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Cooking Chinese Herbs

Chinese herbs come in many forms, raw herbs that are cooked into a decoction, powders that can be taken with water or other liquids, pills, tinctures, as well as ointments and creams. The modern era added another form which are granulated herbs.
Herbs in traditional Chinese culture are considered food and some consider the highest form of herbal medicine to be lifestyle dietary modification rather than separately prescribing medicinals. In fact many Chinese herbs are used in cooking like ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, barley, etc., and some common herbs are now making it into our Western cuisines, such as gou ji berries, lotus seeds, and astragalus. However, there are times when we need strong medicine, to push the body towards change in a strong way. That is when I prescribe herbs.
I tend to prescribe what we term decoctions (“raw herbs” which are in fact dried out) because this is the best way for the herbs to be absorbed – they are consumed in warm liquid form (soup is the literal translation of decoction, 湯 Tang, in Chinese).
Unlike the use of Western herbs which are often taken as one herb, Chinese herbs are very rarely prescribed singly, and almost always in combinations, allowing herbs to interact, enhance and modify each other. Western herbs are often taken as an infusion (steeped in hot water), while Chinese herbs are generally cooked into a “soup.” However, the word Tang (湯) while generally meaning soup, basically means water heated up, thus infusions can considered a Tang also. Because infusions are weaker both in taste and in effect (and Chinese herbs really do taste quite bitter), they are used mostly for maintenance, long-term use, and often with few herbs (or even single herb), while I prescribe decoctions for a short period (2-3 weeks) in order to invite a strong change.

Cooking Decoctions:
Generally each bag of herbs can be cooked 3 times by covering the herbs with 3 cups of water and boiling and then simmering the herbs for 30-45 minutes so that about 1 cup of fluid is left. Strain the liquid and keep it. Cover the herbs again with water, bring to a boil, simmer, strain the liquid, and repeat once more. The end result will be 3 cups of herbal “soup” (one cup from each boiling) which can be mixed all together or kept separately (especially if cooked at different times). After the third cooking, the herb dredges can be discarded (they are good compost).
People ask if the can just cook the herbs with 9 cups of water, for a longer period, and extract 3 cups. The answer is no as this produces a very dilute decoction. Cooking the herbs a second time allows for more active ingredients to be extracted.
Keep the herbal decoction refrigerated until you drink it. Shake the container, so that the sediment is evenly mixed, pour yourself a cup, bring it to an almost boil, and let it cool down. The herbs are most effective warm, and they taste less bitter the hotter they are.
Here are some more details:

1. Use only a clay or glass pot with a cover. If that is not possible, you can use stainless steel.
2. Take the herbs out of the bag/package, place them in a pot, flatten them, and cover with water so that they are covered with about half an inch (to 1 inch) of water above the herbs.
3. Before the first boiling, let the herbs soak in the water for 20 minutes as it is best to not boil the herbs until they have soaked some water.
4. Use a cover in the same manner you would cook rice, with a slight opening for steam to escape.
5. Bring the herbs to a boil and then simmer for the following amount of time:

45 minutes for tonifying herbs
30 minutes for regulating herbs
20 minutes for exterior releasing formulas (i.e., colds and flus)
in this case start with only two cups of water

6. The simmer should be such that you get about 1 cup of liquid extracted at the end of the cooking time. If you get a lot more than a cup, your simmer was done on too low a flame, if you get too little, you will want to reduce the flame. Adjust the flame/temperature on the second and third boilings accordingly.

The herbs are an “invitation to change.” From an alchemical perspective they are not supposed to taste good. Chinese herbs generally taste bitter, even when they are classified as “sweet.” The puckering one experiences is considered part of the process: we generally resist change, and the puckering is the body’s response (as if it wants to stay in its current state).
Do not dilute the herbs, do not add honey. Honey and sugar change the therapeutic properties of the decoction. You can have some crackers or some raisins next to you and eat one or two every few gulps. Remember that it is easier to take the herbs warmer and in big gulps. Brush your teeth after drinking herbs to release the taste and to avoid staining.
It is best to take herbs about 30 minutes away from food.
Do not take herbs for at least 90 minutes prior to going to bed.

