Cooking with the Spices of Life

PROVIDENCE, RI—More and more Americans are beginning to appreciate the medicinal properties of foods, intentionally adding ginger, garlic, or tofu to meals as an easy way to improve their health. Daphne Rota and Lisa Lipson have taken that concept further by exploring the culinary potential of a host of Chinese medicinal herbs.

The two met at the New England School of Acupuncture outside Boston, where Ms. Lipson managed the herbal pharmacy and Ms. Rota, a trained chef who specializes in whole foods and vegan cooking, was managing the school’s health clinic.

“I pointed out tasty herbs, and we talked about all the dishes that could be created from them. That’s how our collaboration started,” Ms. Lipson recalled. Inspired by the possibilities, Ms. Rota started a cooking class for students at the school. The two presented their approach in a special 4-hour cooking demonstration at the Oriental Medicine 2000 conference, sponsored by Four Gates Communications, American Specialty Health Networks, and the New England School of Acupuncture.

“The recipes we developed were gourmet dishes—not everyday meals—that were exciting and that anyone would eat. The dishes are not traditionally Chinese; instead, they’re things we would cook at home using these herbs,” said Ms. Rota, currently a chef for Whole Foods Market and manager of the Sert Gallery Cafe at Harvard University’s Fogg Art Museum.

Oriental medicine has used herbs for health for thousands of years, applying the concept of the five elements—wood, fire, earth, metal, and water—to characterize everything from physical symptoms to emotions. The five corresponding tastes are sour, bitter, sweet, pungent, and salty, and the corresponding seasons are spring, summer, late summer, autumn, and winter.

In prescribing herbs, practitioners take into account the desired healing objective, the nature and action of the herb, and the effects the seasons have on one’s body. Rota and Lipson apply the same principles to their recipes.

For example, Ms. Lipson explained, “Autumn is a time when we look inward and prepare for the months ahead.” In the five-element system, autumn is associated with the lungs, and congestion and colds pose a problem.

“The acrid, pungent herbs associated with autumn can move things through your system, clear up mucus, and keep the body in harmony,” said Ms. Lipson, who maintains a private practice in acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine in Cambridge, MA. “There’s also a lot of dryness in the fall, so we’ll also use herbs that moisten the lungs, like seaweed and pears.”

Chinese medicine offers many examples of the age-old recommendation to “let your food be your medicine.” Reflecting on the cooking style she and her partner have developed, Ms. Lipson said, “I like the fact that these herbs are beneficial in food rather than just as prescriptions. This is a more accessible use of herbs.”

During the conference, Rota and Lipson prepared a full meal for all the participants consisting of Chinese herb broth, dandelion and chicory salad with ginger-cilantro dressing, blackened tofu, sushi rice salad, and poached pears (see accompanying recipe). As an added treat, they brought anise-fennel cookies they had made earlier.

Some of the ingredients used by the pair can be found at grocery stores, particularly in specialty stores such as Whole Foods (which includes Fresh Fields and Bread and Circus); others may only be available at Asian markets.

Rota and Lipson suggest experimenting with using various herbs in cooking for overall good health. “When it comes to cooking and eating, there are no absolutes. Lots of foods have complex flavors, and, like people, they are not always simply one element—they’re generally a mixture.”

To Learn More:

Rota and Lipson recommend several books for cooking with Chinese herbs: Healing with Whole Foods: Oriental Traditions and Modern Nutrition by Paul Pitchford (North Atlantic Books), Prince Wen Hui’s Cook: Chinese Dietary Theory by Bob Flaws and Honora Wolfe (Paradigm Publications), and A Spoonful of Ginger: Irresistible Health-Giving Recipes from Asian Kitchens by Nina Simonds (Knopf).

For those who want detailed information on the principles of Chinese herbs, they recommend Chinese Herbal Medicine: Materia Medica by Dan Bensky and Andrew Gamble (Eastland Press) and Energetics of Western Herbs, volumes I and II, by Peter Holmes (Snow Lotus Press).

Crane Herb Company ( has an extensive catalog of books on Chinese medicine and dietary approaches to health, including most of the above titles. The books are also available on

Poached Pears
© 1999, Daphne Rota

4 Bosc pears, sliced in half lengthwise, core removed
Juice of 2 oranges (about 1/2 cup)
(can substitute equal amount of apple juice
or mixture of maple syrup and water)
1/4 cup dried citrus peel
2 tablespoons red dates
1 tablespoon cloves
3/4 cup maple syrup
1 tablespoon vanilla
Juice of 1/2 lemon (about 2 tablespoons)

Mix all ingredients except pears in a large saucepan and bring to a boil. Add the pears and reduce the heat to medium so the liquid simmers. Cover and cook for 20–30 minutes or until pears are soft when pricked with a fork.

Using a slotted spoon, remove the pears from the pan and place on a serving dish. Increase heat to high and stir the remaining poaching liquid constantly, reducing it to a thick glaze.

Remove the pan from heat. Pour the glaze through a strainer over the pears. Discard the remaining herbs or use them as garnish (they are edible). Serve warm or at room temperature. Yields 8 servings. (For variation, top the pears with a chocolate sauce made from high-quality cocoa powder mixed with maple syrup and perhaps some liqueur.)

Healing Properties of the Ingredients

Clove (Ding Xiang): Acrid, warm—good for abdominal pain, diarrhea, impotence, vaginal discharge.

Pears: Sweet, cool—moistens dryness, for example, in the lungs.

Red dates (Da Zao): Sweet, neutral, warm—good for weakness, shortness of breath, loose stools, anxiety, irritability.

Tangerine peel (Chen Pi): Acrid, bitter, warm—good for bloating, nausea, belching, vomiting.

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