A friend of mine recently tweeted the following, attributed to Michael Pollan: “A culture that treats foods as medicine can’t be said to have a real cuisine at all.”
I’m not sure where this limited viewpoint originated, but its author clearly lacks familiarity with Oriental Medicine and Asian cuisine. I suggested to my friend that an intelligent culture seamlessly integrates the two.
Pear Beet Waffles may be an accessible example for most Americans, but since we’re in the depths of that notorious season of dietary excess — winter holidays in the US — I am reminded of a more appropriate classic and thought it would make a nice gift.
Ume (oómay) and kudzu are well known and well used participants of the Chinese pharmacopeia. They are found in most parts of Asia in both culinary and medical use.
Ume, the same plum birthed from the celebrated plum blossom of the Orient, is commonly pickled with salt. When it is pickled, purple perilla leaf is often added for both its color and its ability to ward off seafood poisoning and to soothe digestive upsets. This is the same leaf which gives pickled sushi ginger its pink color. At this point, the ume has become umeboshi, and may be purchased as whole pickled plums, plum paste, or even umeboshi vinegar. All of these are valued in Asian cuisine for their strongly sour and salty flavor (sour is essentially absent from the mainstream American diet). Among other culinary uses, the paste serves as a counterpoint to numerous sushi creations.
Being so salty, umeboshi is highly astringent, and therefore restrains several kinds of ‘leakage’, including intestinal — diarrhea and other dysentery-like disorders — as well as intestinal bleeding and uterine bleeding. It expels parasitic helminths, and subdues abdominal pain. Add antibiotic effects, stimulation of bile and contraction of the bile duct, and you’ve got an important player in gastrointestinal disorders!
But there’s more. Ume is highly alkalizing to the human constitution. In a culture where most of us have high systemic acidity, this trait can mean the difference between good health and poor.
Kudzu, a white starchy root, is such a remarkable Chinese herb that a worthy discussion is beyond the scope of this page. But to give you an idea of its versatility: it ‘releases the exterior’ and clears Heat from ‘Wind Invasions’; it can relieve diarrhea from both ‘exterior Heat’ and ‘deficient Heat’; it relieves neck pain and tension originating from numerous sources; it regulates temperature; and has many important effects on cardiovascular function. And it calms the entire GI tract.
In cooking, kudzu is far preferable than wheat or corn starch to thicken liquids.
At the level of folk remedies, kudzu is often used to thicken drinks in which it is combined with other medicinal ingredients to achieve specific effects: tamari, ginger, pepper, and others are commonly used. But its effects go far beyond that of a thickening agent.
A familiar macrobiotic adaptation of this theme is a drink made of umeboshi plum paste and kudzu in water. As you might guess, this drink excels at relieving gastronomical distress of many kinds: bloating, stomach discomfort, food poisoning, diarrhea, and indigestion. It relieves most any form of malaise in the gut — end to end.
And this, finally, is what I’d like to share with you.
Place about three cups of pure water over heat in a pan. Add maybe 2 teaspoons umeboshi plum paste and whisk it in. In a separate container (we use an English clay mortar and pestle), add a heaping tablespoon of kudzu to a small amount of water. Mix this until the kudzu is completely dissolved. When the water and ume is about to boil, whisk in the kudzu mixture. It will be cloudy white. Reduce the heat somewhat and whisk until the mixture becomes more transparent. When it’s nice and thick and grey-pink translucent, remove from the heat, pour into two large cups, and share!
This decoction holds heat well, so don’t burn yourself, but drink it very hot.
These ingredients can be found in the Japanese section of most any natural food store worth its salt. Be warned: neither are cheap. I’ve never been able to understand this about kudzu since it grows like a weed in the Deep South. We think it’s worth the expense, however. We probably only use it three or four times a year, but it’s perfect when it’s needed. The flavors are so welcome that when one of us ‘needs’ a cup, the other usually joins in simply because it’s so good and soothing. After all, samurai held umeboshi in high esteem to combat battle fatigue!
Caution. The amounts suggested above are approximations. Adjust to your taste, remembering that the consistency should be thick, and the flavor should be strongly salty and sour.
More caution. Any persistent pain or suspected food poisoning should be evaluated by a physician competent in diagnosing and treating the actual cause of your condition. Use of the above decoction is not being recommended as a substitute for professional treatment of any condition.
With that qualification, I think you’ll find ume and kudzu to be an extremely beneficial asset in managing karma encountered in times such as these. May it serve you well!
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