Med­i­cated Congee:

More than Just a Del­i­cacy

China Scenic - - Taste - By Heng­shan Moda

Medicine Can Be Tasty, Too

In 1973, a pre­cious copy of Fifty-two­cures­for

Ail­ments , writ­ten on silk scrolls, was un­earthed from the Mawang­dui Han Tombs in Chang­sha, Hu­nan Prov­ince. This is the old­est ex­tant record of Chi­nese medicine found to date, and con­tained ac­counts in­clud­ing a recipe for fox­tail mil­let seeds congee as a snake bite cure. Although this may have been a folk method from the Spring and Au­tumn, and War­ring States pe­ri­ods (770–221 BC), it acts as ev­i­dence to the dis­tant his­tory of us­ing congee to treat ail­ments.

In the Eastern Han Dy­nasty (25–220 AD), a fa­mous doc­tor name Zhang Zhongjing, known as the “Saint of Medicine”, recorded in his book Shang­han Zabinglun (Trea­tiseon­cold­dam­agedis­or­ders) a more sys­tem­atic de­scrip­tion of medic­i­nal congee. From this point on congee was no longer an oc­ca­sional method, it was in­stead the first choice for cur­ing and treat­ing ail­ments and main­tain­ing health. Zhang Zhongjing said that, af­ter con­sum­ing cas­sia twig soup, a herbal medicine, it was nec­es­sary to “sip on some hot, thin congee to im­prove the medic­i­nal ef­fects”. Cas­sia twig soup was a rem­edy of which Zhang Zhongjing was par­tic­u­larly proud, and from the method of us­ing hot congee to in­crease its ef­fects it can be seen that the peo­ple of an­cient China re­garded medicine and food as com­ing from a com­mon source, among which congee held par­tic­u­larly high sta­tus.

Aside from eat­ing congee af­ter tak­ing medicine, Zhang Zhongjing also supplied sev­eral recipes for cook­ing round rice and medicine in the same pot, such as peach blos­som soup and bam­boo leaf and cas­sia twig soup, all of which con­tained round rice as the base in­gre­di­ent. This oth­er­wise very or­di­nary

food then quickly joined the ranks of medic­i­nal sub­stances. Round rice has in­her­ent nour­ish­ing qual­i­ties, and with the ad­di­tion of other foods and medicines with nu­tri­tive and cu­ra­tive ef­fects, all slowly cooked to­gether in a pot, these ef­fects be­came even more ap­par­ent.

As the Chi­nese say­ing goes, “All medicine has its side ef­fects”. Although all medic­i­nal prod­ucts had their own abil­i­ties to cure and treat ail­ments, food­based treat­ments could be ab­sent of these in­her­ent side ef­fects. This is the rea­son that Sun Simiao, the “Medicine King” of the Tang Dy­nasty (618– 907 AD), pre­ferred to use food-based reme­dies, avoid­ing medic­i­nal herbs when­ever pos­si­ble.

Rice congee, nu­tri­tious and eas­ily ab­sorbed by pa­tients, could be seam­lessly com­bined with most kinds of medic­i­nal herbs, and to some ex­tent could even elim­i­nate the tox­i­c­ity of some medicines, thus Sun Simiao placed great em­pha­sis on it. Whether it was bar­ley congee to clear tox­ins from the bow­els, or to pre­vent colds, Sun Simiao took the po­ten­tial of this food-based rem­edy to un­prece­dented new lev­els.

Congee was widely pop­u­lar through­out all classes of so­ci­ety in an­cient China, from the com­mon folk to the royal fam­ily, ev­ery­one both en­joyed and could af­ford to eat it. But med­i­cated congee that could be used to treat ail­ments was par­tic­u­larly well re­ceived. Us­ing medic­i­nal in­gre­di­ents as foods was a method that had al­ready been es­tab­lished in the Tang Dy­nasty, when the peo­ple added prod­ucts like lin­seed to their food out of en­joy­ment. The large- scale early-ming med­i­cal en­cy­clo­pe­dia Puji Fang(pre­scrip­tions­foruni­ver­sal­re­lief) con­tained a recipe for lin­seed congee, its ef­fects in­clud­ing im­proved en­ergy lev­els, anti-age­ing, and nour­ish­ing of the lungs to sup­press cough­ing.

