As the days shorten, plants send their energy to their roots and go to seed, while deciduous trees shed their leaves. We cozy up in warmer clothes, stack firewood, and start storing up our food and energy reserves for the winter. In autumn, we transition from the more active yang seasons of spring and summer into the more restful yin seasons of autumn and winter. We too send our energies underground, sleeping and eating more, and moving and doing less. In autumn, we bundle, store, and prepare for the more fallow winter season ahead, when the world rests.
Soup is perfect for welcoming autumn! Enjoy warm nourishing soups medicinally loaded with a hearty Chinese herbal base. Slow-cook over the stovetop or in a crockpot with your favorite proteins and veggies. Here are some of my favorite Chinese medicinals to enrich nourishing stews.
Astragalus root (Astragalus membranaceus, Fabaceae. 黃芪 Huang qi)
Astragalus is included in traditional Chinese medicine formulas to tonify the Qi and Blood, boost energy, strengthen immunity*, and nourish internal resilience to withstand unwanted environmental factors. Throw 6-12 astragalus root slices into your stews, allowing them to simmer and decoct for at least 30 minutes. Remove astragalus before serving, and enjoy the slightly sweet, gently warming, and lightly moistening broth with a dash of fresh ginger, some mushroom slices, and your protein of choice.
Native to China, Mongolia, and North Korea, astragalus grows in grassy environments and mountainsides with abundant sun exposure and dry sandy soil with good drainage. Astragalus is an herbaceous perennial, growing between 25 and 40 centimeters in height, with small yellow pea-family flowers that bees and other pollinators adore. When grown for cultivation, the plants are traditionally harvested after four or five years, with the roots collected in spring or fall. The roots are dried in the sun and then sliced for distribution. The slices are light yellow with a firm, fibrous texture.
If you’re already ill or are taking immunosuppressant medications, then check with your healthcare practitioner first before working with astragalus.
Shiitake mushrooms (Lentinula edodes, Marasmiaceae. 香菇 Xiang gu)
With its delicate umami flavor, meat-like texture, and malleability, shiitake is a staple in our vegan Taiwanese-American household. Alongside ginger, soy sauce, and sesame oil, we stir-fry, soup, sauce, and enjoy shiitake in a variety of ways. Keep a jar of easily accessible dried shiitake in your kitchen cabinet. Rehydrate for 10 minutes, then either slice thinly for stir-fries or add whole into soups. Fresh shiitake is delicious too and is available at some groceries, or as a joyous addition to forest-style gardens.
A balancing and nourishing adaptogen, shiitake is native to warm and moist parts of Southeast Asia, growing in clumps on the decaying wood of deciduous trees. Shiitake has a dark cap that dries into black, and an earthy aroma. Rich in vitamins, polysaccharides, and protein, shiitakes are delicious thinly sliced in miso soup, cooked at length in nourishing broths, and tossed into stir-fries.
Ginger rhizome (Zingiber officinale, Zingiberaceae. 生薑 Sheng jiang)
Ginger rhizome also lives on our kitchen counter, a subtle star in most Taiwanese and Chinese culinary dishes. Throw large ginger slices into cooking and remove before serving, or finely chop and grate ginger into stir-fries for small bursts of flavor. Fresh ginger is available in most grocery stores but dried or powdered ginger is convenient to keep on hand.
Acrid, warming, and drying, ginger is a digestive and circulatory stimulant commonly included in most traditional Chinese medicine formulas. Ginger ranges in warming formulas; it may be the “king herb” or, more commonly, an “envoy” or supporting herb. Dried ginger is gan jiang 乾薑 in Chinese medicine (the dried, older winter rhizome). Fresh ginger is shen jiang 生薑 (the fresh, young, and tender rhizome). Fresh ginger is considered warmer and more moistening, whereas dried ginger is hotter and more drying.
Ginger is a tropical, aromatic, perennial herb that is most likely native to tropical Asia but has been cultivated for so long that the exact origin is unclear. A zesty and warming spice, ginger root has been used to flavor culinary dishes and beverages for millennia, with the first recorded uses found in ancient Sanskrit and Chinese texts. It has also been utilized in Greek, Roman, Arabic, and Unani Tibb traditional medicine practices and is now a widely known herb in most parts of the world.
