At first glance, Imperial Herbal's menu looks like that of any other Chinese restaurant, with offerings such as braised cod with spicy sauce, sauteed chile prawns with walnuts and orange-peel beef.
But then you notice the little notes next to the dishes' names. The cod--the menu informs you--is cooked with dangshen (codonopsis) and huangqi (astragalus), two Chinese herbs that increase body energy and aid digestion.
The walnuts, which garnish the chile prawns, are believed to strengthen the kidneys and nourish the brain. (Alternatively, you may order fried jasmine flowers, reputed to regulate energy in the body, instead of the walnuts.) The orange peel with the beef stops coughs and its pith is beneficial to the lungs.
Freshwater fish is cooked with American ginseng, double-boiled pear with powdered fritillary bulb, deep-fried scorpions with minced prawns. (Scorpions are considered a sedative to the liver and an analgesic for headaches.)
When the dishes arrive, the flavors are exquisite, unlike other more traditional herbal Chinese dishes, which often taste bitter and medicinal.
The food at Imperial Herbal Restaurant is indicative of a fascinating trend sweeping through Singapore, Hong Kong and in selected restaurants in China. With the heightened focus on health and diet, talented Chinese master chefs are subtly weaving herbs and tonic-like ingredients into their gourmet specialties. Bitter and herb-like flavors are often masterfully camouflaged so that the diner can relish the dishes and still enjoy the healthful benefits of the foods.
At Imperial Herbal, customers can even be assessed before the meal by a Chinese herbalist so that they can order dishes to meet their particular needs.
For many years, Chinese herbal cuisine was found mainly in the home kitchen, and the dishes tended to be hearty and unrefined. Cantonese restaurants have traditionally offered delicacies that are relished for flavor and pharmacological benefits. For instance, shark's fin is believed to maintain youth while abalone soothes the lungs and improves eyesight. The Chinese believe that foods, herbal and otherwise, have a pronounced effect on the body.
"There's a very blurred line between food and medicine in Chinese herbology," says Daniel Reid, who has studied the topic for more than 20 years and is the author of "The Complete Book of Chinese Health and Healing" (Shambhala Publications, 1995) and "Chinese Herbal Medicine."
The Chinese generally divide foods into three categories: hot, cold and neutral. Yin or cold foods--most fruits, vegetables, crab and fish--are recommended to reduce heat in the body. Yang or hot foods--eggs, fatty meats and other high-protein ingredients--are eaten to heat up the system.
"When you talk about the yin and yang of food, it refers to the type of energy that the food or plant releases in your system." Reid says. "Chi, the essential energy of life, peaks when yin and yang are in perfect harmony. When a patient comes to a Chinese doctor, often the first thing the physician will determine is whether the problem is yin or yang."
The relationship between Chinese herbs and food dates to ancient China. The mythical emperor Shen Nong, said to be the father of agriculture, was supposedly fascinated with the healing properties of various plants. He is also credited with establishing the theory that influences all Chinese culture and philosophy: "The universe is the result of the interplay between yin and yang," he decreed, "the dominant and the recessive, the positive and the negative."
Imperial Herbal opened in 1988, after Wang Lee Tee Eng, a 40-year-old Singaporean businesswoman, visited a similar restaurant in China. She immediately recognized the potential in Singapore and formed a joint venture with a prestigious northern Chinese pharmaceutical company. After hiring two gold-medal chefs and a respected herbalist with training in Western medicine, Li Lian Xing, she brought them to Singapore to open the restaurant.
This combination was necessary, Wang says: "When a chef creates a dish, he is mainly interested in flavor, texture, color. The herbalist understands the effect the herbs will have on the body. Like food, herbs are also classified as having yin or yang properties. Since foods help strengthen the herbs' effects on the body, a good herbalist will combine food and medicine to achieve the perfect balance.
"For instance, shrimp is a rather warm energy food and walnuts also support the yang energy, so they go well together for a yin condition. Once that is established, my chef refines the recipe."
Haute herbal cuisine is by no means exclusive to Imperial Herbal. Several prominent Singapore hotels have included haute herbal recipes on their menus. At Oriental Singapore, executive chef Huang Ching Bu makes a host of herbal soups and desserts developed especially for the Cherry Garden restaurant. There is a sumptuous casserole of stewed duck with winter melon, dried scallops and tangerine peel; double-boiled shark's fin with pigeon; and a delicate essence of chicken soup with deer antlers, which is reputed to reduce internal heat and fever as well as to relieve headaches.
There are even haute herbal desserts, such as double-boiled papaya with Lilium brownii and lotus seeds and cream of coconut with snow fungus.