The In­cred­i­ble Po­ten­tial of Bean Congee

Zhang Lei, one of the best stu­dents of fa­mous poet Su Shi of the North­ern Song Dy­nasty (960–1127), penned a book ti­tled Trea­tiseon­con­gee , in which he de­scribed an in­cred­i­ble yet sim­ple method for stay­ing healthy, namely eat­ing a large bowl of congee the first thing in the morn­ing.

By ad­ding a few ex­tra in­gre­di­ents, this bowl of morn­ing congee could be granted ad­di­tional ef­fects. For ex­am­ple, one could mix in some plum blos­som petals; this not only had medic­i­nal value, such as detox­i­fy­ing the liver, in­vig­o­rat­ing the spleen and stim­u­lat­ing ap­petite, it also im­proved the ap­pear­ance of the meal, for a com­bi­na­tion that was both el­e­gant and prac­ti­cal.

But though this plum blos­som congee was a nice, healthy meal, not ev­ery­one could af­ford to en­joy it. If the com­mon so­cial classes wished to have nu­tri­tious congee, per­haps bean congee would be more suit­able, which sim­ply con­sisted of var­i­ous kinds of beans that were most com­monly found in the homes of peo­ple at the time, such as red, black, green, soy and white hy­acinth beans; beans of any kind could be added. These col­or­ful beans served as sta­ple foods in times of low crop out­puts, and when boiled to­gether they be­came a tasty and nu­tri­tious congee.

Beans of dif­fer­ent col­ors had dif­fer­ent nu­tri­tive val­ues and ef­fects: soy­beans were good for the spleen, black beans for blood cir­cu­la­tion, green beans for cool­ing the body in sum­mer, and red beans for detox­i­fi­ca­tion and re­duc­tion of swelling. They were

also easy to come by, and easy to cook. Ac­cord­ing to the records in Menglian­glu ( Dream­sof­sorghum, a book in­tro­duc­ing Lin’an, the cap­i­tal of the South­ern Song Dy­nasty) by Wu Zimu of the South­ern Song Dy­nasty (1127–1279), on the 25th day of the last lu­nar month of ev­ery year, peo­ple would make red bean congee, and would make sure that ev­ery­one in their house­hold, in­clud­ing not just adults and chil­dren, but also an­i­mals, had a bowl.

Beans are a rep­re­sen­ta­tive ex­am­ple of house­hold food, but the main pur­pose of mak­ing beans into congee was as sus­te­nance and nu­tri­tion, not to heal ail­ments. Herein may lie the deep­est ben­e­fit of congee: us­ing food prod­ucts con­sumed as daily meals to keep the body healthy, so as to help pre­vent ail­ments from oc­cur­ring.

The Nu­tri­tious Ful­ing Congee

An equally qual­i­fied gourmet, poet Su Shi (also known as Su Dongpo), also greatly en­joyed congee, and even cre­ated his own recipe for mixed veg­etable congee, later known as “Dongpo stew”. How­ever, Su Shi’s congee mainly sought to sat­isfy one’s ap­petite, while his younger brother Su Zhe in­stead stressed the value of eat­ing congee for its health ben­e­fits.

Be­fore telling more about Su Zhe and his congee, we must first take a look at some­thing called ful­ing ( Wolfi­po­ri­aex­tensa ). Ful­ing is a type of sweet-fla­vored mush­room, which is used both for its medic­i­nal qual­i­ties and as an in­gre­di­ent in reg­u­lar recipes. For peo­ple who grew up in Old Bei­jing, ful­ing is sure to be a fa­mil­iar word, as there is a fa­mous tra­di­tional pas­try shop there called Daox­i­ang­cun, whose ful­ing cakes have earned them a long-stand­ing rep­u­ta­tion. The porce­lain-white cakes have shells as thin as pa­per, and a cen­ter made of nuts, dried fruits, os­man­thus flow­ers honey, and ful­ing powder.

