Incorporating Herbs into Daily Life: Herbal Soups, Broths and Porridge

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In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the word for herbal tea and the word for soup are the same: tang.  This isn’t surprising since the herbal decoctions of that system of medicine are indeed quite thick, heavy and broth-like when they aren’t being cooked directly into meat or water-based soups or rice porridge – both of which are considered herbal foods in their own right.

This ancient wisdom continues today, albeit diluted, in Western kitchens when we add onion, garlic, bay leaf, and black pepper to our broths.  These are not only tasty additions to the soup water but possess antiseptic, antibiotic and body heating actions.  Even the parsley we add as garnish is a concentrated source of vitamins and minerals, just as the vegetables in the soup are.

Rice porridge, congee or jook is a typical breakfast food as well as the chosen food for convalescence in many parts of Asia.  Easy on the digestive system, it is made by cooking a small amount of rice in a large volume of water for a long period of time.  Sometimes herbs are added during the cooking period, sometimes meat or spices once the resulting soupy blend is ready to eat.

Many similar types of gruel, each adapted to the local ingredients and diet, are found throughout Asia from Japan all the way to India where they prepare Kitchari or Kitchadi, a soupy stew of split mung beans and rice.  In North America, the more commonly known equivalents would be oatmeal or barley porridge although slippery elm and acorn gruels also have a long history of use.

With a bit of practice, some time and a few herbs purchased or wildcrafted, any soup can be transformed into a tonic food for the body.  This way of using herbs as a part of the regular diet can act as preventative maintenance of an ongoing kind.  Herbs that cook well into soup, broth or gruel include:

  • Astragalus root: Helps keep the immune system strong and healthy, specific for fighting infection; a great choice during the fall and winter seasons.
  • Burdock root: An excellent blood purifier and quite mild to the taste. Use it fresh if you can although the dried root works as well.
  • Chaga mushroom: This woody protuberance found growing on birch trees is of aid, like most medicinal mushrooms, for the immune system.
  • Dandelion root: Like burdock, it also improves the quality of the blood but is more specific for cleaning out the liver – particularly after a long winter. Use the fresh spring roots in soup, not too many though as they are a bit on the bitter side.
  • Dandelion leaf: A safe and effective diuretic (will make you pee), high in minerals and vitamins. A few leaves can be added to soups or salads, go easy though as they’re quite bitter.
  • Dang gui (dong quai, Chinese Angelica): Specific for nourishing and building blood in the Chinese herbal system. It’s also excellent as a circulatory aid but should be avoided by women who are pregnant or menstruating.
  • Eleuthero: A quicker-growing and far less pricy alternative to ginseng, this adaptogenic herb (helps the body adapt and fight stress) is specific to increase stamina, improve the response to stress and aid in physical exertion. It is sometimes known as Siberian Ginseng since it grows in Northern regions and was first used and much studied in Russia; it is not however a member of the Ginseng botanical family.
  • Garlic: This is an herbal first-aid kit to itself!  Rather than extoll its virtues in this article, I encourage you to do a bit of research on your own prior to a more detailed article on the subject in future.
  • Kombu: A single piece added to broth adds the many minerals that only sea vegetables can, without the sea-weedy taste that accompanies most specimens. Dulse is another good choice for a salty flavour, but it does taste a bit more fishy.
  • Maitake mushroom: Combines well with shitake mushroom and used for much the same reason as it helps the immune system function more effectively.
  • Reishi mushroom: A dry and woody tree mushroom, it is well known as an immune system booster. It needs to be simmered for a long time in order to extract its constituents.
  • Shitake mushroom: Helps support and modulate the immune system. They can be found dry at most Chinese groceries and are increasingly available fresh in the supermarkets. The dry have a more pronounced lingering flavour while the fresh are an easier sell for those unused to strange fungus in their soup.
  • Lycii berries: A nice sweet-tasting addition to soups, stir-fries, porridge and trail mix. Lycii berries are tonic with a high amount of beta-carotene and vitament C amongst others.
  • Yellow (or curled) Dock root: A single dock root added to a soup or broth contributes a significant amount of easily assimilated iron.

The tonic soups that have a regular place in my own kitchen rotation tend to involve a slow cooker since it doesn’t involve watching the pot and also leaves time for real life outside the kitchen during a busy work week.  Here’s the recipe for the soup in the picture that goes with this post; it’s a vegetarian recipe (with vegan alternative in brakets) that’s got a really deep and rich flavour:

Lentil-Vegetable Herb Soup:

  • 4 cups of vegetable broth
  • 2 cups of water
  • 1 large carrot, diced
  • 1/2 small rutabaga, diced
  • 3 or 4 small inner ribs of celery complete with leaves, sliced
  • 1 cup green lentils
  • 2 large cloves of garlic, split in half and sliced
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 tbsp dried sage
  • 2 tbsp dried parsley
  • 4 pieces of chaga mushroom, roughly 1’’ square chunks
  • 3’’ piece of kombu
  • 2 pieces of astragalus root
  • 2 large dandelion roots with leaves still on, sliced in half lengthwise
  • Salt to taste (usually about 1 tsp)
  • 1 large onion, cut in half and sliced into fine half-moons
  • 2 tablespoons ghee (or coconut oil)

What you do:

  1. Place all the ingredients except for the onion and ghee in a crock pot and leave on low setting for the day (about 7-8 hours).
  2. Remove the chaga, kombu, astragalus and compost them. The dandelion can either be chopped and added back to the soup or composted as well.
  3. Salt the soup to taste. Add more water if a thinner soup is desired.
  4. About ten minutes before serving, warm a cast iron skillet on medium heat and melt the ghee. When the ghee is hot add the onion and stir and fry until the onion is golden and crispy in some spots, still soft in others.
  5. Pour the butter oil and onions into the prepared soup and mix well.
  6. Serve. A twist of lemon juice can be added if desired but I personally find the soup more than flavourful enough without.

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