There was a period of time growing up when, after my father suffered an injury, our home was engulfed in the smells of gnarled roots, fungi, and other unidentifiable solids simmering for hours on the stove. The mixture was prescribed by a doctor of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) who presumably informed my parents about what it entailed. But to me, Asian herbalism was as opaque as the thick, black liquid that was strained from that decoction.
Fast-forward to this fall, when I’m expecting my first child and two books are being published about how ancient wisdom from Asian cultures can be incorporated into everyday eating and living routines. Both were written (in English) by Asian American women, each with a warm personal narrative about their own rediscovery of the nourishing traditions of their cultural heritage. But having grown up stateside, they’re both tweaking those traditions according to their modern, Asian American tastes, taking what they’ve found to be most helpful and accessible to them and leaving behind what’s not.
“People don’t always think that herbalism is for them,” says Erin Masako Wilkins, the author of Asian American Herbalism: Traditional and Modern Healing Practices for Everyday Wellness. “But we all know that food connects us — so much of my book comes down to showing how food is medicine.”
Published last month, Masako Wilkins’s book is a hefty tome that covers a lot of ground: herbalism basics, traditional Chinese medicine theory, energetic healing principles like qi and yin and yang, and recipes for everyday ailments like the cold and flu, as well as for skin, sleep, and digestive issues.
Masako Wilkins is an herbalist and acupuncturist based in Petaluma, California. While studying acupuncture in graduate school, she says, she realized that the same umeboshi that she grew up watching her grandmother wrap in rice balls was considered a medicinal herb in textbooks. It was an aha moment that led Masako Wilkins to better connect her Asian American upbringing with her practice, and to ultimately craft her own healing recipes. “I use a lot of chrysanthemum, goji berries, mint, and ginger,” she says. “Things that can be found in the grocery store.”
These recipes include a “No-Sweat” tea made with dried or fresh sage, jujubes (dried red dates), and slices of woody astragalus root that can curb daytime sweating, a sign of qi deficiency; a fresh mulberry sweet tea with cinnamon and honey, to help constipation brought on by yin deficiency; and a honey-loquat cough syrup that’s modeled off of the ubiquitous Chinese cough syrup Nin Jiom Pei Pa Koa (it’s like the Robitussin of China), only without any artificial ingredients.
There’s even a recipe for a floral black tea latte, which calls for oat or dairy milk; Masako Wilkins admits that both dairy and iced drinks are taboo in traditional Chinese medicine, yet they’ve become an indispensable part of modern culture throughout Asia today. So there’s a “balancing act” for modern-day herbalists, she says, to honor tradition while enjoying the foods they love.
“A cup of herbal tea, a soup, a comforting bath, and a healing massage are all examples of folk traditions that are shared across many cultures,” Masako Wilkins writes, inviting readers to incorporate whatever they find comforting from their own backgrounds into their wellness practices.
As for my third-trimester pregnancy, she cautions me to avoid cinnamon and tulsi, and, for lactation support, to try an herbal tea blend she calls Moon Child. Made with red raspberry leaf, nettle, mulberries, and oat straw, it’s included in Masako Wilkins’s book and sold through her online store, Herb Folk.
Ordering bulk dried herbs to concoct infusions might not be everyone’s cup of tea (a perfect pun?), but I easily find the ingredients for Moon Child from online sources like Frontier Co-op, Monterey Bay Herb Company, and Amazon. Ultimately, I decide to get the premixed blend from Herb Folk, although it would be a considerable bargain to buy separate herbs to mix myself. When it arrives, the brew is mildly sweet and comforting; while I can’t attest to its effects on lactation yet, it makes a great nightcap.
One quintessential Eastern medicine postpartum remedy that I already know about is drinking chicken stock, and lots of it. Of course, many — most? — cultures around the world would agree that chicken stock is beneficial for just about any ailment. Its inclusion in Sophia Nguyen Eng’s The Nourishing Asian Kitchen: Nutrient-Dense Recipes for Health & Healing, published this month, speaks to its universality, and how Nguyen Eng has woven tradition with her own tastes and experiences to create her own approach to herbalism and healing.
