Soup it Up

Sometimes when the Chinese feel a deficiency in their health or strength, they usually seek a traditional method first, which is to use herbs and special ingredient soups to replenish the energy level and to stay healthy. They usually go to herbalists for herb tea or to seek out advice from an elder or a wise person to learn how to cook the special soup.

The herbal tea and the special ingredient soups usually require hours of slow cooking in an ancient style clay pot, before they reach maximum benefits. These soups are often used for postpartum, illness, old age, and weak energy. They have special soup recipe books available to explain how to use different soups for different situations. It requires great knowledge and patience to make the appropriate soup. Often, traditional Chinese will use herbs and special soups for all illnesses before he or she seeks out an alternative treatment from Western medicine. Western medicine is often reserved for more severe health problems, as many Chinese believe that Western medicine is "too strong" for them.

A large part of the special ingredients is based on the concept of yin and yang, the two forces that rule the universe. Depending on the context, yin refers to the feminine, darker, cooling forces, while yang represents the masculine, lighter, hot forces. The Chinese believe illness is a signal that the two forces are out of balance. For example, if you have a cold it is because there is too much yin in your body. A Chinese herbalist might prescribe a soup designed to restore the yang forces. Similarly, a fever might be treated with a yin soup. 

Over time, medical experts and herbalists have developed a classification system, in which foods are categorized as having either yin or yang properties. Here are several samples of Chinese soups used to treat illness.

Chicken Soup
While western scientists have only recently begun to admit that chicken soup has curative properties, the Chinese have been treating illnesses with chicken soup for centuries. A warming or yang food, chicken may be combined with a number of other ingredients, from spinach (a cooling food, thought to promote digestion and reduce constipation) to cordyceps, a rare plant grown in Tibet that is thought to increase stamina.  And then there is gingko nuts, believed to improve memory. Less well known is that, in traditional Chinese medicine, gingko is believed to have a healing effect on the lungs.

Highly regarded for its health giving properties, red ginseng is thought to have a warming effect on the body. It is often served in a soup with black-bone chicken, which also has warming properties. Ginseng may also be served in a soup with red dates (jujubes), which are thought to improve blood circulation. It is a powerful replenishing herb that should be added when making the soup for someone who is ill or weak.

Lingzhi (Ganoderma Lucidum)
According to Li Shizhen, the most famous Chinese medical doctor of the Ming Dynasty, Lingzhi has healing power “with no side effects” and it can produce the following effects: “It can sharpen eyes; protect the liver, lung and kidney; benefit joints; protect the spirits; benefit pure energy; strengthen tendons and bones; improve memory; enhance intelligence and improve complexion.”

Chinese Angelica
It’s a great herb for women, although it can also be used by men. Its main functions are to enrich the blood and regulate the female menstrual cycle, relieving menstrual pains and cramps.

Chinese Wild Yam (Shanyao)
Shanyao is a brown, root-like vegetable, resembling a potato and is safe enough to be eaten daily and works best when added to medicinal concoctions. It is used to fight fatigue, treat weak appetites, and quell a chronic cough. It also has the same effects as wolfberries, strengthening kidney deficiencies and thus giving the male sex drive a boost.