Goji berries (Lycium barbarum, Solanaceae. 枸紀子 Gou qi zi)
A small handful of goji berries (also called lycii berries) add a bit of sweet nourishment into soups, alongside astragalus and Jujube dates (Ziziphus jujuba, Rhamnaceae. 大棗 da zao). Tossed in at the end of stir-fries, goji berries can add a little sweet kick, color burst, and nutrient boost.
Lycium barbarum is a deciduous, woody tree with simple leaves and spines, prickles, or thorns. A common species of the genus Lycium that is found in lowland areas across Asia, goji berries are also known as lycii berries, or wolfberries, with some interchangeable species.
Goji berries are a bright red, chewy berry with a lightly sweet taste, neutral energetics, and a slightly moistening quality. In Chinese medicine, they enrich Yin, nourish Blood, and mildly tonify Yang. Enjoy raw, steeped as tea, or incorporated into culinary recipes such as trail mix or nourishing autumn stews.
If you’re sensitive to nightshade family (Solanaceae) plants or are already sick, then do not consume goji berries unless you consult with your healthcare practitioner prior to use.
Dong quai root (Angelica sinensis, Apiaceae. 當歸 Dang gui)
Dong quai has a very specific flavor. “Too medicinal,” says my husband, making a face. So, I usually enjoy dong quai based soups solo. I love dong quai’s sweet, acrid, and warm flavors. In Chinese medicine, dong quai tonifies and gently invigorates the Blood, lightly moistening dryness, nourishing deficiency, and moving stagnation. Dong quai is often employed in Chinese herbal formulas to support female reproductive health.
Dong quai soup is famously blended with chicken, ginger, goji berries, shiitake mushrooms, jujube dates, soy sauce, and sesame oil for a nourishing and supportive Taiwanese postpartum soup. Substitute tofu or another protein for the chicken. For a basic stew, add 3-10 dried slices and decoct with your stew for at least 30 minutes. Remove roots before serving.
A small perennial, dong quai grows up to three feet in height. It is native to high-altitude regions of China and Japan, growing best in cold, damp areas. It produces small clusters of white flowers and is extensively cultivated for its roots, which are harvested in autumn.
Do not use dong quai during pregnancy or with blood-thinning medications, unless supervised by a qualified healthcare practitioner.
Kombu seaweed (Saccharina latissima, Laminariaceae. 昆布 Kun bu)
Growing up, Ma kept long strands of thick kombu under her table, alongside big metal popcorn tins filled with beans, rice, and other dry essentials. Easy to keep and easy to cook, kombu welcomes a slightly salty and oceanic flavor and energy to otherwise common meals. Cook with daikon, mushrooms, carrots, cabbage, potatoes, other hearty vegetables, and your favorite proteins. Lightly wash kombu with cool water, cutting or breaking it into thumb-sized pieces that will fit nicely into a pot. Soak for five minutes, then add close to the end of cooking your stew.
Salty and cold, kombu “softens areas of hardness” by mobilizing fluid metabolism*. There are more elaborate preparations, but cutting and tossing kombu into soups is easy and delicious. Kombu also makes a delicious soup stock, soaked in either cold or hot water for at least one hour, then strained.
Kombu is a brown seaweed found in sheltered rocky seabeds in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Ecologically, kombu is an important part of the coastal food web, providing food and habitat for sea animals. This edible kelp is widely savored in eastern Asia and is one of the main ingredients in dashi, a Japanese soup stock. Kombu is extensively cultivated on ropes in the seas of Japan and Korea.
If you have fish or shellfish allergies, then do not consume kombu. Consult with a qualified healthcare practitioner before using herbal products, particularly if you are pregnant, nursing, or taking medications.
Add ginger rhizome, shiitake mushrooms, goji berries, dong quai root, astragalus root, and kombu seaweed into your autumn and winter stews. Hold a warm bowl of stew in your hands, watch the steam, and savor the flavors. Welcome nourishment and allow yourself to slow down into the darker seasons, savoring simplicity. Enjoy!
- Bensky, Dan. Chinese Herbal Medicine: Formulas & Strategies. Seattle, Wash.: Eastland Press, 1990.
- Easley, Thomas, and Horne, Steven. The Modern Herbal Dispensatory. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 2016.
Want to learn more about Traditional Chinese Medicine for the fall?
You may also enjoy:
- Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) for Winter Wellness
- Vegan Tom Kha Recipe With Mushrooms
- Homemade Vegan Pho Recipe
*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. For educational purposes only.