Monday, February 6, 2017

Good, really good, for what ails you

Unlike just about any other country I can think of, the therapeutic value of what you put in your body is considered by the Chinese to be almost as important as any other reason for eating. Simply put, food is medicine in China. Mighty delicious medicine, that’s for sure, but medicine all the same.

Much of this is common sense – stay hydrated, avoid fried foods if you’re feeling lousy, and eat mainly vegetables and grains with a bit of protein to keep things interesting – but Chinese therapeutic food therapy goes way beyond that into deep discussions on such things as the ways in which “cold” and “heat” work to make us healthy.

Fresh lotus root
Ginger and chile peppers warm up the body (as you might have guessed) and increase perspiration, while seaweed, green tea, and rice cool you down. A bout with the common cold, for example, will call for hot bowls of chicken broth seasoned with lots of ginger and rice wine to flush out the chills, restore balance, and keep your immune system in happy working order.

At other times during the course of that cold, your body very well could use some additional fine-tuning. This happened to me last week as I was clawing my way back out of the flu. The fever was finally gone, I had at long last stopped aching all over, and my brain was even beginning to work in spurts, but a terrible cough took over. I figured more chicken soup would be just the ticket, but it no longer appealed to me in the least. I asked my old Chinese doctor friend, Dr. Li, what to do.

Surprisingly delicious
He said that I needed cooling foods to stem the cough. Instead of fetching me some medicine, he told me that Chinese radishes, honey, and garlic were just what I needed. I figured he was just giving me the brushoff, as it sounded way too weird to work. But then my friend Chiaying chimed in and said that he was right on the money. There was nothing left to do but give it the old college try. And let me tell you this: It not only reduced my cough, but it tasted delicious!

I still was hungry, though, and so both of them ganged up on me and told me to make congee with a handful of other cooling ingredients, all pure white: lotus root, Chinese yams, and fresh lily bulbs. Again, nothing at all fancy here – not even a touch of salt or oil to mar this immaculate shade of pale – but the end results calmed my throat, fed my hunger, and made me feel cleansed. Plus, it tasted amazing. And I slept like a baby that night.

Here are these two recipes to help you and yours face down the cold season with delicious eating. Enjoy!

Radish juice and honey
Radish, honey and garlic syrup
Báiluóbo fēngmì dàsuàn tángjiāng 白蘿蔔蜂蜜大蒜糖漿
Therapeutic foods
Makes about 1 cup (240 ml)

About 2 pounds (900 g) white Asian radish (Chinese, Korean, Japanese)
1 clove garlic, smashed
Local honey as needed

1. Peel the radish, but leave on the stem end to use as a handle. Finely grate the radish into a bowl. Discard the stem end. Add the garlic.

2. Stir in enough honey to just cover the radish. Place a lid on the bowl and refrigerate it. Decant the syrup into a small teacup – about 2 tablespoons (30 ml) is a nice dose. Slowly sip it and let it glide down your throat, where it will start to get to work. You can repeat this throughout the day as you needed it since it is, of course, just food. More juice will be exuded if you can wait a day before drinking the syrup, but let’s be honest: you’re making this because someone’s sick, so give it at least an hour if you can. The radish will be pretty much exhausted after this, so just squeeze out as much of the syrup as you can before you toss the solids.

Broken jasmine rice

White cooling congee
Qùhuŏ báizhōu 去火白粥
Therapeutic foods
Makes about 12 cups (2.8 L)

1½ cups (300 g) broken jasmine rice (see Tip)
10 cups (2.5 L) water, plus more as needed
About 1 pound (450 g) fresh lotus root
Around 8 ounces (225 g) Chinese yam (shanyao)
2 or more fresh lily bulbs (baihe), optional but fabulous

1. Rinse the rice in a fine sieve and then dump it into a large pot. Cover with the water and bring it to a boil, stirring occasionally.

2. While the water is coming to a boil, peel the lotus root, trim off any less than perfect areas, and cut it lengthwise into quarters before slicing each piece thinly against the grain. Toss the lotus root into the pot with the rice and give it another stir. When the pot comes to a full boil, reduce the heat to the bare minimum and let it slowly cook for about 20 minutes.
Chinese yam

3. Peel the yam and slice it into ½-inch (1 cm) chunks, as it breaks down easily. Add these to the pot. Simmer the congee for another 10 minutes or so just to barely cook through the yams, since you want them to keep as much of their character as possible. Add boiling water as needed to thin the congee out if it gets too thick, but don't make it soupy. A big part of this porridge's charm is the slightly grainy texture of the rice against the soft/crisp/juicy vegetables.

4. Clean the lily bulbs if you have them, trim off any brown areas, and separate them into petals. Add them to the congee just before serving. The petals taste best when just heated through, as that way they remain crisp and fresh. So, if you’re not serving the whole pot at once, consider ladling out a bowl, adding as many of the lily bulb petals as you want, and then microwaving the congee until it’s nice and hot. Always reheat any type of congee in the microwave so that it doesn’t boil down into mucilage.

Beautiful broken jasmine rice

You can use regular white rice or long grain jasmine rice here instead of broken jasmine rice, if you can't find the latter. But try to hunt this ingredient down - it's incredibly aromatic and breaks down into congee like a dream! It's generally found in Chinese groceries that cater to southerners, as well as in Southeast Asian stores, and the best brands seem to come from Thailand.

Don't use brown rice here. That's just plain wrong.


  1. My husband just came out of pneumonia. I'm so sorry you were sick, too. I could've really used this two weeks ago! But now I have for next time around....sigh.

    1. Diana! So sorry, I've been having trouble with the comments function these past couple of weeks. I hope your husband is doing better. What a horrible thing to go through for the two of you. Have you been well? Take good care of yourself - loving your photographs!