I was seated in front of Mr. Li Lian Xing, a Chinese herbalist who was trying to diagnose my malady. I complained that I had no appetite and that I was constantly cold. He checked the pulse of my right hand; it was weak and slow. He inspected my tongue and noticed that it was pate and slightly white. He made his diagnosis. "You are too yin," he solemnly pronounced, and prescribed an order of baked lamb with Chinese wolfberries and a pot of "double-boiled" chicken soup (two yang dishes).
This was no ordinary herbalist's office, although I was surrounded by Chinese herbs. We were seated at the front of the Imperial Herbal restaurant in Singapore, where Mr. Li is the resident herbalist. From the day it first opened eleven years ago, the Imperial Herbal has drawn praise from its local and international clientele for its masterful marriage of herbs and Chinese haute cuisine. And Mr. Li has acquired a devoted following of customers who come to the restaurant for treatment. I had come to be treated for a minor ailment and to sample the legendary food.
The idea of treating illness and disease with food and herbs is not new to Asians: Different foods have long been prescribed and eaten as a form of preventative therapy. Ginger is believed to stimulate the stomach and intestines. It is also reputed to have warming properties. Bean curd, or tofu, is eaten to increase body energy, produce fluids, and lubricate the system. It is said to have yin, or cooling, properties.
Disease occurs, Chinese doctors believe, when there is an imbalance in the system. All foods are classified as yin, yang, or neutral, depending on their effect on the body. Yin foods have a calming effect, while too much yang can trigger hyperactivity. Generally, yang foods-which include eggs, fatty meats, and pungent spices-are strong, rich, and spicy, while yin foods, such as raw fruits and vegetables, and many types of seafood, are bitter, salty, and light. Neutral foods, such as rice, peanuts, and bread, provide balance.
At first glance, the menu of the Imperial Herbal looks like that of any other Chinese restaurant. The offerings include braised cod with spicy sauce, sautéed chile prawns with walnuts, and orange-peel beef. Then you notice the little notes on the menu next to the dishes' names. The cod-so the menu informs you—is cooked with dang shen and huang qi two Chinese herbs that increase body energy and aid digestion. The walnuts, which garnish the chile prawns, are believed to strengthen the kidneys and nourish the brain. The orange peel with the beef inhibits coughing and the orange pith is beneficial to the lungs.
For many years, Chinese herbal cuisine has been confined to the home kitchen, and the dishes have tended to be hearty, unrefined, and bitter-tasting. Some Cantonese restaurants, however, have offered delicacies that are relished for their flavor and pharmacological benefits. For instance, shark's fin is believed to maintain youth, while abalone soothes the lungs and improves eyesight.
The Imperial Herbal restaurant offers dishes that are both delicious and beneficial. It is the brainchild of Mrs. Wang-Lee Tee Eng, a forty-four-year-old Singaporean businesswoman, who visited an herbal restaurant in China in the mid-1980s and became fascinated with the concept. She was determined to refine herbal dishes and elevate them to haute cuisine, broadening their appeal. She brought in from northern China two gold-medal master chefs and an herbalist.
Mrs. Wang felt that with today's pressing concerns about health and the widespread appreciation for fine food, a marriage between a Chinese doctor and a master chef was a natural.
The menu has broadened and diversified greatly since the restaurant first opened. The chefs not only create their own specialties but also adapt classic dishes to make them even healthier: Beggar's Chicken-an eastern specialty where a whole chicken is first stuffed and wrapped in a lotus leaf, then surrounded by clay and baked for several hours before the clay is cracked open at the table-is embellished further with the addition of four yin herbs and four yang herbs to reinforce blood and energy. Lacquered Peking Duck is served with paper-thin homemade Mandarin pancakes enriched with a flavorless herb that reduces cholesterol.
The list of soups is especially impressive: Double-boiled Soft-Shell River Turtle Soup is a yin energy tonic that, according to the menu, strengthens the body's immune system and helps to prevent cancer. Chicken Soup with Wolfberry promotes blood circulation, and Freshwater Fish with American Ginseng promotes the energy to offset fatigue and "shortness of breath."
Soups, according to Mrs. Wang, are a vital and important way of dispensing herbs and tonics, second only to teas. "Traditionally, Asians adore soups, and when we are making herbal tonics one of the most popular cooking methods is 'double-boiling,' where the soup is steamed inside a container so that the broth is very clear and intense. It's the most effective way of extracting the pure essence of the herb into the soup," she told me.
One of the most spectacular soups, which has become a house specialty, is "Buddha jumping over the Wall." It is a clear soup with many types of seafood, fresh and dried, poached in a "superior" stock, a rich broth made with chicken and pork bones and seasoned with scallions and ginger. Customers are equally enthusiastic about the Turtle Soup. It is believed to be especially good for the immune system and it's excellent for strengthening qi, or energy. The restaurant also makes a special crocodile meat soup that's excellent for asthma.
Exotic or mundane, humble or pretentious, soups are guaranteed to satisfy even the most demanding palate. The following chapter offers a varied selection of refined, homespun, and tonic soups.
A Spoonful of Ginger
Recipes from Asian Kitchens
By Nina Simonds
Alfred A. Knopf, Publisher
Reprinted by permission.
This page created October 1999
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