What's interesting is that I had been suffering from periodic bouts of heartburn. Was there something in my appearance - perhaps shadows under the eyes - that made this fact obvious to someone with a basic knowledge of Chinese medicine? Based on this experience, I thought it would be interesting to explore some of the different ingredients - many exotic, others a staple of the Asian marketplace - that are used in the treatment of various illnesses and medical conditions.
- Bird's Nests and Shark's Fin - Besides sharing an exorbitant price tag (not surprising considering that the first is made from the hardened saliva of the swiftlet bird, while the second requires days of preparation before arriving at the pharmacy) both of these exotic foodstuffs are reputed to be good for the complexion. Fortunately, so is the less expensive Fish Maw. Made from the air bladder of certain types of fish, it works well in soups and stews, absorbing the flavors of the foods it is cooked with.
- Chinese Black Mushrooms - No need to visit the Chinese pharmacist for these - you'll find bins of Chinese black mushrooms packed to overflowing in any Chinese grocery store. Used in soups stir-fries and braised dishes, they are thought to be helpful in lowering blood pressure.
- Cordyceps - A worm in winter and a plant in summer? - surely I had misunderstood the pharmacist. In fact, the Chinese name for Cordyceps Robertii means "winter worm summer grass." As The Oxford Companion to Food explains, during the winter the Cordyceps fungus grows solely inside its host. However, in summer it produces an outer growth, and it is these brown stalks that are eaten. Grown mainly in Szechuan and Tibet, Cordyceps is quite expensive - $120 an ounce Canadian at the pharmacy I visited. Thought to increase stamina, it is used in soups, often in combination with chicken or duck. In addition, preparations containing Cordyceps are sometimes used by long distance runners wanting to increase their aerobic capacity.
- Dried Gecko - The sight of a gecko skeleton - bearing a marked resemblance to a translucent bat - can be a little unnerving. Cut up and heated in rice wine, the hardy lizard is used to treat everything from coughs and kidney infections to asthma.
- Ginger - Besides being appreciated for its distinct flavor and ability to diffuse other strong odors, ginger has long been used as a digestive aid. Thought to get rid of air in the body, it is used to treat both stomach acidity and motion sickness. In China, women customarily drink a mixture of ginger cooked in wine and sesame oil shortly after giving birth.
- Hair Moss - The next time you spot a black rectangle of something that looks like human hair, but feels more scratchy (like the hair on a doll), chances are you've stumbled across hair moss. Also known as hair seaweed, black moss, and hair vegetable, this ingredient is served in a vegetarian dish during Chinese New Year. It grows in the Gobi dessert, nourished by mountain springs after heavy rainfalls. Its curative properties are thought to include cleansing the colon. Hair moss must be soaked before use.
- Sea Cucumber - A gelatinous aquatic creature that gets its name from its shape, sea cucumber is thought to contain minerals that help build healthy joints, as well as improving blood circulation disorders and lowering blood pressure. Many Chinese pharmacies carry dried sea cucumber, which must be soaked before use. Sea cucumber works well in soups, and is often found in combination with bamboo shoots, mushrooms, chicken broth, and various seasonings.
- Tangerine Peel (Dried) - If the price tag of some of the more exotic items on this list has dampened your interest in Chinese medicines, you'll be happy to know that this particular treatment can be made at home - just leave the peel of a tangerine to dry and then store in an airtight container. Tangerine peel is used in many Chinese dishes. It is thought to improve digestion.
Bird's Nest Soup
The Eight Immortals Crossing the Sea (Cordyceps and Sea Cucumber)
Ginger Beef - with preserved red ginger
Red Bean Soup (a popular snack made with azuki beans and dried tangerine peel)
Disclaimer: Please note that the information contained above is intended for general interest only. I am not a doctor; nor do I claim to be an expert on the subject of using food to improve bodily health.
"Treat an illness first with food. Only if this fails should medicine be prescribed." (Sun Simao, court physician in the Tang Dynasty, quoted in "The Chinese Kitchen", by Eileen Yin-Fei Lo)