One of the more interesting Chinese cuisines is medicinal foods, foods that are designed specifically to aid in the correction of health problems while providing a nutritious and tasty meal. If you'd like an excellent introduction, I suggest Henry C. Lu, Chinese System Of Food Cures: Prevention & Remedies. Unlike the dietary "cures" often touted by people selling books here in the West (particularly on television), the food cures of China are used to support other medical treatments, like Qi Gong, and may be prescribed by a physician.
My friend Jennifer, who is attending Oregon College of Oriental Medicine, asked me to come up with a recipe that she could use to help with Spleen Qi Xu, or Spleen Qi Deficiency, and suggested a pudding. Her goal was to create a reasonably simple dish for herself and her fellow students that would help relieve some of the problems caused by overusing their brains (yes, you really can cause health problems by thinking too much; no, it isn't a valid excuse for failing to complete homework on time).
I'm certainly no doctor, but as I understand it, in Traditional Chinese Medicine the spleen aids in digestion, and when the spleen suffers a deficiency (Xu) of qi, you might feel fatigue, reduced memory function, weakness of the limbs, or general lassitude. After eating you might feel bloated and sleepy, or have acid reflux. Even if you don't feel any of those symptoms, it's a good idea to tonify your spleen qi, particularly if you live in a wet or humid climate like the Pacific Northwest or the American South. High humidity can lead to dampness in the internal organs, and the spleen prefers dryness.
[caption id="attachment_1657" align="alignright" width="250" caption="Chen Pi, Da Zao, Sha Ren"][/caption]
Jennifer gave me three herbal ingredients to use; they might be a bit difficult to locate unless you have a reputable Chinese pharmacy near you. Da Zao (Fructus jujubae) is a date. Da Zao tonifies the spleen and stomach, benefits qi, tonifies the blood, and calms the spirit, but too much of it can lead to dampness and phlegm. Chen Pi (Pericarpium citri reticulatae) is aged dried tangerine peel. It regulates spleen and stomach qi, dries dampness, and dissolves phlegm, balancing the Da Zao. Sha Ren (Fructus amomi) is more familiarly known as cardamom. Sha Ren regulates qi, dissolves dampness, and strengthens the spleen. The cardamom you can buy in a grocery store isn't what you need, however; the medicinal cardamom is a different but related species.
These three medicinal herbs would usually be prepared in a decoction or tea. I chose to approximate that by using the herbs to infuse coconut milk. The cardamom needs to be added last to the infusion because overcooking it reduces efficacy. The rest of the ingredients were chosen because they are among the foods that aid the spleen and help to balance spleen qi.
The most interesting part of this challenge was to make a delicious pudding without using ingredients that counteract its medicinal benefits. That means no processed sugars or dairy, and I decided it also means the pudding should be vegan and should avoid as much as possible common allergens like soy. Furthermore, for no good reason except that it felt right, I also decided that I wouldn't use any machines or knives to process things, so everything was done by hand, tearing or crushing as appropriate. It may not have added medicinal value, but it certainly was therapeutic.
Spleen Qi Xu Rice Pudding
2 cups rice (I used 1½ cups brown and wild rice mix and ½ cup sweet brown rice)
4 cups water
1 sweet potato (about ¾ lb.) or chinese yam, baked
5 grams Da Zao, cracked or split open
4 grams Chen Pi
5 grams Sha Ren tied into a cheesecloth bag, seeds crushed
2-13.66 ounce cans coconut milk
1 cup golden raisins
1½ cup (5 ounces) crushed toasted walnuts
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon fine sea salt
2 teaspoons brown rice syrup
Put the rice and water in a saucepan over high heat. As soon as the water comes to a boil reduce the heat to the lowest setting and cover. For brown and sweet rices, wait 45 minutes, then remove from the heat and fluff the rice. The rice must be thoroughly cooked, even slightly overcooked for medicinal purposes. Apparently undercooked grains deplete qi, the opposite of what is intended. Cover and set aside.
Bake the sweet potato or yam in a 350°F oven until done. While the potato is in the oven, spread the walnuts on a sheet pan and put them into the oven as well, for about 10 minutes, until just toasted. Remember not to walk away from the oven while the nuts are in it because they can go from perfectly toasted to burnt in less than 30 seconds. Remove the walnuts from the oven and let them cool. When they are cool enough to handle, crush them in a towel to the consistency you prefer.
Place the Da Zao and Chen Pi in a small saucepan and tie the Sha Ren into a small piece of cheesecloth or butter muslin. Add one can of coconut milk to the pan and place over medium-low heat. Stir frequently until the coconut milk just begins to simmer, then add the bag of Sha Ren, remove from the heat, cover, and let sit to infuse for at least 30 minutes, until the milk has cooled to room temperature.
Strain the milk into a mixing bowl. Add the second can of coconut milk, the cinnamon, salt, and brown rice syrup. Peel the sweet potato and add the flesh to the bowl, using a spoon or spatula to mash the sweet potato until it mixes with the coconut milk, then use a whisk to make as smooth a liquid as possible. Adjust the seasoning as necessary.
Add the crushed walnuts, golden raisins, and milk mixture to the rice and mix well. Refrigerate until well chilled, or overnight. Serve at room temperature, or even slightly warmed.
If you don't have the medicinal herbs to make this pudding, substitute cardamom and a bit of orange zest. It certainly won't be as helpful, but since all the ingredients were chosen to support spleen qi it should still have some beneficial effect. If you can't or don't want to use walnuts, either use pine nuts or just leave nuts out completely.