Ginger For Me, Please!

Hello there! Today’s post is another short and sweet one. I hope you all enjoyed last week’s post on seasonal eating. This week is also food-related, but I’m actually going to be talking about an important Chinese herb- ginger! Some of our commonly used Chinese herbs are also foods or spices that we eat regularly, and I think the best example of this is ginger.

When I talk about Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), usually acupuncture is the big buzzword that people associate with it. However, acupuncture is just one small part of our Chinese medical toolbox. The practice of Chinese herbology (yes, friends, I did indeed study herbology…just like Harry Potter) is one that actually extends back even further through Chinese history than acupuncture does. There are hundreds and hundreds of medicinals in the repertoire of Chinese herbal medicine- plant leaves, roots, berries/fruits, barks, minerals, animal products, and even some particularly gnarly ingredients like scorpions, snakes, and bugs. However, today I’m just going to focus on one very important Chinese herb- the humble, yet delicious, ginger root. Herbs are very rarely used by themselves in TCM, but ginger is one that we can use just as a single herb.Ginger-rootGinger is called Sheng Jiang in Chinese and zingiberis rhizoma in Latin. It is considered part of the category of herbs that is said to “release the exterior.” That is a fancy way of saying that these herbs are used to treat conditions that attack us from the outside (remember my scarf post? Those types of pathogens). This means that this category of herbs is really good at treating a cold when it is just starting to show up- chills/fever, muscle aches, stiff neck, headache, coughing, etc. Ginger can be used at the first signs of a cold to help give those pathogens the heave-ho and send them on their way. It’s also good for treating coughs once they have settled in to stay.

Ginger is also very good at treating upset stomachs. I’m sure many of you have heard this as a folk remedy for nausea, and I’m here to tell you that it’s good advice! Ginger helps what we refer to as the “middle burner” in TCM, which essentially means it’s a good herb to help with our digestive system. Ginger can be used to treat nausea, vomiting, and any garden-variety stomach ickiness (including that general bleh feeling you can get after eating something that doesn’t seem to be sitting so well).

A ton of ginger root drying out in a neighborhood in China- this picture is from when I did an internship in Beijing in 2011
A ton of ginger root drying out in a neighborhood in China- this picture is from when I did an internship in Beijing in 2011.

There’s a couple of easy ways to enjoy ginger. I love ginger tea when you feel like you are getting a cold. You can buy ginger tea bags and let those steep, or you can just slice up some fresh ginger and boil it in some hot water for a couple minutes. I also like to add a little honey to ginger tea when I’m feeling under the weather, especially if I am coughing a lot.

You can also find ginger chews, hard candies, and crystallized ginger in most grocery stores. I like the products by The Ginger People company since they tend to have a pretty clean ingredient list (I’m actually eating one of their hard candies as I write this!). You can also add ginger to most things you cook- I personally love it with broccoli (sounds weird, tastes delicious). It’s great in stir-frys with pretty much any protein, and it can add a spicy kick to stews, curries, smoothies, and soups. Ginger also keeps really well in the freezer, so if you buy a knob and are worried about using it all up, just wrap up what you don’t use and throw it in the freezer. When I take it out of the freezer, I’ll usually just grate what I need when it’s still frozen and not stress about cutting off the skin, but feel free to thaw and peel if you’d like.

Obviously, too much of anything becomes not a good thing. Ginger is a pretty safe ingredient, as is evidenced by its easy accessibility. However, it is considered a warm herb, and too much consumption of a warm herb over time will eventually create pathological heat in the body. So add it to your diet in moderation. Plus, an ancient Chinese medical doctor said that too much ginger would drain the will and intelligence, so better to be safe than sorry (sometimes historical Chinese medical advice is straight-up bonkers, as evidenced here. I love it.). Obviously, if you have an underlying medical condition or are pregnant, it’s always a good idea to run any dietary changes or herbal supplements by your regular physician or Chinese medical practitioner.

Let me know your favorite way to eat ginger! And if you know The Ginger People and can ask them to send me many ginger items, I like the chews best 🙂 I hope you have a wonderful week, and be well.

All herbal information comes from: Chinese Herbal Medicine Materia Medica (3rd. ed) by D. Bensky, S. Clavey, E. Stöger, & A. Gamble (Eastland Press, 2004). 

Eating Seasonally: Winter Edition (Feat. A Special Guest!)

