By Al Stone, L.Ac.
As is the case with many aspects of traditional Chinese medicine, there are many ways to get results. When it comes to the steeping of raw herbs for medicinal teas, there are many methods that all serve to draw out the therapeutic qualities from the herbs. The following represents a few of the possible methods for cooking your Chinese herbal formula.
This article should be secondary to the advice of your herbalist. He or she can likely answer your questions better than a page on the web since each patient has different needs. However, with the following information you will, at least, be able to ask appropriate questions.
The Kind of Container
The best container is ceramic. Glass is okay. It is important that your teapot has a lid. Materials to avoid include cast iron or metals. Chinese herbs can interact with these metals casing chemical reactions that can alter the therapeutic qualities of your herbs, or worse yet, have an unhealthy effect on whoever drinks the tea.
Stainless steel is better than the other metals. Teflon coatings are not as good as ceramic coatings.
In ancient times the source of the water used in the tea was an important issue. Some teas required water from a spring, others called for water collected during a rain. Nowadays, any drinking water is acceptable. The purity and cleanliness of the water you choose is a personal choice.
Soak the herbs. Place the herbs into the water. The water should cover the herbs by about an inch and a half. Let them sit for 15 minutes without turning on the heat beneath the teapot. Some sources suggest allowing the herbs to absorb the room-temperature water for one hour.
Bring water to a rolling boil. Then, turn down the fire to a low simmer.
Cook herbs for 20 to 30 minutes. There is a great deal of variation in the time necessary to cook herbs. It depends mostly on the kind of herbs you’re cooking. The average is 20 minutes. Diaphoretics are cooked for no more than 15 minutes. Aromatics only get steeped for 5 minutes. For tonic herbs, 40 to 50 minutes is appropriate. There is more on timing further on in this article.
Don’t lift up the lid, especially with aromatic herbs as the volatile oils can evaporate out of the mixture very easily.
Strain the tea
Drink it. If you find the taste disagreeable, then your tongue is working right. However, if you find the taste so unpalatable that you don’t drink it, then you need to do something to make it more drinkable. We suggest watering it down a bit. This helps a great deal. Also, it seems that after time, the body begins to crave a certain formula, especially one that is well suited. The taste will become more and more attractive. Some people add a little honey to sweeten it. This should only be done with the consent of your herbalist. Honey can adversely affect the therapeutic qualities of the formula and so it should only be added when appropriate.
Re-cook the same herbs a second time. During the first steeping, the temperature energetic comes out of the herb. This affects the patient mostly at the Qi level. It is more superficial, more Yang in nature.During the second steeping, the taste energetics come out of the herb. This affects the patient more on the Blood level. These energetics have more of an internal impact. The Yin is affected more. It would be a good idea to mix the tea from both batches for drinking.
Exceptions to the above rules
Herbs cooked for longer than 20 minutes. Some herbs are made from substances that require more time to leach out their therapeutic ingredients. Examples of these herbs are Bie Jia (Turtle Shell) and Ci Shi (Magnetite). These herbs need to be cooked 20 to 30 minutes longer. Simply place them in the water and steep for 20 to 30 minutes, then add the rest of the herbs and cook for another 20 minutes.
Herbs cooked for periods shorter than 20 minutes. Aromatic herbs are often used to relieve the patient of what we, in the West, call the “common cold” and stuffed nose. Examples of aromatic herbs include Bo He (Peppermint) and Mu Xiang. These herbs contain volatile oils that come out very quickly, and evaporate out of the decoction if steeped too long. Hence, they should be cooked only for the last five minutes.
If you cook your herb packets twice, be sure to add a fresh portion of your aromatics to the second batch of tea in the last five minutes to get the oils out again.
Sometimes, herbs are made of very small substances such that they will make your water kind of dirty if they are let loose into the decoction. A good analogy would be coffee grounds. They are too small to strain out, so an herb of that size would be steeped wrapped up in cheesecloth or a tied up coffee filter.
An example of this kind of herb would be Xin Yi Hua. The fine hairs on this flower come off and float around in the tea. When drunk, it is harmless, but very irritating to the back of the throat.
Expensive herbs such as fine Ginseng can be cooked separately for longer periods of time. This allows one to get the maximum amount of therapeutic effect from the herb without overcooking the other herbs in the formula.
Some herbs are not supposed to be steeped for 20 minutes. One would simply add such an herb to hot water and let it melt. A good example of this is E Jiao.
Soaked Herbs that are very aromatic or volatile can be decocted by placing them in hot water without cooking on the fire. Just boil some water, take it off the fire, and let the herb steep. Hong Hua is an example of an herb in this category.
Some herbs come in powdered form. With these herbs, you simply add the appropriate amount to hot water, stir, and drink. Some herbs that are especially expensive are powdered to make more efficient use of their properties with the minimum cost.
When to take your herbs?
Generally, as a rule, it is best to take your herb tea one hour before eating, on an empty stomach. This provides the best absorption of the ingredients of the herbs.
If the herbs cause a little stomach upset, drink the herb tea one hour after eating, or drink some fresh ginger juice before taking the formula, or eat some fresh ginger before the formula. Fresh ginger is the sweet little slices of root often served with sushi.
Tonification formulas are best taken on an empty stomach.
Shen calming formulas (for insomnia) are best taken two hours before sleeping. Formulas treating ailments above the diaphragm are best taken one hour after eating. The food in the stomach provides the energetics of the herbs a platform from which to rise up to the upper part of the body.
Formulas treating ailments below the diaphragm are best taken one hour before eating so the energetics can descend unimpeded by contents in the stomach.
Formulas for heat syndromes can be taken at room temperature or chilled. If drinking an herb tea at room temperature tastes bad, it should be consumed warm. It is more important to drink the tea than to add to its function by drinking it cold.
Formulas for cold syndromes can be taken warm or hot.
Mixing herbs with Western pharmaceuticals is not something we can comment on without knowing the specifics of what you’re taking and why. It is a personal choice. Generally, it never hurts to get everybody’s opinion including your M.D. and your herbalist to better decide which therapies to mix, and which not to mix.