Mud Forest Brew: The Miracle of Traditional Chinese Medicinal Tea


A few years ago, I was in a writing group called Merry Muses with two close friends while we lived near the sea in Venice Beach. One night, alongside our bowls of fruit and chunks of dark chocolate that accompanied our reading materials, our hostess served a special “ladies tea” she had bought earlier that morning from an herbalist at a spa in Santa Monica. Reading through the list of ingredients on the tea was impressive—there were at least 15 items in the mix. The brew was a golden brown with caramel overtones and came wrapped in white linen paper smelling of cucumber essence. This was all fine and dandy but deep down inside I knew the herbalists of Santa Monica serving the new trend of herbal blends customized to each unique human were a watered down version of the truth.

The truth as I knew it was an older, spry man with a wizened face named William Woo Yiu Fai who sat at a small table in the bowels of Chinatown. His table was cluttered high with papers next to a wall lined with sticky notes. He sat there in the middle of Fuk Yin Tong Herbal Trading Centre day in and out, while his wife manned the store counter, giving his $15 consultations to anyone who walked in complaining of a certain ill. After spending two years battling severe ups and downs with my hormones surrounding my menstrual cycle and feeling weakened in the adrenals from a foodie’s roster of weekly cocktails and a strenuous hiking schedule, I finally ventured in to meet him.

I handed over my $15 bucks and told him my woes. I was tired. I was seeking energy. I was getting older and having my womanly chi suddenly alternate between rage and lethargy on a whim. I didn’t want a fancy woman to hand me a cotton robe and an Indian flute soundtrack and a bag of weak chamomile and exotic sounding mellow dried fruits. I wanted medicine and could he help me?

It took him ten minutes to look at my tongue, stare into my eyes, review my ears and sit silently listening to my pulse. He then told me that I shouldn’t eat the spicy Indian and Thai foods that I love because my nature is too hot. I should drink water at room temperature as to stop “shocking” my digestive system which is more like a tepid miso soup than a cold vichyssoise or a boiling stew. He said it was time to ask my medical insurance company for my first colonic because my tubes could use a flushing. He said the rest of me was healthy but 42 years of ingestion (and some of those years including cigarettes and other not so great ingredients) had taken its toll so I needed a reboot. He said my menstrual woes and random headaches were connected but he could push a reset button in me with a special tonic tea if I followed his instructions properly. While I sat in a dark back room with my feet in a bucket of water for a $10 ionic detox treatment that helped my body go back to a more alkaline state, William’s wife carefully measured and poured six $25 bags of herbs, roots, barks, dried mushrooms, powders and other ingredients of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) for a 6-day regimen. The bags weighed five pounds each—no dainty envelopes here.


For the next 6 days I followed William’s instructions to pour an entire bag of ingredients into a 4 quart-dutch oven and cover the lot with water. I then boiled the pot followed by a low simmer for 1-2 hours as the liquid condensed into only one cup. I then drank the cup. An interesting phenomenon occurred. On the first day the brew was unbearable; it tasted and looked like bitter mud from an ancient forest. But as the days went by and my body started to assimilate the ingredients, the taste magically went away. By day six, I was drinking in slow measured sips rather than chaotic, gulping gags. I found that so interesting, that the fluid had entered my cells with its nourishment in such a way that my body now fully welcomed it.

In one week I felt brand new. My sluggishness was gone. My need for a 2 p.m. nap had dissipated and I was upping my daily yoga to an hour and a half without a problem. Of course I don’t have x-rays or a hefty insurance bill to showcase the changes that took place in my liver or kidneys but the way that I feel is assurance enough for me, even now two weeks later when the effects are still lasting and real. I even went through a menstrual cycle which was surprisingly mellow and didn’t deter me, as is usual, from walking miles up an overly steep hill.

When I was leaving the store that day with my bags of tea, I asked William when I should come back for a follow up appointment. He told me whenever I was feeling bad again. I was reminded that Chinese herbalists and practitioners of TCM pride themselves on not getting paid when a client is sick, but being paid to keep a client well. Following those instructions for wellness were now all on me.

Soul Warming Saffron Kheer

IMG_9537Growing up my American girl breakfasts consisted of two things. Either pour a box of sugary, other worldly colored cereal into a bowl with 2% milk (my parent’s attempt at being healthier) or have a classic scrambled eggs, bacon, toast and butter plate. I don’t remember either giving me the same sense of satisfaction or fortification that I find today through my preferred morning meals made from years’ worth of dabbling in the Asian and East Indian cultures.

