More than Just a Delicacy
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