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Ten Sino-Vegetables & their Therapeutic Outline

Ten Sino-Vegetables & their Therapeutic Outline

By Chad Ryan

The world contains a large number of plant life and edible plant life, although only a minority of that array in existence regularly finds its way into our diets. So for those considering adding some variety to their dishes, why not take a leaf out of the book of horticultural wisdom of the ancient Chinese society. The Chinese view food as medicine, and each of the vegetables addressed in this article will be outlined in conjunction with their medicinal value according to traditional Chinese views, which are well guided by broader traditional Chinese medical practice and knowledge. The habitat, phytogeography, culinary use, and traditional therapeutic significance of ten vegetables including fish mint, watershield, devil’s tongue, sheppard’s purse, crown daisy, Chinese toon, fat choy, amaranth greens, leaf mustard, and Manchurian wild rice, which have been less extensively exploited as food sources in broader Australian society than in Chinese cultural spheres, will herein be outlaid.

Houttuynia cordata (蕺菜 jí cài) is a vegetable known to Chinese medicine practitioners by the name of 魚腥草 yú xīng căo, and used as a culinary garnish, “Fish Mint” leaves are noted as having a fishy taste. It is native to South East Asia and China south of the Yangtze River, particularly in Guìzhōu province; while it has been naturalised in North America [6]. It is found on the edges of fertile fields in humid environments, within mountainous ravines, and below sparse forests [1]. This acrid and slightly cold herb, with an action reputedly directed towards the lung, is said to clear heat, resolve toxicity, stop cough, transform phlegm, drain pus and eliminate carbuncles; while leeching swelling through the urine, and being commonly suitable for painful urinary obstruction [1]. The spearhead shaped leaves of “Chameleon Plant” may be completely green, or may be surrounded by red and yellow on the edges, while the flower of the plant protrudes in the form of a central tubular stamen surrounded by four white petals [6].

Brasenia schreberi (蒓菜 chún cài) is widely distributed in most continents including Australia, where it exists along the east coast Great Dividing Range south of Brisbane and much of eastern Victoria as well as around Cairns [8]. It is found wild in marshes and ponds south of the Yellow river in China where the tender leaves are collected in spring and summer for food [1]. There is a specialty dish consumed in Zhèjiāng province using ample proportions of “Watershield” with ham and preserved chicken as a soup [18]. Medicinally, it is traditionally seen as clearing heat and resolving toxicity, draining water, dissipating swelling, and also stopping diarrhoea; with application for carbuncles and boils, gastritis, jaundice and hot dysentery [1]. Stalk shaped purple flowers blooming for just two days towards late summer can be identified above flat green circular leaves which float on the surface of the water [8].

Amorphophallus konjac (蒟蒻 jŭ ruò) can be found along a belt spanning across southern China, within which the most prized product is sourced from Guăngxī province. The magnanimous deep maroon flower with a vase-shaped bract surrounding the fleshy axis of this plant called “Devil’s Tongue”, is also found in India, Sri Lanka and south-east across to the Philippines. However it is the bulbous root that is most important to the cuisine of the Chinese and Japanese, where the gelatinous nature of this pleasant tasting substance has allowed it to be crafted into a variety of uses. In Japan it can be eaten in rectangular blocks with sashimi, while in China it is added into jelly, jam, bread and candy [15]. Traditional Chinese medicine suggests that “Elephant Yam”, as it is also known, can resolve phlegm, scatter nodules, move stasis, and dissipate swelling; and that it is appropriate in instances of accumulations, physical trauma, and amenorrhea [1].

Capsella bursa-pastoris (薺菜 jì cài) is wide-spread in the northern hemisphere, and is considered a weed in the British Isles, though by the typically resourceful nature of the Chinese, is artificially cultivated in Jiāngsū and Shànghăi, where it is used in stir fries and wanton fillings. It is also widespread in south-east Australia. Going by the common name of “Sheppard’s Purse, and able to grow in light sandy or heavy clay soils, by the road or in the open, it can be recognised growing from the ground in a circular arrangement of large leaves at the base, with long thin stems capped by small white flowers, and small branches bifurcating along its vertical length which carry heart- or purse-shaped fruits [2]. Its properties according to traditional Chinese medicine, like many other greens include clearing heat, resolving toxicity, leeching excess water and resolving swelling; though it, sheppard's purse, is proclaimed as furthermore cooling the blood, stopping blood, decreasing blood pressure and brightening the eyes [1]. The young leaves collected prior to the plant’s flowering are the part consumed.

Chrysanthemum coronarium (茼蒿 tóng hāo) is native to the Mediterranean region, and is found in all parts of China since the Táng dynasty, over a millennium ago, as well as in other parts of Asia, northern Africa and Europe. It has been naturalised to Australia, and is spotted around a few places in New South Wales, South Australia and Western Australia [9]. The leaves are used in Taiwanese oyster omelettes, while the leaves and stems are used in stews, casseroles, hotpots, soups and stir-fries in Korea, Japan and China [10]. Harvested in winter, spring and summer, it looks like a daisy with flat or slightly indented tips to the petals, and is either yellow in the centre surrounded by white on the outer portions of the petals, or wholly yellow. According to traditional Chinese thought, “Crown Daisy” has medicinal value in resolving phlegm and stopping cough, as well as easing the passage of the stool and urine. It is considered to also be good for lowering high blood pressure, helping with insomnia and treating palpitations [1]. The edible portions may be consumed as a cold salad [10].

