When you think of herbs and spices, what comes to mind? A sprinkle of cinnamon on oatmeal? A dash of garlic powder on ultra-low-carb pasta dishes. Cumin powder or turmeric on curry. And ginger in a veggie stir-fry. Why do we add herbs and spices? To enhance flavor, of course.
But beyond spicing things up to titillate your taste buds, you should add herbs to your food because they support overall health. As Hippocrates famously said, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”
You’re likely already using medicinal herbs in your kitchen. But beyond the usual suspects of ginger, turmeric, mint, mushrooms, and cinnamon, there are dozens of other herbs with medicinal value that you can add to your food.
All it takes to purchase them is a trip to an Asian specialty food store—or a few clicks on the computer. Let’s take a look at some of the most popular medicinal foods that are also used in culinary applications in the Far East.
Ginseng is one of the most popular herbs worldwide. But in the west, many people associate it with a health supplement for treating inflammation and supporting the immune system.
What many people don’t realize, however, is that in China, ginseng is a common culinary herb. In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) theory, ginseng tonifies Qi, which means that it may help you feel more energetic. In addition, it’s used to strengthen the Spleen organ system. Not to be confused with the spleen of western medicine, Spleen in TCM is the theoretical organ that’s responsible for transforming food into pure matter (nutrients).
Most often, ginseng is added to soups and teas. But you can also add it to any stir-fry dish. If you make soups in an instant cooker or high-powered blender like a Vitamix, you can try adding some raw ginseng for an extra health kick with a pleasing bitter, earthy taste.
Chinese Red Date
Also called jujubes, Chinese red dates are definitely a top 5 medicinal herb used in cooking. If you have poor digestion, chronic fatigue, run cold and have trouble sleeping, Chinese red dates may help better balance your organ systems.
Another benefit of Chinese dates: it can reduce anxiousness and calm the spirit.
In China, dates are typically steamed with rice or in soup. You can also add them to oatmeal or bone broth.
No, it’s not the licorice you’re probably thinking of, the kind that’s added to Twizzlers or Red Vine candy. Licorice root is used in traditional oriental medicine to strengthen digestion. And beyond its medicinal effects, licorice root provides a umami flavor profile. If you’re not familiar with umami, it’s considered the fifth type of taste, joining sweet, sour, salt, and bitter. Best described as savory, umami herbs like licorice root are “the essence of deliciousness” in Japanese cuisine.
In Chinese culinary traditions, licorice is added to stews, soups, meats, and of course, tea. Licorice is used in oriental medicine to clear excess heat from the body and relieve pain.
You already know that mushrooms are riding a wild wave of culinary popularity. But you may not be familiar with one type of edible fungus that’s sometimes used in Chinese kitchens: Fu Ling.
Also known as poria, Fu Ling is used medicinally to calm the heart, ideal for patients with arrhythmia or other cardiovascular disturbances. In addition, Fu Ling is given to people with insomnia and anxiety and edema.
Although it’s not as popular as other edible mushrooms such as reishi, poria is widely used to make congee, which is a breakfast dish consisting of rice porridge. Congee is one of the most healing foods for the digestive system. In addition poria can be added to soups and, you guessed it, tea.
Are you picturing adding slices of tangerine fruit to a stir-fry? Interesting, and indeed very mandarin. But the medicinal part of the tangerine plant is the peel. In Chinese kitchens, dried tangerine peel, or Chen Pi, is used in sweet dishes like red bean soup, and in arguably, the most famous Szechuan-style dish, orange chicken.
Therapeutically, dried tangerine peel is used to treat wet coughs, as it disperses excess dampness (phlegm). A phlegm-rich cough may not sound very appetizing. But the simultaneously sweet and bitter taste is so versatile it can even be added to an effervescent non-alcoholic drink (a mocktail).
These are by no means the only medicinal herbs used in culinary applications in the Orient; there are dozens of them. Try incorporating a few of them in your dishes for a fun, health-supporting experiment.