Ginger, Clove, Cinnamon and Cardamom

Spices and Chinese Herbs!

Happy Chinese New Year everyone! Now that the Solstice is here we can all look forward to longer days again. Sorry about the long lag between blog entries. Things have been wonderful, yet busy here in Tacoma.

During this cold, winter season most of us regularly consume lots of Chinese (and Western) herbs in the form of spices. I thought that it would be fun to share those spices and their properties. It gives you something to think about the next time you take a sip of that spiced cider or a bite of pumpkin pie. The great thing about these spices is that they are wonderfully warming and help stave off the winter cold.

Ginger (Sheng Jiang)

This is probably one of the most commonly used Chinese herbs. Often it is added to Chinese herbal formulas to help aid digestion. It is a great herb to make a tea out of when you feel like you are fighting a cold where one of the predominate symptoms is achy muscles and/or chills. It is also good at helping treat nausea (like morning sickness) or seafood poisoning. I always wonder if that is how the tradition started of serving pickled ginger with sushi. Yum!

Clove (Ding Xiang)

Cloves help warm the digestion and can help with symptoms such as hiccups. It can also help tonify kidney yang. Kidney yang helps warm the entire body and when you are Kidney yang deficient, often you will notice symptoms such as a tendency to feel cold both in the core of your body and extremities as well as a sore back and weak knees. This warming herb is especially appropriate in the winter when many of us are already bundled up to stave off the wind and rain.

Cinnamon (Rou Gui, Gui Zhi)

There are two kinds of cinnamon used in the Chinese Materia Medica. The first is cinnamon twig. These are the small branches of the cinnamon tree and they are most commonly used to treat colds with a predominance of muscles aches and chills. Cinnamon twig is also a wonderful herb for helping treat pain conditions when used in combination with other herbs. It can help increase circulation to help with reduction of pain and the healing process.

The second kind of cinnamon is the larger bark and what we are more familiar with seeing in its ground form in our spice cupboard. It is great at warming the body internally and is considered a primary to tonify Kidney yang. It is able to address a variety of conditions including back pain, dizziness, lung conditions, lack of libido and impotence.

Cardamom (Bai Dou Kou)

Just like ginger, cardamom is another digestive aid. It helps move and regulate qi in Chinese herbal formulas with a main focus on the stomach. Like ginger it can help with nausea and morning sickness. Cardamom is warming and dissolves dampness. Often dampness is a symptom of poor digestion, an inability to efficiently harvest energy from food. Examples of this can include abdominal fullness, distention, nausea and poor appetite. Studies have show that cardamom is associated with an increase in the secretion of gastric acid in the stomach and decreased vomiting (Chen 373)

Nutmeg (Rou Dou Kou)

Another wonderful digestive herb with a focus on indigestion as a result of Spleen and Kidney yang deficiency. These symptoms include poor appetite, abdominal distention and occasionally vomiting. In some cases, symptoms also include loose stools early in the morning. Like cardamom this herb can also help regulate qi and improve digestion. It is primarily indicated by the indigestion being caused by cold. This is indicated by symptoms and a sensation of cold reported by the patient.

All of these herbs are warming and wonderful for our cold, winter days. Because in Western cooking they are used in small amounts and in Chinese Herbal medicine they are traditionally combined with other herbs in a formula, it is important to keep this in mind and not to overindulge. For example, having a a teaspoon of cinnamon on your oatmeal is great, but a three tablespoons every day could really overdo it (and taste terrible)! I think that simply learning the attributes of these spices makes us think of our traditional winter foods in a different way. Food is medicine! Exciting!

If you want any more information about Chinese Herbs, I highly recommend John and Tina Chen's Chinese Medical Herbology and Pharmacology.

Chen, John and Chen, Tina. Chinese Medical Herbology and Pharmacology. Art of Medicine Press: 2004, City of Industry, CA.