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Dousing the flame: Eating smart during the dry days of spring -- 薄荷柠檬茶


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Early spring in Kunming is glorious. The cherry blossoms open in February; by the end of the month the peach blossoms are everywhere too. Soon the golden fields of rapeseed flowers turn the karst hills of the outskirts into a stepped yellow sea; the crabapple orchards start releasing their flowers when gusts of spring wind blows, covering nearby roads with a pink and white snowstorm. 



(Please click the photos to enlarge them.)




Now it’s mid-spring; Tomb Sweeping Festival 清明节 has passed. It hasn’t rained here since before the start of the month, today being Wednesday the 17th of April. This means it’s great for doing outside activities, riding my bike, walking in the park. But it also means the internal humors that TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) prattles on so much about are holding my metabolism for ransom. I’m told one ignores these factors at one’s peril. It’s real easy to get sick just now; it's a treacherous time. 风热感冒 in particular looms large on the horizon. 







Skin gets itchy and dry. That’s easy to see. Nose gets crusty inside; in every block of sidewalk when I’m on foot, I meet people with tissue rolled up and sticking out from one nostril or other in response to a nosebleed. Scratchy throat, slight hacking cough, nothing productive. What’s going on deep inside is not quite as obvious. TCM deals with imbalance between heat and cold, stagnation of Qi 气; all sorts of other oddities like wind in the thymus or spleen. Incomprehensible stuff.


Took me about ten years of living here to begin taking heed to this strange and very foreign business, based on principles that are at best difficult to grasp. Furthermore, these beliefs are not well proven by the western scientific method at whose alter I burned incense throughout a long working life. (Medical practice for 35 years; now retired.)


Chinese people, average garden-variety Chinese people, young and old, believe in the notion of food as medicine. Food as curative medicine, to take when you’re sick and trying to get better, and preventive medicine to take in order to stay healthy. You can talk about this subject with cab drivers, tailors, waitresses and cops; you can talk about it with the tousled guy who sells cigarettes and booze 烟酒 at that stall on the corner, or the the uniformed chap who lifts and lowers the gate at the parking lot in front of that newish mid-range hotel in the next block. What they tell you when queried may differ in certain details, often going back to what their mothers taught them when small, but every single person you talk to will have something to say; nobody will just draw a blank and look at you like you are nuts. 


I grew up in South Texas, the son of educated but working-class parents. My personal deck of early memories contains quite a few do’s and don’ts, but outside of “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” and an abiding belief in the restorative powers of chicken soup when fighting a cold, I really cannot remember much in the way of “food as medicine” hand-me-down lore or parental advice. 


Not to say that such advice is not to be had in the west. But I’d say it’s not exactly mainstream, at least not to the extent that it is here in China. I can remember reading paper-bound books as a teen, bought for a dollar, about the powers of apple cider vinegar or the amazing abilities of natural honey. What else? Not much. Hmm, that cannot be right. Wait, let me think harder. 


When my memory strays much beyond those narrow confines, I dredge up recollections of that middle-aged lady with the flowing gray hair and the tie-died dress at the health food store urging me to buy this or that expensive herbal supplement instead of just a quick, easy bottle of “One-A-Day” multivitamins. If you get to know her, it won’t be long before she wants to refer you to her iridologist to have your irises “read.” She may even give you a hot tip about that new “colonic therapist” who just started business out on the north edge of town. Not to say that what she has to offer is wrong; but it is mostly “fringe” stuff, not well-accepted or mainstream.


In China, however, by contrast, health maintenance advice based on eating right is completely mainstream. You don’t have to be a quasi-fanatical macrobiotic gluten-free vegan to have some degree of knowledge about what to eat and when in order to avoid various internal imbalances that most of us don’t even know about, let alone care about. 


I was in that last camp, not knowing and not caring, until very recently. I still don’t know much but have decided to at least start listening to the “folk wisdom” of some of my friends and neighbors about a few of the basics. My lady friend from the deep south of Honghe 红河州, my coach at the gym, who hails from Zhaotong 昭通, the smart young guy from whom I buy tea (from somewhere west of Dali, near Baoshan 宝山) the old lady who cleans my house once a week (native of Kunming back before so many streets were paved) and the man who parks cars at my apartment complex (originally from Chongqing) have all chewed my ear about this within the last few days.


