There’s no joking around when it comes to zaliang (杂粮, beans and grains other than rice) in China—typical supermarkets are stocked to the brim with all kinds. Shelves are piled high with green beans, red beans, broad beans, kidney beans, black beans, everything but jelly beans. Why? Because in China, beans are regarded as more than just food.
Take the ubiquitous red bean, for example. Used in many delectable recipes—red bean porridge, red bean baozi (包子), red bean glutinous rice balls (汤圆), even red bean ice cream—the mighty red bean ice cream (红豆雪糕)—is loved for its flavor and soft creamy texture. Mixed with sugar and orange osmanthus, the red bean carries a faint scent and richness of flavor that make it an unforgettable delicacy.
The red bean is tasty, but there’s more than meets the taste buds in this little bean; it also has medicinal value. In the “Compendium of Materia Medica” (《本草纲目》), Dr. Li Shizhen tells of the red bean’s other potencies: “it can initiate breast milk secretion and reduce water retention.” In the medical book “Herbal Diet,” written by Dr. Chen Shiliang during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), the red bean is also credited as an effective agent for stimulating weight loss and maintaining a svelte figure. That’s a lot of punch packed into one little bean.
Pearl barley (薏仁, also known as coix seed) is another Chinese zaliang with medicinal perks. Li Shizhen’s book credits the pearl barley with the ability to “invigorate the function of the spleen and stomach, tonify the lung, cool the body, expel wind (a TCM term for toxins) and remove dampness.”
The idea of mixing food and medicine is odd in a Western cultural context. Imagine a “Granny’s own” recipe that recommends stewing chicken with antibiotics, or baking cough syrup into apple pie? That wouldn’t fly!
Yet, traditional Chinese food and medicine ingredients go hand in hand (or rather, into the same casserole dish) because they are derived from the same sources. The major constituents of Chinese medicines include herbs, meats and minerals, which are also the materials used in Chinese cuisines.
Of course, some things only can be used as drugs and others only as food, but most can be both. Since many food items are believed to have healing properties, the line between good grub and magic meds is pretty fuzzy.Oranges, rice, walnuts and honey are just gustatory treats in the West, but here, they’re ingested as medicines too. As The “The Yellow Emperor’s Canon of Internal Medicine” (《黄帝内经》, the TCM bible) says, “When you’re hungry, food is just food, but when you’re sick, food is medicine.”
If you’re sold on the idea that food can nourish as well as heal, try this simple porridge recipe (and prescription) at home: place 50 grams of red beans, 50 grams of pearl barley and one liter of water into a pot, then let it cook over a low flame. In 50 minutes, drink the liquid soup and eat the beans.
A bowl of this wonder gruel in the morning will help expel dampness from the body. Bet you didn’t even know you were afflicted with dampness, did you? “Dampness” is a TCM term that refers to bodily toxins that can cause problems ranging from skin rashes to poor immunity to sluggishness. If you’re tired all the time and struggle with getting up in the morning (who doesn’t?), you could be suffering from a case of perpetual dampness!
A two-week regime of the red bean/pearl barley porridge purportedly makes the dampest among you feel as good as new. Side effects? Frequent trips to the bathroom (since pearl barley is a diuretic)!
TCM believes that toxins come from the food that you put into your body, so the best way to cure ailments is to expel toxins with other counter-acting foods. If measuring beans and boiling water seems like too much trouble for taking a stab at TCM magic, technology can come to your rescue. Most Chinese electronics stores carry soy milk machines, as much a blessing for the kitchen novice as rice cookers were. With one of these gadgets, all you have to do is wash the beans and add them, with water, to the maker (which looks like a big hot water thermos). Press a few buttons and, voilà, your medicinal bean porridge is ready!
With nifty gadgets, deliciousness in store and physical healing to boot, why not give mixing grub and meds a try?
Additional writing by Qi Zhai (翟琦).