Instructions for cooking Chinese herbs
Chinese herbs come in many forms, raw herbs that are cooked into a decoction, powders that can be taken with water or other liquids, pills, tinctures, as well as ointments and creams. The modern era added another form which are granulated herbs.
Herbs in traditional Chinese culture are considered food and some consider the highest form of herbal medicine to be lifestyle dietary modification rather than separately prescribing medicinals. In fact many Chinese herbs are used in cooking like ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, barley, etc., and some common herbs are now making it into our Western cuisines, such as gou ji berries, lotus seeds, and astragalus. However, there are times when we need strong medicine, to push the body towards change in a strong way. That is when I prescribe herbs.
I tend to prescribe what we term decoctions (“raw herbs” which are in fact dried out) because this is the best way for the herbs to be absorbed – they are consumed in warm liquid form (soup is the literal translation of decoction, 湯 Tang, in Chinese).
Unlike the use of Western herbs which are often taken as one herb, Chinese herbs are very rarely prescribed singly, and almost always in combinations, allowing herbs to interact, enhance and modify each other. Western herbs are often taken as an infusion (steeped in hot water), while Chinese herbs are generally cooked into a “soup.” However, the word Tang (湯) while generally meaning soup, basically means water heated up, thus infusions can considered a Tang also. Because infusions are weaker both in taste and in effect (and Chinese herbs really do taste quite bitter), they are used mostly for maintenance, long-term use, and often with few herbs (or even single herb), while I prescribe decoctions for a short period (2-3 weeks) in order to invite a strong change.
Generally each bag of herbs can be cooked 3 times by covering the herbs with 3 cups of water and boiling and then simmering the herbs for 30-45 minutes so that about 1 cup of fluid is left. Strain the liquid and keep it. Cover the herbs again with water, bring to a boil, simmer, strain the liquid, and repeat once more. The end result will be 3 cups of herbal “soup” (one cup from each boiling) which can be mixed all together or kept separately (especially if cooked at different times). After the third cooking, the herb dredges can be discarded (they are good compost).
People ask if the can just cook the herbs with 9 cups of water, for a longer period, and extract 3 cups. The answer is no as this produces a very dilute decoction. Cooking the herbs a second time allows for more active ingredients to be extracted.
Keep the herbal decoction refrigerated until you drink it. Shake the container, so that the sediment is evenly mixed, pour yourself a cup, bring it to an almost boil, and let it cool down. The herbs are most effective warm, and they taste less bitter the hotter they are.
Here are some more details:
1. Use only a clay or glass pot with a cover. If that is not possible, you can use stainless steel.
2. Take the herbs out of the bag/package, place them in a pot, flatten them, and cover with water so that they are covered with about half an inch (to 1 inch) of water above the herbs.
3. Before the first boiling, let the herbs soak in the water for 20 minutes as it is best to not boil the herbs until they have soaked some water.
4. Use a cover in the same manner you would cook rice, with a slight opening for steam to escape.
5. Bring the herbs to a boil and then simmer for the following amount of time:
45 minutes for tonifying herbs
30 minutes for regulating herbs
20 minutes for exterior releasing formulas (i.e., colds and flus)
in this case start with only two cups of water
6. The simmer should be such that you get about 1 cup of liquid extracted at the end of the cooking time. If you get a lot more than a cup, your simmer was done on too low a flame, if you get too little, you will want to reduce the flame. Adjust the flame/temperature on the second and third boilings accordingly.
The herbs are an “invitation to change.” From an alchemical perspective they are not supposed to taste good. Chinese herbs generally taste bitter, even when they are classified as “sweet.” The puckering one experiences is considered part of the process: we generally resist change, and the puckering is the body’s response (as if it wants to stay in its current state).
Do not dilute the herbs, do not add honey. Honey and sugar change the therapeutic properties of the decoction. You can have some crackers or some raisins next to you and eat one or two every few gulps. Remember that it is easier to take the herbs warmer and in big gulps. Brush your teeth after drinking herbs to release the taste and to avoid staining.
It is best to take herbs about 30 minutes away from food.
Do not take herbs for at least 90 minutes prior to going to bed.
Instructions taken from: http://acupuncturemedical.org/cooking-chinese-herbs/