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Herbal Soup Recipes: A Brief Overview

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“Let food be thy medicine, and let medicine be thy food.” ~Hippocrates

Fast forward about 1600 years from Hippocrates' time in a land miles away, The Treatise on the Spleen and Stomach by Pi Wei Lun was written to discuss the important functions of the stomach and spleen and how what we eat could affect our whole body through the stomach.

An over generalized explanation of how food can play a role in medicine is that when an organ is deficient in body fluid or energy, certain herbs can be selected and cooked and eaten as a soup to replenish those deficiencies. Herbs are selected for their flavor or nature to carry out a certain resultant action. For example, in some Asian countries, women commonly cook a Si Wu Tang (Four Substance Decoction) soup to replenish the body, specifically blood. Men too can consume herbal soups such as Si Jun Zi Tang herbal soup which can build energy. Prepackaged Si Jun Zi Tang packets, Panax ginseng, or Ren shen, is commonly replaced with Dang shen. Then you have Ba Zhen Tang which is a combination of both formulas. So now you have a formula that can build blood and energy, or qi.

Si Wu Tang

Si Wu Tang individual herbs

Si Wu Tang, when translated, literally means "Four Five Decotion". It was named so because the formula has been made with four to five herbal ingredients. It has come to be known as Four Substances Decoction or Four Objects or Things Decoction. Although, its name sounds common, it can be used alone or as a base for additional herbs or formulas to nourish. It is comprised of four herbal ingredients. A description of each herb follows:

Shu Di Huang (processed Rehmannia Root, Radix Rehmanniae Preparata, flavor: sweet, temperature: slightly warm): Shu Di Huang is processed Sheng Di Huang. Processed, Shu Di is a very strong blood tonifier. It should be taken with caution in those with phlegm and qi blockage or stagnation.

Bai Shao (White Peony Root, Radix Paeoniae Alba, flavors: bitter and sour, temperature: mildly cold): Bai shao is seen is many herbal formulas. Channels it enters are the liver and spleen. It tonifies blood and astringes. There are some cases when they should be avoided such as diarrhea due to cold patterns or when the yang, or heat element in the body, is deficient.

Dang Gui (Chinese Angelica Root, Radix Angelicae Sinensis, flavors: sweet and spicy, temperature: warm):Dang gui tonifies blood and can be found in many formulas like Bai shao. Since Si Wu Tang is a formula that builds blood, it would be a surprise to not see this herb in the formula. However, it is important to note cautions associated with Dang gui. Caution, when taking this herb, is noted in those who are pregnant. Dang gui can also create an herb-drug interaction with Warfarin.

Chuan Xiong (Cnidium, Rhizoma Chuanxiong, flavor: spicy, temperature: warm): Chuan xiong is said to invigorate the blood and enters the liver, gallbladder and pericardium meridians. Being warm, it can activate blood and promote the movement of blocked qi to allevate pain. A note on Chuan xiong is that in excess can lead to side effects and, more importantly, is contraindicated in those with a lot of heat signs, those who are pregnant and those with profuse menses. Added to this, an herb-drug interaction to cause prlong bleeding when taken with Warfarin. There are herb-herb interactions associated with Chuan xiong as well.

These combined herbal ingredients can be used as a soup base and, if possible, should be organic in nature. Many Asian shops and online stores sell this prepackaged with clear instructions. A web search will reveal countless recipes where instructions are provided. If instructions do not say, a small piece of ginger should be added to balance or harmonize out the formula.

When adding ginger to soups, start with a small amount around two inches by half an inch. An added note to keep in mind is that ginger is generally safe in dietary proportions but should be avoided in high amounts for those with bleeding disorders due to heat signs. Organic ginger has a stronger flavor. So, although used in the same amount, it's warming nature and properties could be too strong for those with heat symptoms mentioned. So a two inch by half an inch ginger slice can be a good starting point to determine how much should be added to the soup. Adding ginger is optional in some cases. Ginger is mainly added when the herbs and ingredients are known to be too cold in nature.