They did it out of concern from someone they perceive as at risk by virtue of being clueless and foreign. Surprisingly, they all said the same thing, as though they had been raised and rehearsed by the same mother: The weather now is warm, dry and windy. In order not to get sick I need to drink more liquids, eat more vegetables, especially green leafy ones, plus consume lots of raw fruit. It's OK to have meat, but it needs to take a back seat to the plant-based items in my diet, at least for the time being. The Chinese internet is full of more specific advice on how to go about this, how to carry it out. I cannot give you a truly well-informed opinion about which bits of this doctrine are right and which bits are wrong. But I can give a few ways to implement the simplest, most basic of these ideas in case you live in similar climate and seasonal circumstances. 


Having finally reached the end of this long and perhaps controversial intro, today I would like to simply show you one easy way to begin at the beginning. Learn about a “cooling” beverage that you can whip up at home. It quells the internal fires of late spring. As a bonus, it tastes good.


You already know that Yunnan is in love with mint 薄荷 so it should come as no surprise to meet it again here. I've previously shown you how to prepare it as a soup and as a salad and as an ingredient in a stir fry. Today it stars in a beverage. 


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I bought this handful of fresh mint at the neighborhood wet market this morning for 1 Yuan. Not all the vendors will part with such a small amount. They tell me their margin is slim and they don't want to bother weighing and bagging such a tiny sale. In the grocery store down the street it is weighed out and pre-bundled in bunches that cost 2.5 Yuan each. Sometimes I must get more than I want, but generally find some way to use the remainder. 


Wash it and pick out any bruised stems or discolored leaves. I typically wash it in three changes of tap water in a large basin. If that runs clear, then I stop. If not, I wash it some more. 


Put a quart of water in a pot and set it over high heat so it will come to a boil without wasting too much time. When you see a healthy rolling boil, put in the mint, leaves, stems and all. Don't stir it. Just let the pot return to a boil and then shut off the flame. Leave the mint alone for the next hour. Turn your attention to the citrus. 


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Kunming has an abundance of these small limes 请柠檬。They are juicy and cheap whereas yellow lemons 黄柠檬 are expensive and often not very nice. The decision is easy: go with the green ones and don't look back. I squeeze five or six of them into a bowl. Then I cut the remains into quarters. Set them aside.


After about 30 minutes, the mint water in the pot begins taking on a rich emerald color. Add the juice and the rinds into the pot. The water will still be hot enough to extract all the flavor from the solids. Don't worry about the seeds; you will strain them out later. No need to boil it again. Let it stand undisturbed for another 30 minutes, making a total time in the pot of one hour.  If you put in the limes too early, oils come out of the peel that can make the resulting brew bitter.


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While the mint and limes are steeping 浸泡, get started brewing some tea 泡茶。I usually go for 红茶 red tea (called "black tea" in the west) but it's fine to use green tea if you prefer. Once or twice I've even used Pu'er tea 普洱茶。It's a matter of your personal taste preference. In fact, real tea leaves are not essential to this concoction at all. You can make it with just mint and lemon alone. Nevertheless, what I generally do is just put the tea in a bowl and ladle some hot water out of the pot. It's still got enough heat to work if you are generous with the leaf and let the tea steep for 5 or 10 minutes. I brew two or three bowls like this. pouring the liquid back into the pot each time. 


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Now strain the contents of the pot: mint and limes. Hand squeeze the small lime quarters to be sure you have gotten all their flavor. Sweeten the resulting tea after it's strained. I use wild honey from Simao 思茅 (the famous city in Yunnan which has currently been renamed as Pu'er City 普洱市。) A generous tablespoon of this per quart of brew is just right for me, but you could use more or less. If you don't have access to good natural honey, don't despair. I've seen recipes that use rock sugar 冰糖 instead, as well as ones which use granulated sugar 白砂糖。If using the latter, I think it works best to turn it into simple syrup first. Boil one part sugar with one part water until all the granules dissolve. This way you wind up with a drink that is equally sweet all through instead of having sugar settle out at the bottom of the pitcher or glass. 















Here's the end result. First pour on the left, second pour on the right. Notice that it gets a little cloudy as it stands. This might prevent the drink from ever achieving the top rung of fame at Starbucks, but I assure you it does not affect how it tastes in the slightest.


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It might be pushing my luck to try to tell you how to drink it. After all we are all consenting adults here. Nonetheless, I will say that Chinese traditionally don’t drink this beverage ice cold. It would be unusual to see a local person serve it in a tall glass over ice.


