Tag Archives: immunity

Congee Takes Away the Chill of Winter

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In my first year of medical school, I had a delightful roommate who was of Vietnamese descent, born in China, and raised in her family’s restaurant in San Jose, California.  Lucky for me, she was a wealth of food knowledge and was happy to share.  From her, I learned about sticky rice steamed in banana leaf, hot pot, geoduck, how to efficiently dispatch a live crab in the kitchen sink, and the magic of congee.

During the winter, the body craves warming foods that provide optimal, easy to assimilate nutrition.  In Chinese medicine, there is a concept called “digestive fire”, which roughly equates to your body’s ability to break down food and absorb it properly.  The bigger the fire, the better you can digest.  I like the metaphor of fire because it seems to parallel how our bodies generally are able to digest:  in the summer when the weather is warm, we can break down much more complex foods and do better with raw fruits and vegetables.  In the winter, we lack that external heat source and so we must apply heat to our foods to assist our digestive fire. Congee is the ultimate digestive assistant.

So what is congee?  Well, more than a specific recipe, congee is more of a concept.  The basic rule of making congee is you take a pulse (most often rice, but millet, wheat, barley, sorghum, mung beans, or other grains or legumes can be used), add a high proportion of water, and cook it for a long time over low heat.  Congee is a traditional food all over Asia, India, and even Portugal, and has historically been viewed as a medicinal food in all of these cultures.  Depending on taste preference, regional specialty, and the specific medicinal quality desired, other foods, herbs, and spices are added.  It can be served for any meal, and depending on your preference can be served sweet or savory.  Many Indian congees are served with milk and jaggery (palm sugar) but many Asian congees contain meats, pickled vegetables, ginger, eggs or crispy fried onions. (for more information, Wikipedia gives a great description of traditional congees across the world).

In my practice, I often recommend making congee as a winter food to bolster nutrition.  However, it is an especially good food for people who are recovering from extended illness or have significant digestive problems.  For patients who seem to “get sick no matter what I eat”, congee is a great place to start.  In people who are needing the simplest, easiest nutrition possible, white rice congee is appropriate. If your digestion is rather intact, brown rice should be fine.

In his book Healing with Whole Foods Paul Pitchford talks about many foods that can be added to congee to boost its healing properties.  A few of the most useful options I’ve found are: Using chicken or mutton broth instead of water is recommended for wasting illnesses and injuries, and duck or fish broth are supposed to relieve swelling. Ginger is warming to the organs and improves digestive function.  Fennel and black pepper also assist in reducing gas and improve digestion. Brown rice is good for nursing mothers and general nutrition, while sweet rice is more specific for recovering from digestive illnesses.

Chicken and Ginger Congee
Use bone-in chicken for this recipe.  The skin, bones, and connective tissue are rich in hyaluronic acid, chondroitin, and other building blocks of a healthy digestive tract and properly functioning immune system.

1 cup rice
2-inch piece of fresh ginger root, sliced thinly
1 chicken cut into parts
1 onion or 2 shallots, thinly sliced
6 cups water
1 tsp salt
soy sauce, sesame oil, and cilantro for serving

8-10 hours before eating, place rice, ginger, chicken, onion, and water into a large soup pot on low heat or ideally a slow cooker on low. When you come back 8-10 hours later, you should have a thick porridge.  Remove chicken parts from the porridge.  Remove the skin, then remove the meat from the bones and shred.  Skim the top of the porridge if necessary.  Ladle porridge into bowls and top with shredded chicken.  Garnish with soy sauce, sesame oil, and cilantro to taste.

An Apple a Day?

In honor of the birth of each of my girls we planted an apple tree.  My older daughter, who will be 4 this week, has a braeburn and my 2 ½ year old a macintosh.  Due to a combination of an incredibly good growing season for fruit and since these trees have finally spent a few years in the ground and have established themselves, we have our very first apple harvest this year.  Hooray!  I know that there are many folks out there who have old apple trees in their yard that produce beautiful apples every year without a moment of attention, and I cringe as I walk by the yards where those apples fall to the ground and go to waste.  In our yard, however, we have a steep pitch and difficult soil, so these trees have been tended lovingly and consistently for 3 or 4 seasons now.  If we can beat the magpies, earwigs, moths and squirrels to it, we plan on enjoying every bite.

My husband harvested the macintosh tree yesterday, and due to our friends mentioned above, we ended up with about half perfect and half slightly munched apples.  The intact apples went into cold storage for eating in the weeks to come.  The imperfects go bad quickly so I had to come up with a plan for about 45 apples by this morning, and I decided upon apple butter.  With apples in particular I love having fresh and cooked options as they are both so delicious and beneficial in their own ways..

Apples are a wonderful food to support the body as we transition from summer into autumn.  They are somewhat cooling in nature which is nice in these still warm days, but are supportive to the systems that work the hardest during this time of year.  One of the primary issues I see emerging during September is many colds start to pop up, especially in school aged kids.  The combination of added stress and close proximity means everyone tends to end up with the sniffles.  In Chinese medicine, fresh apples have historically been used to moisten and cool hot, inflamed lungs. Apple peels have also been shown to be high in antioxidants which helps the body recover from stress and generally support the immune system.

Another thing I see manifesting at the beginning of the school year is digestive issues in kids.  New schedules and stress seem to really affect those with a natural tendency towards constipation.  Apples are particularly high in a type of soluble fiber called pectin.  Pectins are able to bulk and soften the stool and allow it to pass more easily.  Baking apples helps to release those pectins and makes the apples more warming and supportive to digestive function.  1-2 baked apples per day depending on the size of the apple (and the person eating them) is one of the best and least invasive ways to relieve constipation.  On another note, pectins are also helpful for decreasing cholesterol levels and stabilizing blood sugar.

After 8 hours of peeling, chopping, cooking, pureeing, and reducing, I am thrilled to finally be putting my apple butter in jars.  It will be a wonderful reminder of these bright fall days in the colder months to come.  For now, though, enjoy the apples straight from the tree or bake them into a warm treat for breakfast or dessert; they are fantastic now when they are fresh and so good for you. Put one on your teacher’s desk, and save one for yourself!

Sunchokes, Immunity, and the mysterious Inulin

Sunchokes are a delicious member of the daisy family, which includes many of the superstars of the botanical world: dandelion, burdock, artichoke, arnica, echinacea, chicory, and elecampane to name a few. Something all of these plants have in common is that their roots contain a compound called inulin. Inulin is a polysaccharide that acts as a type of soluble fiber. Fibers do not get broken down by our normal digestive process in the small intestine, so it remains intact as it is either absorbed or sent to the large intestine.

When inulin arrives in the large intestine, it can function in a manner similar to other prebiotics such as fructooligosaccharides. It serves as food to the healthy bacteria living in the digestive tract and thereby can help to grow and develop a healthy balance of flora. The large intestine is our largest immune organ: 70% of the immune tissue of the body resides here. Healthy flora help to protect this immune tissue, boost our natural defenses against infection, and prevent inappropriate inflammation in the digestive tract and throughout the body.

The problem with eating foods high in inulin is directly related to its benefits. When those happy bacteria consume it and grow, they create waste products in the form of gases such as carbon dioxide and methane. This can cause gas, bloating and general discomfort in the belly for some people. Processed foods that contain isolated inulin (which also can be called chicory on a label) do seem to cause problems for many people, so check your labels. That said, many traditional diets have contained high levels of inulin-containing foods and it is well tolerated by many people. Whole foods, such as sunchokes, can cause fewer gassy issues for people so it may be worth the experiment to give your flora a healthy snack!