Infusions are milder in taste and tend to be inviting a slower change rate. They are excellent for long-tern use in chronic conditions.
You will most likely be buying the herbs by the pound (see suppliers below). Generally an infusion will have 1 to 3 herbs. Take a handful of each herb (do not worry about the amount, your generic “handful” will do) and place in a large pot. Cover with 6-9 cups of water, and let the herbs soak for 20 minutes. Then bring the herbs to a boil and then steep (no more heat) for at least 20 more minutes. Strain the liquid: you will have about the same amount of liquid as the amount of water you started with.
Use this liquid throughout the day, either as is instead of water, or as the base water for other teas (but not coffee) in which case you will boil the infusion water and put a tea bag in the boiled water.
The herbs can be used again for the next day’s infusion by covering them with 6-9 cups of water, boiling and steeping.

Herbs as Food:
While this is considered the “supreme method,” it is used rarely as most herbs have quite a nasty taste (as explained above – this is thought of as part of the therapeutics). Some of the tonifying herbs, such as astragalus, gou ji berries, diascoria (Chinese yam), lotus seeds, etc., are truly neutral in taste, or even sweet, and can be used when cooking rice or soups which are cooked for a long time. The herbs can then be eaten with the exception of astragalus which is very fibrous and would be fished out (but the nutrients have been extracted into the rice or soup).
This is often a great way for taking herbs to fortify the body in cases such as immune deficiencies or as a supplement in cases like menopause.

Granulated Herbs:
This is by far the most popular form of administering herbal formulas in the West (second only to pills which are pre-made and thus are not precisely tailored to the individual). Granulated herbs can be tailored to a patient’s specific condition and needs, and many practitioners believe they are as effective as decoctions (“raw herbs”). In my experience this is not the case, but this form of taking herbs is by far more pleasant, and if you are willing to pay extra, the herbs can even be put into capsules, making the whole experience quite easy – no taste or granule residue on the tongue.
The granules come in a bottle, and the supplier will ship a small spoon with it. The spoon measure 1 gram. Take one spoon every 4 hours during waking hours (granulated herbs can be take close to bed time). Dump the granules onto your tongue and wash down with warm water. In severe cases increase the dosage to two spoons, and the frequency can go up to every two hours.
You may optionally mix the granules in a quarter cup of warm water and drink as a decoction. This is considered the preferred method, but many people complain of the taste, the main reason for using granulated herbs. The tongue method, while it does not leave an after-taste can feel a bit “sandy” on the tongue, which can be washed away by more water or tea.

There are many pill formulations of Chinese herbs for just about any condition. Pills are manufactured both in China and in the US (or Europe). Some practitioners object to Chinese products believing that the Western counterparts, while more expensive, are of better quality. This is hard to evaluate as for the most part the herbs all come from the same place, China, which is rather polluted and not famous for organic food production. Rarely one can get herbs grown organically in the West, however, in some cases herbs that are grown outside their original habitat (soil, climate, etc) may end up having different therapeutic properties than the traditional ones.
The Chinese pills are easy to get in any China Town at an herb shop and in some cases in grocery stores. The Western-manufactured pills are usually ordered for you by your practitioner, and most suppliers will not sell to the general public.
Many Chinese patent medicines (pills) are excellent, readily available (at least in China Town) and easy to take. This is a great way of taking herbs for colds and flus, menstrual cramps, insomnia, as digestive aids, etc.

Some American herb manufacturers offer tinctures, both in formulas and as single herbs, which means they can be mixed to tailor the needs of an individual. Tinctures tend to carry a particular taste, and most are extracted in alcohol (making the herbs absorb quite readily) which some people dislike. You can put the tincture dosage in boiling water for 2 minutes and then drink the water as the alcohol would have mostly evaporated.
You cam also extract your own tinctures, in either alcohol or vinegar. Ask me about this option if you would like to do that. However this is a time consuming process and is most likely suitable for herbs you know you will be taking regularly for a long period.

Raw herbal formulas (to be cooked at home) can be obtained in China Town at herbal stores. You simply hand them the prescription, and they will fill it out for you, after pulling out (from drawers) and weighing the herbs: it is quite a lovely process.
Herbs for infusion or for regular use in food can be obtained from Asia Natural at 800-355-3808.
Herbs in granule forms can be obtained from Spring Wind Dispensary at 415-921-9990: you will need to fax them the prescription at 415-921-9991 and give them your shipping address and a credit card.