When chosing the meat to add, it is chosen based on temperature. Pork is relatively cooling. Chickens are relatively neutral and there are many types. However, when compared with ducks, chickens may be more on the warmer side. Ducks are more cooling in nature as mentioned. Based on western analysis, ducks are more alkaline. Historically, they were also more eaten in the west. But due to their cold nature, it would pair better with a formula that may be more warming in nature. It is not commonly seen paired with Si Wu Tang. Although, it probably could be. Beef is warmer in nature. Like duck, its temperature analysis is used when chosing the right formula to cook with. This applies to all meat in general. Thus, meats are selected for their temperature when paired with an herbal formula for soup preparations.

Traditionally used to build blood, these combined four herbs tonify. Si Wu Tang is considered a woman friendly formula. However, due to its herbal category, it is often found modified or found in various formulas. Depending on how it's modified to cool or nourish, men and women alike could benefit from it. Those with anemia may be prescribed Si Wu Tang in granule form, where water is added, or bulk herb packs, to prepare in decoction form. Other forms may also be available. A licensed practitioner can provide an herbal prescription for Si Wu Tang when used as an herbal supplement and not used for cooking soups. Here are some basic instructions for preparing this tonifying herbal soup:


  • Meat of choice (pork, chicken)
  • Prepackaged Si Wu Tang
  • Ginger (optional)
  • 1.5 Liters (4.2 cups) Water

  • Soup Preparation:

    1. Meat: Choose a meat of choice (pork, chicken). Blanch to clean and remove scum. Set aside.

    2. Clean: Clean herbs to remove any debri or dirt if there are any. Set aside.

    3. Water: For an average herbal weight of each herb of around 41 grams, add 1.5 Liters or around 4.2 cups, of clean, filtered water.

    4. Pot: Chose a pot that can hold the meat, herb and water without overflowing.

    5. Combine the meat, herb and water.

    6. Cook until boiled. Then lower the temperature to medium or low and simmer for about one to one and a half hours.

    7. Turn off the stove, serve and enjoy.

    Herbal soups, in general, are all prepared in a similar way.

    Damp Dispelling Herbal Soup

    In TCM, the spleen prefers to be dry while the stomach likes to remain moist. Being paired as an earth element, one could affect the other. When too much spicy, greasy or fried food is consumed in excess, dampness arises in the spleen. Eating in a rush, eating under stress or eating while worrying too affects the stomach's ability to function properly. Since the stomach is responsible for transforming and ripening to transfer it's clear fluids to the spleen while filtering out turbid fluids to be eliminated, what is eaten and how it's eaten plays a vital role in how the stomach functions. Added to this, a humid environment could lead to damp accumulations in the body.

    In cases of obesity, a spleen pathology or pattern of symptoms are always pointed out. With the spleen, in TCM, it's linked to qi and yang. Yang can be interpretted as heat while qi is the invisible energy that typically flows and moves. When lacking, people may have a weak voice or when spleen qi goes in the wrong direction, diarrhea or nausea and vomitting could arise. Although many formulas are available for both diarrhea or nausea and vomitting, the first formula that comes to mind is Bao He Wan (Preserve Harmony Pill). Bao He wan can be used in cases when we see stomach fullness, abdominal distension, acid regurgitation, sour taste in the mouth, dislike of certain food, both constipation and diarrhea, low appetite and of course nausea and vomitting. It's a formula that can reduce food accumulation and transform stagnation. What this then points to is a potential for food stagnation in the middle jiao or stomach region.

    So in a nutshell, when food isn't transformed properly due to inadequate qi and yang, you'll see people who eat little, yet still gain weight. Spleen qi deficiency alone or spleen qi deficiency with dampness commonly affects how the body functions when responding to food based on the spleen's state. Although, many patterns associated with the spleen are present, each pattern will present differently. When we say pattern(s), we're referring to symptoms. How it affects weight can be interpretted as the spleen not having enough energy or, like a car, fuel, to process food. The opposite then should apply with those who eat a lot yet never gain weight and feel great.

    So when the stomach's functions have been affected by internal and external factors such as emotions, over eating, overwork and stressers, blockages results. Blockages can be assessed by temperature. The stomach's ability to transfer clear fluids to the spleen, for further processing along the pathway that creates qi after birth, becomes less efficient. As the process is disrupted, a domino effect ultimately results. The spleen starts to become damp and cause qi deficiency and no longer in the dry state it wants to be in to function in an optimal way.

    Qi deficiency ultimately causes symptoms of lethargy and tireness. This is where some herbs that can drain this dampness can come in handy. They can be included in an herbal tea prescription and added to a Chinese herbal formula. We can also explore a list of herbs, that are considered food and safe for long term consumption.