It all started for me while reading Jumpa Lahiri’s prize-winning novel Interpreter of Maladies in my early thirties. I was enamored by her descriptions of the everyday breakfasts of rice and nurturing spices or mid morning snacks of puffed rice with chilies and turmeric. I went on to study traditional Chinese herbalism and discovered the Asian culture’s penchant for  jooks and congees (rice porridges) full of savory bits of vegetables and meat or sweet chunks of dried fruits, beans and nuts. Breakfast seemed so much more meaningful when viewed not as a sugar rush to warp speed the day, nor as a lumberjack worthy carb and fat overload, but something hearty to fill the engine with goodness for endurance, brain power and belly warmth.

I experiment often with recipes that combine all the cultures I admire in this vein but of late, my favorite morning starter has been a simple and convenient Indian Kheer. The dish is basically a rice pudding spiked with nourishing goodies and can be played around with in content but I have been elevating mine most recently by using oatmeal instead and adding precious saffron threads brought home to me directly from India by a dear friend. Saffron does something soothing to the soul, and usually ends up in my favorite risotto, but of late has been making its appearance in this morning bowl, instantly boosting my mood for the day.



½ cup quick oats
1½ cups almond milk
½ teaspoon ground cardamom
¼ cup dark raisins
Pinch of saffron
2 teaspoons of honey
1 tablespoon chopped almonds

1. Add the oats and almond milk to a small saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat.
2. Lower to medium-low and stir in the cardamom, raisins and saffron. Cook for 5 minutes.
3. Drizzle with honey and top with chopped almonds.

Makes one big bowlful.


Absent Mother Sacral Stew

IMG_7602 Good things take time. This is a concept that is often lost in this Internet age where large doses of information get put out into the ethers daily and people are expressing themselves in ten second tweets and status updates rather than considering poetry or taking time to craft meaty sentences and mind their words.  I have been working on a novel for two years now and have found myself feeling guilty that it is not yet done when I think of the mass amounts of do-it-yourself-ers out there publishing at breakneck speeds. But then when I actually read the amount of stuff that’s being put out there in the guise of literature these days, I am proud to be one of those old fashioned writers who is taking my time to concoct a well written tale. My only problem is that I have been stuck for five months because I am at a point in my tale that is serious and psychologically deep and hits a chord close to home for me so I have been experiencing major resistance in putting pen to paper (or finger to keyboard). I decided to join National Novel Writing Month this November to pump up my juices and also, to gain the benefits of having a writing buddy.

I am so glad I did. I find that in my otherwise hermit existence, whenever I open myself up to connection with another human being who is interested in the same things I am and who is living their life in a way similar to mine, I actually benefit from mysterious riches that could not have been foretold otherwise. For NaNoWriMo, I put out a call for a writing buddy who would write every day with me and with whom I could share daily emails rich with inspirational quotes, mutual cheerleading and general support as we committed to writing our 1,500 words a day for thirty days. Cyndy answered, a woman I had met at a mutual friend’s art gallery in the desert five years ago, but had only known through her Facebook posts (enough to admire her fantastic abstract artwork) since.

In that mystical and synchronistic way of the universe, these past seven days have not only produced glorious amounts of words for both of our books but in our morning emails to each other we’ve encountered an emerging friendship built on unknown commonalities like our deep respect for herbs and roots and traditional Chinese food and medicine wisdoms, our paths as independent female artists and an unlocking of stories that have been buried deep within that have been dying to be told. Neither of us has gone a day without weeping open various pockets that have been closed shut for years; cleansing old wounds; and uncovering that our own resistance in writing the stories we wanted to write had led us here to this point where we are both ready now to open and share.

Yesterday, after my sixth cry on this journey while listening to Beethoven in my darkened office, and in homage to the love of sacred food Cyndy and I share, and because both of our hearts were particularly hurting, I decided to concoct a sacral chakra stew for the both of us. It became Absent Mother Stew, an earthy, grounding dish for those with hurting hearts who need the energy of mother to comfort them and ease their pain. For those without nurturing mothers, or those who never had a real mother, or those who are just missing their mothers who are not around, this stew is for you!

Recipe © Kimberly Nichols (aka Unorthodox Foodie)
Serves one

1 dry jujube date (found at Chinese markets)
1/2 c. dried mung beans that have been soaked overnight (by the time they have soaked overnight they will have bulked up to about 1 to 1-1/2 cup)
2 small carrots, peeled and sliced into coins
1 one inch piece of turmeric root, peeled and sliced into coins
1/8 cup chopped walnuts
1 tablespoon of butternut seeds (Sunflower or pumpkin seeds may be substituted.)

Bring the mung beans and jujube date to boil in three cups of water and then simmer uncovered for 1-1/2 hours. Then add the carrots, turmeric, walnuts and simmer another 15-20 minutes. Then put in a bowl and salt to your liking and sprinkle the seeds on top.