The Concorde Hotel in Singapore not only staged a haute herbal promotion last year, it also published a glossy book titled "The Chinese Art of Healthy Eating" by Oi Heng Rasmussen (Times Editions). The Concorde paired Daniel Koh and Frank Woo, the hotel's top executive chefs, with Rasmussen, a therapeutic dietitian whose primary training was in Western medicine.
Rasmussen admits that despite her Cantonese upbringing, she was initially skeptical, but the three created some especially captivating dishes: seabass steamed with cilantro, tangerine peel and shanyao (Chinese yam); honey-glazed duck breast with "10 terrific" herb sauce; and seafood dumplings with wolfberries.
In Hong Kong, Chef Dai Hon Lung of the Conrad Hotel's Golden Leaf restaurant is considered the No. 1 chef. His most famous dish is deep-fried turtle jelly, a voluptuous custard-like mixture in a light batter served in honey sauce. Some of his other herbal specialties are equally memorable: pan-fried king prawns in hawthorn herb sauce, roasted eel with Chinese herbs and chilled sweetened diced herb and coconut herb in ginger sauce.
Dai was born in Hong Kong and began cooking when he was 14. He trained in Hong Kong, Jakarta, Singapore and Malaysia before returning to Hong Kong. It was during his years in Southeast Asia that Dai became fascinated with Chinese herbal medicine. He began incorporating the herbs into his food.
"I believe that all food should be prepared with one's health in mind," Dai says, "but at the same time, it should taste so delicious that Chinese herbs would be the last thing the diner would think about."
IMPERIAL HERBAL'S SPICY SHRIMP
Walnuts are believed to strengthen the kidney and nourish the brain.
1 1/2 pounds large shrimp or prawns, peeled
2 tablespoons rice wine
3 slices ginger root, about size of quarter
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 egg white
1 3/4 teaspoons cornstarch
6 tablespoons plain, clear rice vinegar
5 tablespoons sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 green bell peppers
1 red bell pepper
1/2 cup safflower or corn oil
1/2 pound whole walnuts
3 tablespoons minced green onions, white section only
1 1/2 tablespoons minced garlic
1 tablespoon minced ginger root
2 teaspoons hot chile paste, or to taste
Using sharp knife, score shrimp or prawns lengthwise along back and remove vein. Place in bowl.
Place rice wine in bowl. Smash ginger slices lightly with flat side of knife and squeeze in rice wine. Add salt, egg white and 1 1/2 teaspoons cornstarch and mix together. Add shrimp, toss lightly, and let sit for 10 minutes.
Combine vinegar, sugar, soy sauce and 1/4 teaspoon cornstarch in bowl. Set aside.
Core and seed red and green peppers and cut into 1-inch squares and set aside.
Heat skillet or wok, add oil and heat to 350 degrees. Add walnuts and fry, stirring constantly until golden brown. Remove, drain and blot on absorbent paper. Using fine-meshed strainer, strain and reserve oil and wipe pan clean.
Reheat pan, add 3 tablespoons strained oil and reheat until oil is hot. Stir-fry shrimp over high heat until cooked, about 2 minutes. Remove, drain and wipe out pan.
Reheat pan, add remaining strained oil and heat until oil is hot. Add green onions, garlic, minced ginger and chile paste and stir-fry about 10 seconds until fragrant. Add green and red bell peppers and stir-fry over high heat 30 seconds. Add vinegar-cornstarch mixture, toss lightly and, when thickened, add cooked shrimp and fried walnuts. Toss lightly to coat and remove to serving platter.
Makes 6 servings.
Each serving contains about:
559 calories; 668 mg sodium; 210 mg cholesterol; 43 grams fat; 23 grams carbohydrates; 24 grams protein; 2.02 grams fiber.
IMPERIAL HERBAL'S SAUCY CHICKEN WITH GINKO NUTS
Ginko nuts are believed to be good for asthma, gynecological problems and kidney ailments.
1 1/2 pounds skinless, boneless chicken breasts
1 1/2 tablespoons rice wine
1 egg white, lightly beaten
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons cornstarch
6 tablespoons sweet bean paste or hoisin sauce
2 tablespoons sugar
3 tablespoons soy sauce
1 teaspoon sesame oil
2 (14-ounce) cans ginko nuts (also labeled Chinese white nuts)
3 tablespoons safflower or corn oil
Trim away any fat or gristle from chicken. Cut into 1/2-inch cubes and place in bowl with rice wine, egg white, salt and cornstarch. Marinate for 30 minutes.