Ful­ing was a close friend to Su Zhe through­out his life. Su Zhe con­stantly suf­fered from poor health, and in his youth, es­pe­cially dur­ing the sum­mer and au­tumn, he was rid­dled with ail­ments re­lated to his spleen and lungs, for which he could find no cure.

When he was 32, Su Zhe served as an of­fi­cial in Wan­qiu (present-day Huaiyang County, He­nan

In the Song Dy­nasty, to purse good health, po­ets used to cook their congee as nour­ish­ment and for med­i­cal reme­dies. They passed down a col­lec­tion of congee recipes. Ac­cord­ing to the doc­u­ments left by fa­mous Song po­ets Su Shi (Su Dongpo), Yang Wanli, and Lu You, they rec­om­mend three types of congee: the“dongpo congee,”cooked with Chi­nese cab­bage, turnip and ginger, and also known as sim­ply“congee”;plum blos­som congee fa­vored by Yang Wanli, thought to reg­u­late body vi­tal­ity and nour­ish the liver; and“ce­les­tial congee” fa­vored by Lu You, made from Chi­nese yams and Gor­gon fruit.

Prov­ince), where some­one taught him to im­prove his health through breath­ing ex­er­cises orig­i­nated from the Tao­ism, and soon enough he grew stronger. From then on Su Zhe de­voted him­self to the the­o­ries re­lated to well­be­ing, and af­ter re­al­iz­ing the in­cred­i­ble pos­i­tive ef­fects of ful­ing — in­vig­o­rat­ing spleen and blad­der func­tion­ing, he be­gan ex­per­i­ment­ing with his own recipe for ful­ing congee.

From this it can be con­cluded that ful­ing es­sen­tially acted as a medicine for Su Zhe’s spleen and lung ail­ments. Ac­cord­ing to the teach­ings of Chi­nese medicine, the state of the spleen de­ter­mines one’s body wa­ter lev­els, and that of the lungs af­fects saliva, thus peo­ple whose spleen and lungs are in poor health should not eat food which is overly dry, in which case rice congee is a good choice for them. As for peo­ple with chronic ail­ments af­fect­ing these or­gans, treat­ment with congee can al­le­vi­ate the tox­i­c­ity of the medic­i­nal in­gre­di­ents. By com­bin­ing the ben­e­fits of ful­ing to­ward his con­di­tion with just the right amount of rice congee, Su Zhe had fi­nally found his own se­cret recipe to help him re­cover his health.

Su Zhe’s con­tin­u­ous study of him­self and his di­etary habits were part of the on­go­ing ex­plo­rative process of congee. There is a poem by Qing Dy­nasty (1644–1912) health ex­pert Cao Ting­dong, called

Congee­treat­ment , which is easy to un­der­stand, and gives us an idea of how we can em­u­late the an­cient Chi­nese in us­ing congee to ben­e­fit our own health:

“To cure in­som­nia, make congee with white lo­tus seeds; to im­prove your skin tex­ture, use white rice and red dates; if you have a low en­ergy level, try Chi­nese yam congee; if your car­diac func­tion is weak, lon­gan and rice congee will do the trick; if bad breath is your trou­ble, ly­chee congee is what you need; to cure a fever, try reed root congee; for high blood pres­sure and dizzi­ness, car­rot congee will do won­ders...”

This is an imag­ined por­trait of Chun Yuyi in a Ming Dy­nasty med­i­cal book called Graph­i­calen­light­en­ing­print­erof­ma­te­ri­amed­ica . Chun was a fa­mous Western Han Dy­nasty doc­tor and first ad­vo­cated congee for med­i­cal use in China’s his­tory. Photo/ FOTOE

This ex­quis­ite crafts­man­ship of this Qing Dy­nasty multi-col­ored congee pot makes ar­chae­ol­o­gists be­lieve that its owner must have had a high sta­tus.

Dec­o­rated with dots of red dried wolf­ber­ries, a bowl of milky rice congee be­comes fresh and en­er­giz­ing del­i­cacy. Photo/ Chen Chao

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