Review: Cooking with Chinese Herbs
By Terry Tan
2004, Times Editions, ISBN-13: 978-9812329608
In Chinese cuisine, almost all foods are categorized according to various qualities pertinent to the principles of Chinese Traditional medicine, and there are also quite a number of herbal ingredients that are used almost exclusively for their medicinal value. I only recently came across this very nice little book on the subject and I rather wish I had owned it before writing my post on Crocodile Meat Soup Mix, as it would have saved me quite a bit of research time…
Content and Organization
The book opens with an introduction to the very general basics of Chinese traditional medicine philosophy and also includes some practical information on the equipment required to cook and use the various herbs described. The introductory material is quite sparse and perfunctory but is well supplemented with further information throughout the rest of the text.
The introduction is followed by a section identifying and describing 28 different medicinal foodstuffs. Some are fairly commonplace, such as barley and tangerine peel, while others (like Ginseng and Rue) are less commonly used in the west but still somewhat familiar. The rest of the items described (including the non-herbal Bird’s nest) will either be regarded by most westerners as very exotic, or else be completely unknown.
The rest of the book is given over to 106 recipes, which use 28 described foodstuffs in a variety of combinations along with other ingredients. There are some tea recipes included, but most recipes are for soups or, in a few cases, more substantial dishes that might loosely be described as stews. Many of the recipes, and all of the individual herbal ingredients in the second section, are accompanied by photographs.
Although the number of recipes in this book may sound fairly impressive, it is only fair to point out that there are many instances where a series of recipes is simply just the same basic formula with just the main herbal components changed. None of the recipes is terribly complex, however, and all are clearly written and easy to follow.
The illustrations, I have to say, could be better. Those for the recipes are generally adequate, but larger and more detailed pictures of the herbal foodstuffs would be a big plus. The chart showing the English, Chinese, and botanical names along with Cantonese and Mandarin pronunciations is a nice feature, but I would also have liked to see a bit more botanical information beyond the basic visual descriptions.
This book is by no means a comprehensive, or encyclopedic treatment of all the herbs (or other foodstuffs) used in traditional Chinese medicine, but it is certainly an interesting introduction. Even for those, like myself, who approach many ‘medicinal’ claims about herbs with a certain skepticism, the book is still an enjoyable read and provides the reader quite a few interesting recipes.