Chinese herbal soups work as natural remedies for common ailments. Ingredients are deliberately combined and prepared according to a person's constitution and current health concerns in order to promote better health.
The Chinese firmly believes that a person's health is affected by the kind of food he consume. All food items contain properties that affect bodily functions. In fact, every ingredient in the Chinese kitchen is supposed to have different effects on the body. Without going into too much technical details, some ingredients have better known curative functions. Yes, I am referring to Chinese herbs.
Adding Chinese herbs to soups has a long tradition and is a distinctive feature of Chinese soups. This is different from medicinal decoctions prescribed by traditional Chinese medicine practitioners (TCM). Decoctions are usually blackish in color, very bitter and have very strong smell, while Chinese herbal soups are much more palatable. They are gentle tonics meant to nourish the body and maintain proper bodily functions.
My grandmother used to prepare a simple pork or chicken soup with Chinese angelica root for me after my menstrual period has ended. I always feel better after drinking the soup, the bloatedness will go away.
It is constantly hot and humid in Singapore. There are times when I can feel the heat rising up within me and a soreness developing in the throat. Consuming some cooling herbal tea or soups always help.
I also like to add a tablespoon of goji berries and a couple of red dates into my plain rice porridge.
Cooking With Chinese Herbs
If you are interested in Chinese herbs and using them to cook, I recommend taking a look at Terry Tan's Cooking with Chinese Herbs. Terry Tan is a veteran when it comes to Chinese cooking, with over 40 years of experience and 20 cookbooks.
Dried ingredients are usually re-hydrated before being used. This is not necessary for Chinese herbs. A quick rinse is all they need.
With the exception of goji berries and red dates, many Chinese herbs require a considerable cooking time. This means that herbal soups require slow cooking.
Getting your herbs pre-packed
I am seeing more herbal soup packs being sold in the shops. These are prepacked for certain ailments or health conditions and include simple cooking instructions.
In the past, we use to visit our friendly neighbourhood Chinese medicinal hall to pack little sachets of Chinese soup packs according to our recipes or their recommendations.
They may still provide such services. Go to one and show them the recipes and ask them to pack and label accordingly. Some of them may even be able to vacuum pack and seal them in plastic packets. Open a pack when you are ready to cook.
Where can I buy Chinese herbs online?
A number of visitors, especially those in North America, have asked me where they can buy Chinese herbs online because they don't have Chinese herbal shops where they live. There are a few but they focus on bulk herbs. It is difficult to find good quality soup kits that are meant for individual use.
Recently I was approached by Root + Spring, a modern Chinese herbal shop operating out of Los Angeles, California to review their soup kits. I tried two and found them to be of excellent quality.
The herbs are fresh and of good quality. Pieces are whole and not broken into small pieces. The packaging is air-tight. The fragrance of the herbs only hits you when you open the kit.
The design of the package is also modern and clean. Each kit comes with a cooking card with details of each ingredient and their functions. It also includes cooking instructions and recommended serving size.
The portion of each kit is suitable for home cooks. I heartily recommends them.
The 2 kits I reviewed were:
They have a small collection at the moment. Hopefully they will add more in future.
The slow cooker is great for making herbal soups. Not only does it have an earthern inner pot, it can control the cooking temperature and achieve a steady simmer without needing close supervision.
Where should you start?
If you are new to herbal soups, the best way to introduce yourself is to select a recipe with only one or 2 herbs, especially these 3: goji berries, Chinese yam and solomon's seal. The flavour of these 3 Chinese herbs are fairly mild. They are also easy to find.