The old folks 老头 of my acquaintance will serve it and drink it 常温 chang wen, which means a cool room temperature, a few degrees below lukewarm. Bear in mind that China is the land of "beer off a shelf" instead of "beer out of the ice chest." You might have been surprised and even upset when you first ordered a “cold one” in a restaurant with a meal. Regretted ever getting onto the airplane. "Good heavens, I've wound up in a country that doesn't know beer is supposed to be cold." But by now I'm sure you are used to it even though it might have been a rocky transition. 


Personally, I store this drink in the fridge in a carafe and drink it from a glass, but without ice. That’s cool or liang , cold enough to be pleasant without shocking the system. It’s typical to sip it slow, not quaff it off all in two or three big gulps. That is supposed to be better for the digestion. But since you are most likely equipped with a western stomach instead of a Chinese version, I will leave that step completely to your discretion.


However you make it, however you drink it, this beverage is a winner, even apart from its medicinal qualities. Try it and see what you think. 薄荷柠檬茶。


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Thanks for the comprehensive write up.

Unfortunately I've never taken to anything with tea in it despite the many attempts.  Thought I would get accustomed to it as I am very open to trying new food and beverages.

So maybe I'll substitute the tea for a Russian vodka  ?

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17 minutes ago, DavyJonesLocker said:

So maybe I'll substitute the tea for a Russian vodka


Absolutely! Why not? I like vodka too sometimes. 


But if you want to try this early in the day, it's fine to just make it with lemon and mint. No need for the tea. 



For another day: Consider the magic of a well-crafted Mojito. Marriage of mint, lime and white rum. 

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Thank you once again for your efforts, another well written, easy to read and informative article.


On the note of food as medicine in the west, a few more come to mind, stewed prunes for constipation, and some of my friends swear by apple vinegar cider for sinusitis. Then there is fish - good for the brain and a good source of Omega -3 and cod liver oil for vitamin D.

Peppermint tea for indigestion, and a clove for toothache, boiled willow bark for aspirin.

I am sure there are more and come under the heading "Old wives tales". I am sure that before modern medicine in the west there were a lot more home cures, I know they don't follow the same methodology with it all being about the body's temperature and keeping it all in balance but it is a folklore based on foods as medicines or cures.

You would often go to see the local herbalist who would "prescribe" various concoctions. I think that one of the ingredients is the active agent but because its all tied up with myth and lore, the facts have been lost in the mists of time and this is just the way you do it.


I think both systems arose for the same reason, no other options, and hit and miss turned into tried and tested and became part of the repertoire.



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I understand what you mean @Shelley, but I'm not sure that east and west are the same in this matter. I think the difference is in large part a matter of degree. I hasten to add that I could be wrong because my impressions of both east and west are the result of my own personal experience and are not some sort of rigorous survey of a broad population. 


What I've noticed in the east after moving here and settling down is that the depth and breadth of knowledge of food as medicine 食疗 among ordinary folks exceeds what I found in the west. Back in the west anything beyond a handful of simple beliefs was mainly the province of "health nuts" or food faddists who had a special dedication to subject. Here, on the other hand, it seems to be the province of every "regular Joe" and "regular Jane." Here it seems to be part and parcel of just "growing up Chinese." 


What I'm talking about is not just Mom exhorting the kids to finish their broccoli or have a peach instead of a candy bar. It goes beyond learning about the "food pyramid" and trying to consume a balanced diet. It encompasses the specific treatment for several dozen TCM ailments that I didn't even know  existed until recently. 上火 would be one easy case in point. 


Special times in life seem to attract even more "food therapy" 食物疗法 attention here. One prominent example would be the nutritional beliefs surrounding pregnancy, childbirth and the postpartum period. Infancy and old age also have an astounding amount of "best practices" food lore attached to them. And the seasons of the year seem to be more often observed as driving decisions regarding what to cook up and put on the table. 


Not to say that the west is devoid of such wisdom and beliefs; I don't mean to overstate my position. These things just strike me as a more prominent part of everyday life here in China. 

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I agree with you, what I was talking about has, for the most part, disappeared in the the realms of Old wives tales and home remedies which have been superseded by western medicine.


I think I was just trying to say that it is possible for someone with some small knowledge of these things to understand and find it easier to accept the wisdom of the east in these matters.

I am not saying it is all correct and has a purpose but you can see how it can contribute to the health of the people when thats all they have as it was once here in the west with no western medicine to turn to.



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@abcdefg — you should be publishing these somewhere! 


I really appreciate you taking the time to go into such depth, and I particularly like the personal reflections and discussions you've added, so these posts are not just "recipes" or DIY instructions.



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