Hello to my lovely readers! If you are on the East coast, I hope you all survived the weekend storm safely. I am really excited to talk about today’s topic. This is the first in a four part series where I am going to discuss the idea of seasonal eating in Chinese medicine. I’m going to do this once a season to give you an idea of how your food intake should change to reflect the seasons. Today we will discuss how to eat in winter, and in a few months I’ll talk about spring, and so on!

I’m also very excited to introduce a recipe from a dear family friend to go along with this discussion. Lisa Keys is an amazing chef, “Chopped” champion, and all-around bad-ass mama with an incredibly beautiful blog about love, loss, and the healing power of food. You should check out her blog Good Grief Cook and then spend some time reading her amazing posts and exploring her delicious recipes. She provided a recipe for us that goes along perfectly with the theme of today’s discussion, which I will share at the end.

Eating seasonally is a very important concept in Chinese medicine. What “eating seasonally” means is that you consume foods that help your body to adapt to and work well within any given season. This means that you eat foods with the proper taste and temperature for the season. Each food is considered to have a “taste” and a “temperature” according to TCM theory. Taste means the property of the food- sweet, salty, sour, bitter, acrid, and bland. Each of these different tastes corresponds with a certain action and effect on the body. For example, sweet foods build qi and help generate body fluids, but they can also damage the digestive system when eaten in excess. Each of the flavors can be beneficial, but it is important to eat them in balance. The same goes for temperature. Temperature doesn’t necessarily correspond to the physical temperature of the food, but rather the nature of the food- hot, warm, neutral, cool, and cold. Again, balance is key here. You can’t eat only foods of one temperature without eventually creating imbalance in the body.

How this all comes into play is that you can eat a little more of certain tastes and temperatures depending on what the outside temperature looks like. If it is cold and dry outside, you should eat foods that are warming and that can nourish fluids. If it is hot and humid outside, you want to eat foods that are cooling and that can help drain some excess moisture.

Eating against the season can create problems, especially with digestion. If you eat a lot of cold raw foods in the winter, you introduce too much coldness and dampness into an a system already plagued by the cold and damp weather in the atmosphere. This can cause digestive difficulties, fatigue, and other unpleasant symptoms. (Side note: this is why the idea of juice cleanses that start after the holidays drives me loco. It’s literally the worst type of food to introduce into your system at this time. And real talk: no one wants to hear a juice cleanser preach the wisdom of the cleanse. It is nonsense, and you will get diarrhea from consuming 32 oz. of green juice in a day.)

So what does this look like in winter? Winter is cold, first and foremost. This means that you should eat foods that are warming in nature. At the time of year, eating cooked food is especially important. Raw fruits, raw vegetables, smoothies, and iced beverages should all be limited. Try and eat mostly cooked, roasted, baked, or sautéed foods as much as possible (this includes your fruits and veggies). You can also incorporate warming foods and spices into your diet- this includes foods like root vegetables, lamb, chicken, ginger, cumin, black pepper, nutmeg, garlic, and cinnamon. If you pay attention to what your body wants, many times it will tell you what you should eat! How often do you come inside from the cold and all you want is a steaming bowl of soup? It’s because soup is warming in physical temperature and in terms of energetics according to TCM theory. Soup often contains cooked meats, veggies, and grains, all of which are ideal for the season!

So that brings us to our lovely recipe! Lisa’s recipe is for a delicious roasted butternut squash soup. Winter squashes like butternut squash, pumpkin, and acorn squash are considered warm and sweet. This means they help build qi, strengthen digestion, and can reduce inflammation. Onions are also very warming and can help ward off the common cold. The curry powder is also very warming. Apples are actually cool and sweet, which is important to include in this recipe because of the concept of balance that I talked about above- you want to make sure you don’t introduce *only* warming foods into your diet. This can create a condition of excess heat, which is just as bad as excess cold. So I think this recipe is a perfect symphony of foods to help you feel your best this season! I’ve included a link to a blog post she recently wrote that featured this recipe (just click on the recipe name)

Curried Butternut Squash Soup Bowl

  • 1 large butternut squash, peeled, seeded, cut into 1-inch pieces (7 to 8 cups)
  • 2 onions, peeled, halved, quartered
  • 2 honey crisp apples, cored, diced into 1-inch pieces (don’t peel)
  • olive oil
  • kosher salt
  • ground black pepper
  • chicken broth (about 2 cups)
  • 1½ teaspoons curry powder
  • Toppings: roasted cashews, diced apple, toasted coconut, sliced green onion