Combine sweet bean paste, sugar, soy sauce, sesame oil and 2 tablespoons water in bowl. Set aside.
Heat 2 quarts water until boiling. Add ginko nuts and blanch 15 seconds. Remove, drain, and refresh in cold water. Drain again.
Heat skillet or wok, add safflower oil and heat until very hot. Add chicken pieces and toss lightly over high heat until cooked through. Remove with strainer and drain. Wipe pan clean.
Reheat pan, add bean paste mixture and cook until thickened. Add cooked chicken and ginko nuts and toss lightly to coat. Remove to serving platter.
Makes 6 servings.
Each serving contains about:
412 calories; 2600 mg sodium; 85 mg cholesterol; 18 grams fat; 40 grams carbohydrates; 23 grams protein; 2.50 grams fiber.
CHEF DAI'S HEALTHY SOUP
This soup is believed to lower blood pressure and cholesterol. One serving should be drunk in the morning for 21 to 28 consecutive days.
6 dried red dates
2 ounces black fungus or wood ear
2 ounces pork tenderloin, trimmed of any fat or gristle
2 small knobs ginger root
8 1/2 cups water
Soften red dates in hot water to cover 1 hour. Drain and remove pits.
Place pitted dates, fungus, tenderloin, ginger root and water in stock pot and bring to boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer, uncovered, until reduced to 1 1/2 cups, about 1 1/2 hours. Strain solids and drink.
Makes 1 serving.
Each serving contains about:
371 calories; 27 mg sodium; 32 mg cholesterol; 2 grams fat; 75 grams carbohydrates; 18 grams protein; 5.15 grams fiber.
YIN-YANG SHRIMP WITH HAWTHORN DIPPING SAUCE
Hawthorn is reputed to promote digestion, dissolve cholesterol deposits in the lining of blood vessels and lower blood pressure. It's sweet like candy and, when combined with vinegar and catsup, makes a light sweet-sour sauce. Hawthorn wafers, sometimes called Hawslices, are sold locally in the candy or cookie sections of many Asian markets.
6 (12 1/2-gram) packages hawthorn wafers or 1 1/2 (1.76-ounce) packages "Hawslices"
2 1/4 pounds medium shrimp, peeled
3 tablespoons rice wine or sake
4 green onions, smashed lightly with flat side of knife
4 slices ginger root, smashed lightly with flat side of knife
2 1/4 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
3/4 cup white sesame seeds
3/4 cup black sesame seeds
1 teaspoon cornstarch
1/4 cup catsup
2 tablespoons plain, clear rice vinegar
2 teaspoons soy sauce
1 egg, lightly beaten
14 (6-inch) bamboo skewers
3/4 cup safflower or corn oil
Soften hawthorn wafers in 1/2 cup boiling water about 15 minutes, then mash through sieve. Set aside.
Holding sharp knife or cleaver parallel to cutting board, score each shrimp along back to allow shrimp to curl when cooked. Remove vein from shrimp and rinse thoroughly.
Place shrimp in bowl with rice wine, green onions, ginger root, 1 teaspoon salt and sesame oil and toss lightly to coat. Marinate at least 30 minutes, or longer if possible.
Arrange white sesame seeds and black sesame seeds in separate plates or dishes.
Dissolve cornstarch in 1 tablespoon water in small bowl to make slurry.
Combine mashed hawthorn wafers, catsup, rice vinegar, soy sauce, remaining 1 1/4 teaspoons salt, 2 tablespoons water and cornstarch slurry and blend until well mixed. Transfer to saucepan and heat until thickened, stirring constantly to prevent lumps. Keep warm and before serving, pour into separate serving dish.
Add egg to shrimp and thread 4 shrimp on each bamboo skewer. Dip 1 side of skewered shrimp in white sesame seeds, turn over, and dip other side in black sesame seeds. Place on baking sheet to set up.
Heat skillet, add safflower oil and heat to 375 degrees. Add 3 or 4 skewers and fry until golden brown, about 1 1/2 minutes per side. Remove and drain briefly in colander, then transfer to absorbent paper. Fry remaining shrimp, reheating oil when necessary, using fine-meshed strainer to remove loose sesame seeds from oil between batches. Drain and arrange on platter alternating white and black sides. Serve with sweet-and-sour dipping sauce.
Makes 6 servings.
Each serving contains about:
696 calories; 1365 mg sodium; 401 mg cholesterol; 50 grams fat; 22 grams carbohydrates; 41 grams protein; 1.85 grams fiber.
* Simon Pearce pottery in Ying Yang photo from Gearys in Beverly Hills.