Toona Sinensis (香椿 xiāng chūn), belonging to the mahogany family of mainly trees, along with some shrubs, is native in East Asia from North Korea to Western Indonesia, including Nepal and Myanmar. Also known as “Chinese mahogany”, this deciduous tree is in China principally found in the north, plus the regions of the central and lower yellow river [5]. It is able to grow up to 25 meters in height, and is noted as being quite vertical in shape, while particularly striking is its pink foliage which emerges each spring, before it fades and deepens to green during the summer, and finally a pleasant yellow in the autumn. While it is the immature shots which are collected for eating through a process of pruning [17], two varieties, those of green and pink young leaves have been described, with the pink leaves being the most sought after [5]. These are used as a paste which is consumed with rice-porridge, or are consumed with bean curd, or otherwise used to add flavour to soups [3]. The properties of “Chinese Toon” leaves are to clear heat and relieve toxicity, to strengthen the stomach and moisten the intestines, to moisten the skin and brighten the eyes, and to quell inflammation and check bacterial growth. Through the traditional Chinese scope of their action, young Chinese mahogany leaves may be utilised for a range of skin conditions [1].

Nostoc flagelliforme (髮菜 fà cài) grows in arid and semi-arid areas with annual rainfall between 80 and 250mm. It is widely distributed around the world, and is found in China in the north-west, as well as inner Mongolia and Níngxià provinces [4]. This species of blue-green algae can be found in South Australia, Western Australia and the Northern Territory, where as is typical of the habitat of this species, nutrients are scarce, and temperatures between day and night fluctuate markedly [13]. When dry it looks like black hair, and when soaked looks like black vermicelli noodles. It is regularly consumed cold after being soaked, and is part of a dish of notoriety from Qīnghăi province, that is a bit like a savoury pancake and includes chicken meat paste [16]. In terms of medicinal value, “Fat Choy” is traditionally thought of by the Chinese as being sweet in flavour and cold in its thematic property; and as a yīn nourishing ailment that clears heat, resolves toxicity, disperses nodules and soothes the passage of urination. In terms of Western pathology its actions are thought to translate favourably with respect to conditions such as hyperlipidemia, anaemia, and childhood rickets to name a few [1].

Amaranth mangostanus (莧菜 xiàn cài) are the broad shape leaves of a plant which towers upwards, sometimes while being branched, to potentially a meter and a half in height; and these may be cooked, or eaten raw, like spinach. The seeds of the same plant can be consumed as a grain. While the green leaves regularly present with a purple centre, there has been debate about whether the also edible species known as amaranth tricolor, with its leaves which are more pointed and vibrantly yellow and red in colour, is in fact the same plant. Amaranth tricolour is recorded as coming from south central Mexico many thousands of years ago, and also has a long history of use in India and China [17]. Chinese medicine recognises “Amaranth Greens”, as having multifarious use in cooking, salubriously brightening the eyes, opening the orifices, easing the passage of excretions and so treating constipation, restraining blood, plus helping swelling and inflammation to recede; while also halting bacteria and dysentery [1].

Brassica juncea (雪裡紅 xuě lĭ hóng) is the plant which brown mustard is made from using the seeds, and that is considered spicier than yellow mustard, however the Chinese use the entire leaves which surround the stalk at the base of the plant in their cooking. “Leaf Mustard” has a more pungent taste than other greens, and is high in fiber, so is not recommended in excessive quantities for people with poor digestion. Nor is it recommended for pregnant women or women recovering from childbirth [1]. Also going by the name of “Vegetable Mustard”, the origins are thought to be in northern China and North-West India, while it later become prominent in Western China, and Iran, which has reportedly been infested with it. It is prevalent in all areas of China nowadays, meanwhile, in Australia, a related species, brassica napus, can be seen as the flowering yellow crop that is sprawled across entire fields in western Victoria, central New South Wales, and southern Western Australia, being grown for its oil rich seed that is made into canola oil. Brassica juncea itself has, in converse to its regular status in Australia as a weed, also been considered as an alternative commercial crop for Australia’s cropping belt [11]. To the Chinese, brassica juncea has been understood throughout time by medicos, and surely as with many materials, by portions of general folk alike, to expand the lungs and clears phlegm, to warm the stomach and scatter cold, to treat pathological cold invasion with absence of sweating, and to address a decrease in visual or hearing acuity [1].

Zizania latifolia (茭白 jiāo bái) has been cultivated in China since the warring states period, and despite its common name “Manchurian Wild Rice”, has since that time always been known as being grown in the area south of the Yangtze, where it has been called one the three most famous vegetables of the region [14]. This species of perennial aquatic grass is liable to run rampant if introduced into new environments, such as New Zealand, where it has demonstrated itself capable of suffocating the space of other plants, fish and animals. It grows as huge reeds well above head height, on lagoons, river banks, tidal flats and damp paddocks, in both fresh water and salt water [7]. While it is still farmed for its stem, it has nonetheless become very rare in the wild in China, where use of the grain of the same plant has completely disappeared [14]. This sweet cold stem may be steamed, boiled, fried, used fresh, or as a salad, and it carries with it the traditional Chinese therapeutic outlook of entering the lung to clear heat and eliminate vexation, helping one to sober up from alcohol toxicity, and moving the stool. Among its other pre-modern indications are red swollen eyes and an inability to let down milk after childbirth [1].

Many vegetables used commonly in Chinese cooking are indeed very obscure or unheard of to the average Australian, though whether recognisable at the local Asian grocery, available online as seedlings, or growing out in the wild, all of the species mentioned in this article can been found within Australia or New Zealand in one form or another.



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