    The combination of heat and dampnesss can cause various symptoms mentioned. The following list of herbs is from the Chinese Dispel-Dampness Herbal Soup recipe. They are good at dispelling dampness and useful during the summers.

    Chinese Dispel-Dampness Herbal Soups: The Perfect Summer Remedy

  • Yi Yi Ren Coix Seeds (Job's Tears)
  • Mu Mian Hua (Bombax ceiba L)
  • Fu Ling - Poria Mushroom
  • Deng Xin Cao
  • Bi Xie
  • Bai Bian Dou
  • He Ye (Lotus Leaf)
  • Shan Yao (Chinese Yam)
  • Chi Xiao Dou (Adzuki Beans)
  • To read a description of each herb listed above, click on the title of this recipe.

    It is noteworthy to mention about Coix seeds because it is commonly added in herbal formulas for obesity or high cholesterol. Coix seeds have a sweet and bland flavor and is also known as Job's Tears, or Yi Yi Ren. It's flavor brings forth damp draining properties, promote urination and are considered safe for daily consumption. Being gentle, they are often included in some herbal teas packaged for making soups, but keep in mind that there are contraindications in those who are pregnant, have hemorrhoids or are already frequently urinating. Therefore, it is important to choose the right herbal soup with discretion.

    Generally speaking, when the herbal teas are cooked as a soup, the combination of flavors are delicious and, with moderation, safe for consumption. For those who are vegetarian or vegan, you should be able to leave out anything not vegetarian or vegan.

    Times of the day and food

    We briefly explored one aspect of qi transformation and the relationship of just two organs. Twelve organs have designated times listed in specific order of two hour intervals starting at 3:00 AM in the morning.

    This is believed to be our body's natural rhythm or cycle of yin and yang where the energy of the stomach channel is said to be strongest between 7:00 AM to 9:00 AM. Please note that one organ in eastern medicine has no recognized comparison in western medicine, the triple burner or triple energizer. However, some experts in TCM or eastern medicine believe this to be the fascial system. So if you were to make an organ comparison, the fascia is not document as an organ yet.

    Let's revert our focus back to the stomach channel. Food selected should always be organic if possible. Because the stomach channel is said to function at its optimum between seven and nine in the morning, it is believed that it is best to eat very rich and nourishing food, like meats, between these times. Light meals with a salad and vegetables are recommended during noon and the evenings and let's not forget to squeeze in some herbal soup. However, this diet structure is difficult to follow so it is only mentioned for informational purposes only. Our current way of life is different compared to the past which includes air conditioning and availability of fresh and organic food.

    So, in brief, food in TCM are recommended based on the Yin-Yang Cycle. This cycle can go quite in depth. A summarized explanation can be stated as follows. The Yin-Yang Cycle describes seasons of the year, days of the week, hours of the day, organs, and the list goes on.

    Yin can be interpretted as the visible material while yang is the element that exists but can't be seen. Oxygen is a prime example of yang while the ocean, mountains, trees and anything visible is yin. These terms are then used to describe anatomical locations from the body's exterior to the interior.

    To understand the basic concept of eastern medicine, understanding the meaning of "yin" and "yang" is a first step to the great expanse. But for the purpose of this post, the stomach channel's energy is strongest between seven and nine in the morning. Since the spleen falls into the next two hour time slots, what happens during the stomach hours could directly affect the spleen's functions.


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    Kamwo, H. (2023, June 2). Chinese dispel-dampness herbal soups: The perfect summer remedy. KAMWO.,ability%20to%20regulate%20water%20metabolism.

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    Nugent-Head, J. (2014). Returning Our Focus to the Flavour and Nature of Herbs. Journal of Chinese Medicine, 105. 30-36.

    Pitchford, P. (2002). Healing with whole foods: Asian traditions and Modern Nutrition. North Atlantic Books.

    Scheid, V., Bensky, D., ELLIS, A., & Barolet, R. (2015). Chinese herbal medicine: Formulas & strategies (portable 2nd edition) (2nd ed.). Eastland Press Inc.

    Scott, J., Monda, L., & Heuertz, J. (2014). Clinical guide to commonly used Chinese herbal formulas. Herbal Medicine Press.

    Today's date: 05/07/2024

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