, can regulate energy through the blood, lungs and spleen. As a result, chi tonics affect the digestion, assimilation of foods and respiration. Dangshen is considered an excellent tonic for anyone in a weakened condition because it does not present the risk of over-stimulation.
* Rehmannia: Another tonic herb, useful for building the body during illness, rehmannia, or shudi huang, comes in two forms. The unprocessed root is the preferred treatment for kidneys, and the steamed root is considered best for treating the blood and toning up the marrow. Because it is a mild diuretic, rehmannia helps in eliminating excess body acids. It has a bittersweet flavor and is one of the essential elements in "four things soup," the women's tonic of black chicken and danggui.
BLOOD TONIC BLACK CHICKEN SOUP
Black chickens are widely available in Chinese supermarkets and poultry shops. They come completely dressed and frozen.
6 to 7 slices Chinese angelica tang kuei (dong kwai)
8 pieces astragalus (huangqi)
2 tablespoons lycium berries (gou zi)
12 pieces codonopsis (dang shen)
50 pieces Chinese yam (shan yao)
10 pieces dried longan
1 (3- to 4-pound) black chicken, cut into serving pieces
3/4 to 1 pound fresh ham, cut into 1 1/2- to 2-inch chunks
2 1/2 teaspoons salt, or to taste
Combine angelica, astragalus, lycium, codonopsis, Chinese yam and longan in colander and rinse very gently with water. Drain and put in large soup pot with 10 cups water, chicken and ham. Bring to boil. Reduce heat, cover and simmer on very low heat until meats are fork-tender and stock is rich, about 3 hours. If stock is too watery, simmer uncovered about 20 minutes to concentrate liquid. Add salt to taste.
Strain herbal matter from soup before serving.
Makes 8 servings.
CHOI GUO TANG
This soup is very light and restorative. Sometimes it is made without beef, but Marchak likes it better with a beef broth. Only a small portion of the meat is eaten with each serving. Meat is primarily used to season the broth.
1 pound beef shank, trimmed of fat
1/3 package dried Chinese cabbage
1 piece lohan (lor han), peeled of brittle skin
3 ounces apricot kernels (hang yen)
1 piece dried longan
2 1/2 teaspoons salt, or to taste
Cut beef into several chunks. Use bone along with meat for soup.
Rinse cabbage under cool running water. Soak in cool water to cover 10 minutes. Drain and rinse; soak again for 10 minutes. Repeat, then drain.
Add soaked cabbage, meat, lohan, apricot kernels, longan and salt to 10 cups water. Bring to boil, reduce heat, cover and simmer until meat is fork-tender, about 3 hours. Season to taste with salt.
With 2 forks, shred meat into small pieces. Serve soup with little of cabbage, some shredded meat and a few apricot kernels.
Makes 4 servings.
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There are Chinese herb shops in most Southern California communities. Often, if a shopping center has a Chinese supermarket, it will also have an herb shop. Here are a few:
* TST Herb Store, 345 W. Valley Blvd., No. C, Alhambra, (818) 282-3692.
* Tak Shing Hong (also called TS Emporium), 823 N. Broadway, Chinatown, Los Angeles, (213) 680-1887 and 401 E. Garvey Ave., Monterey Park, (818) 307-0794. Many other Southland locations.
* Gin-Herb Corp. (also known as Wing On Tong), 617 W. Garvey Ave., Monterey Park, (818) 308-3928.
Ten-Chain, 724 N. Broadway, Chinatown, Los Angeles, (213) 626-6371.
* The Tea Garden Herbal Emporium, 9001 Beverly Blvd., W. Hollywood, (310) 205- 0104; 1609 Montana Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 260-1240.
* East Earth Trade Winds. Call for catalog. (800) 258-6878.