Heat oven 400F.  Place butternut squash, onions and apples on a large, rimmed sheet pan. Drizzle with just enough olive oil to coat it all. Sprinkle with kosher salt (a good two pinches) and ground black pepper. Give the whole pan a shake so things spread out into an even layer. Roast for 45 minutes, turning mixture every 10 to 15 minutes. The squash will be tender and you will have some caramelized brown areas, but not a lot of that. Put all of the roasted ingredients into a blender with 1 cup of chicken broth and the curry powder. Blend adding additional broth to arrive at desired consistency. If you have a Vitamix, use the soup setting and your soup will be piping hot out of the blender. If using a standard blender gently re-heat the soup on the stove-top. You can also use an immersion blender to blend all the ingredients together in a bowl if you’d like. Serve with your favorite toppings.

(photo courtesy of Lisa Keys)
(photo courtesy of Lisa Keys)

What a delicious, warming, and comforting dish to enjoy at this chilly time of year! Feel free to share your favorite winter recipes with me- I love to cook and am always on the lookout for new and delicious foods to try. Hope you all have a wonderful week, and be well!

All information about the tastes/temperatures of the specific foods comes from Bob Flaws’ terrific little book The Tao of Healthy Eating (Blue Poppy Press, 2007), specifically pgs. 72, 78, 93, 97. 

The Winter Solstice and Chinese Medicine

Good evening everyone! Sorry I’m publishing this post so late in the day today, but I wanted to make sure I got it out on the actual solstice. Today, Monday, December 21, is the winter solstice. This means that it is the shortest day of the year (and, consequently, the longest night of the year). Seasonal changes and shifts are important themes in Chinese medicine, and this day marks a shift into the “yin” time of winter.

I’m sure you’ve seen a yin/yang symbol before. It looks like this:

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The dark part of the figure is the yin aspect. Yin and yang are very important concepts in Chinese medicine that represent the duality and interconnectedness of all things. Yin and yang exist separately from each other but are dependent on each other at the same time in order to provide context for the opposing force. Without light, there is no concept of dark. Without movement, there is no concept of stillness. Without heat, there is no understanding of cold, and on and on.

The yin aspect traditionally represents the feminine energy, as well as as concepts like darkness, cold, stillness, and nourishment. Today is the most yin day of the year because it is the day with the longest period of darkness. Consequently, that also means there is less yang energy (light and warmth) today than there is any other day of the year.

So what does this mean for you? Although the days will incrementally start to get a little longer, winter is considered a very yin time in Chinese medicine. This means it is a time to look within- a time to rest a little more, to reflect on yourself, and to save up your energy for the winter ahead. It becomes important in the yin time of year to focus on nourishing your body and mind. This self-care can take many forms- receiving healthcare work like acupuncture, making and eating warming soups and stews, and incorporating mindfulness activities like meditation and breathing exercises.

Although winter is a yin time, we are often tempted to ignore this aspect in favor of doing more yang activities. The holiday season makes us feel like we have a million things to do, places to go, and people to see. This extroverted expenditure of energy is the opposite of what our bodies want to do this time of year. Additionally, artificial lighting and heating mean that we often override our body’s natural inclinations to rest and recover during the winter. Now, I’m certainly not advocating that we all go old-timey prairie style and give up electricity (goodness knows I freak out if I can’t blow dry my hair in the morning), but what I am suggesting is to start to listen to your body’s natural impulses. Feeling tired and worn out? Skip that holiday party you feel like you have to attend and cuddle up with a book and a blanket. Getting anxious and frustrated among the holiday shoppers? Give yourself permission to decompress, take some time to meditate or do some belly breathing, and don’t beat yourself about not getting all your errands done. Annoyed at the sun for setting at what feels like 10 a.m.? Embrace the longer nights to light a couple candles, curl up on the couch, and take some time to enjoy family and friends.

As we head into winter, keep in mind those principles and work on feeding your body and soul during the upcoming months. Listening to what your body really wants can help you live in accordance with the seasons, which is a huge part of health according to Chinese medicine.

In conclusion, I’d like to wish you all a wonderful holiday season. If you celebrate Christmas, I hope you have a very happy holiday this year. Safe travels for those of you going to see family and friends far away from home. I hope all of your holidays are filled with peace, joy, and love.   Be well.