Medicine in Your Kitchen

By Joe Davis, L.Ac.
A fascinating part of herbal Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is that it did not develop separate from the arts of food preparation.  The plants parts (and animal parts) that were found to be easily digestible are included in every day cooking.  A few examples of this kind of herb are red dates (hong zao), jujube (suan zao ren), mountain yam (shan yao), garlic and scallions (xie bai and cong bai), licorice (gan cao) and ginger (sheng jiang).  These “medicines” are commonly found in Chinese cuisine, aid digestion and absorption of nutrients, and gently strengthen the whole body.
Plant parts that are a little tougher on the palate are generally found to have stronger medicinal properties, and are relegated to the medicine shelf.   These herbs generally taste more bitter, and are found to be effective in treating a whole host of ills, including reducing fevers, quelling vomiting, inducing a sweat in case of a cold, relieving muscle and tendon inflammation and ache.  There are whole families of herbs that act on deeper levels as well, clearing toxins from the organs, alleviating damage done over years of use and abuse, and deeply effecting the metabolic dynamics of the organism as a whole.
Keeping this spectrum in mind is really key when it comes to approaching our own health.  Sometimes, we just need some nice flavors to get our digestion going.  Sometimes we need something for an acute health problem we may have.  And sometimes we’re looking for some manner of deeper remediation for a long-standing issue.  This goes against the grain of many people in the West’s thoughts about medicine. We don’t grind up a little bit of aspirin to make the soup taste better, or go hunting in the woods for our hypertension medicine!
Keeping our ideas of medicine in the very human realm of the kitchen and the garden is a great way to make our well-being part of our daily lives, instead of something we do surrounded by people in white coats and complicated equipment.  It involves us in our health to know that food and medicine are on a continuum, and ties diet directly to how we feel.
And, speaking of medicines from the kitchen, can you guess an effective remedy for the syndrome of “summer-heat,” (characterized by thirst, flushed face, scanty urine, and sensations of warmth in the body)?  Pick up a big watermelon (xi gua) next time you are at the farmers’ market, and self-medicate to your heart’s content.