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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 pale 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 five 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 chili 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-one-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. Laquered 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 Fresh-Water 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 tells 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.
Clear-Steamed Chicken Soup with Ginger
Clear-steaming, otherwise known as double-boiling, is a simple technique used by Chinese cooks where a food is cooked slowly within a closed container. The result is a very clear, intense broth.
1 whole chicken, about 3 to 31/2 pounds
6 cups boiling water
13/4 cups rice wine, preferably Shaoxing wine (available at Asian markets)
10 whole scallions, ends trimmed and smashed lightly with the flat side of a knife
10 slices fresh ginger, the size of a quarter, smashed with the flat side of a knife
1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
1. Remove any fat from the cavity opening and around the neck of the chicken. Rinse lightly and drain. Using a heavy knife or a cleaver, cut the chicken, through the bones, into 10 to 12 pieces. Heat 2 quarts water until boiling and blanch the chicken pieces for 1 minute after the water reaches a boil to clean them. Drain the chicken, discarding the water, then rinse in cold water and drain again.
2. Place the chicken pieces and the Soup Broth ingredients in a heatproof pot or 2-quart soufflé dish. Cover tightly with heavy-duty aluminum foil and place on a steamer tray or small rack. Fill a wok with enough water to just reach the bottom of the steamer tray or rack and heat until boiling. Place the food on the steamer tray or rack over the boiling water, cover, and steam 2 hours over high heat, replacing the boiling water in the wok as necessary. Alternatively, you may steam the soup in the oven: Preheat the oven to 425 degreesF. Place the ingredients in a Dutch oven or casserole with a lid and, before putting on the cover, wrap the top tightly with heavy-duty aluminum foil; then cover. Place the pot in a lasagna pan or a casserole and fill with 11/2 inches boiling water. Bake for 2 hours, replenishing the boiling water as necessary.
3. Skim the top of the broth to remove any impurities and fat. Add the salt. Remove the ginger and scallions, ladle the soup and pieces of the chicken into serving bowls, and serve. To reheat and retain a clear broth, steam or bake in a closed pot for 10 to 15 minutes, or until piping hot.
Miso Chicken Soup with Snow Peas and Tofu
Miso soup has always been one of my favorites; it is so soothing and satisfying. Here I offer a variation of the most traditional recipe, using a chicken broth as the base rather than the classic dashi (bonito tuna stock). Shredded chicken, tofu, and snow peas round out the flavor, making it a meal in itself.
1 whole chicken, about 3 pounds, trimmed of fat
12 cups water
8 slices fresh ginger, about the size of a quarter, smashed lightly with the flat side of a knife
1/2 to 2/3 cup medium-colored miso (chu miso or shinsu ichi miso), or to taste
1 pound firm tofu, cut into thin slices about 1/4 inch thick and 11/2 inches long
3/4 pound snow or snap peas, ends snapped and veiny strings removed
3 tablespoons minced scallion greens
1. Cut the chicken through the bones into 10 to 12 pieces. Put the chicken pieces, water, and ginger in a heavy pot and bring to a boil. Lower the heat so that the liquid is at a simmer and cook about 11/2 hours, skimming the broth to remove any impurities. Remove the chicken pieces and let them cool. Remove the ginger slices and discard. Skim the broth to remove any fat. Scoop out 1/2 cup broth and reserve it.
2. Using your hands or a knife, remove the skin and bones from the chicken and cut or shred the meat into thin, julienne shreds. Add the chicken shreds to the skimmed broth. In a small bowl mix the reserved chicken broth with the miso paste and stir until smooth.
3. Add the tofu slices and snow peas to the soup and bring it to a boil. Reduce the heat, add the miso mixture, and stir to blend. Heat the soup until near boiling; then ladle it into serving bowls. Sprinkle the top of each bowl with some minced scallion greens and serve.
Stir-Fried Wild Mushrooms with Snap Peas in Oyster Sauce
Cooking Time: 30 minutes
Snap peas, snow peas, and snow pea greens have similar tonic qualities: Chinese doctors feel not only that they are rich in iron and vitamins, but also that they promote urination and counteract the effects of ulcers.
Shiitake mushrooms are especially effective in bolstering the immune system, while oyster mushrooms are credited with inhibiting tumors.
I love the flavor and textural contrast of meaty mushrooms and crisp snap peas, particularly when drenched in a sumptuous oyster sauce. If snap peas are unavailable, use snow peas and decrease the cooking time briefly.
1/2 pound shiitake mushrooms, stems trimmed and lightly rinsed
1/2 pound oyster mushrooms, stems trimmed and lightly rinsed (if unavailable, substitute shiitake mushrooms)
1/2 pound cremini mushrooms, stems trimmed and lightly rinsed
2 1/2 teaspoons canola or corn oil
1 pound snap peas, ends snapped and veiny strings removed, rinsed and drained
1 tablespoon minced garlic
2 tablespoons rice wine or sake
1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
Oyster Sauce (mixed together)
3 1/2 tablespoons good-quality oyster sauce
1 1/2 tablespoons rice wine or sake
1 1/4 teaspoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
1/2 cup chicken broth or water
1 teaspoon cornstarch
1. With a sharp knife, cut all the mushrooms into quarters, depending on the size.
2. Prepare the Seasonings and set by the stove.
3. Heat a wok or heavy skillet until very hot, add 1 teaspoon of the oil and heat until hot. Add the snap peas, minced garlic, rice wine or sake, and salt, and toss lightly over high heat about 1 ½ minutes, until the peas are just tender (snow peas will take slightly less time). Remove from the pan and arrange the peas around the outside of a serving plate.
4. Reheat the pan and the remaining 1 ½ teaspoons oil until very hot. Add the Seasonings and stir-fry about 10 seconds, until fragrant. Add the mushrooms and toss lightly with a spatula over high heat about 1 minute. Add the premixed Oyster Sauce and toss lightly to thicken it, stirring constantly to prevent lumps. Scoop the mushrooms and sauce into the circle inside the snow peas. Serve immediately.
From the Hardcover edition.