A chapter on bone broths appears at the very beginning of her book, underscoring how foundational they are to Nguyen Eng’s cooking philosophy: As the daughter of refugees from Vietnam, Nguyen Eng recalls that her family didn’t have a lot of money, but her resourceful mother always made sure to prepare nourishing soups from animal bones and kitchen scraps. “Now as a parent myself trying my best to balance work and home life, I have discovered how beneficial it is to keep bone broth ready so that preparing nutritious meals becomes easy even amidst chaos,” she writes.
Nguyen Eng notes that you can augment your chicken soup with ingredients well-known in traditional Chinese medicine practices, like goji berries, dried shiitake mushrooms, or astragalus root. But the key to enhancing the soup’s immune system-boosting power is extracting the maximum nutrients from both the chicken meat and connective tissues, which creates a brew rich in collagen and minerals like calcium, magnesium and potassium.
That’s why Nguyen Eng’s recipe for gelatinous chicken bone broth (súp gà) calls for a whole pasture-raised chicken as well as extra chicken feet for additional collagen. It also includes tasty aromatics that cut across cultures: lemongrass, ginger, cilantro, scallions, red onion, carrot, and celery. There’s even a step that involves first soaking the chicken in water and a couple tablespoons of vinegar; acidic ingredients like wine and vinegar, Nguyen Eng writes, can help extract essential nutrients from the bones.
Nguyen Eng gleaned this latter bit of wisdom not from Asian medicine, but from Sally Fallon Morell, the author of Nourishing Traditions, a 1995 cookbook based on the research of Weston A. Price, who studied traditional diets around the world. Nguyen Eng says that the principles behind these works boil down (so to speak) to “eating the way that our ancestors ate, meaning no processed food and cooking from scratch.” She also credits Morell and Price as a major inspiration. ”I’m basically doing a sister book to Nourishing Traditions, only instead of sauerkraut I’m talking about kimchi,” she says. (It should be noted that Morell approves: She penned the foreword to Nguyen Eng’s book.)
Nguyen Eng’s interest in home cooking began 12 years ago, when, as the parent of a newborn daughter, she saw that many books called for organic ingredients to use for baby food. Although her Asian American family members would roll their eyes at “organic” food as too precious, she began to wonder whether the adults shouldn’t be eating organic, too. At the time, Nguyen Eng had a successful career in Silicon Valley growth marketing, but decided to apply her skills in “optimization” to the human body and diet. As she devoured books, she purged her kitchen of artificial ingredients and began cooking from scratch, a major transition at the time. “I used to think cooking from scratch meant popping open a jar of premade bulgogi sauce,” she recalls.
When the pandemic hit in 2020, Nguyen Eng and her husband bought three egg-laying hens to ensure a source of protein and began farming their quarter-acre land in the Bay Area. Last year, when her family relocated to a farm in Tennessee, Nguyen Eng left her job to devote herself to homesteading, raising livestock, growing vegetables, and foraging for seasonal foods like stinging nettle and fiddlehead ferns (great for banchan, she says).
She developed all the recipes in The Nourishing Asian Kitchen with her mother. They include classic Vietnamese dishes as well as favorites from around Asia, sans processed ingredients like supermarket hoisin sauce. Alongside Vietnamese grilled pork meatballs, Sichuan lamb stir-fry, and teppanyaki with egg and vegetables, there are lots of recipes for from-scratch sauces (such as hoisin sauce and gochujang) and pickles like daikon kimchi. There’s also a hefty chapter on offal meats, including the pork liver pate that gave Nguyen Eng “stinky lunchbox” shame when she was growing up, but which she now recognizes as incredibly nutrient-dense.
“How do you make nước chấm with maple syrup? Or panela?” Nguyen Eng recalls of the challenges she and her mother faced when retooling their recipes to be as wholesome as possible.
While my own mother would often simmer a pot of pork bone broth for soups on the weekend, we weren’t above scooping a few teaspoons of chicken bouillon powder from a can to make a quick and easy egg-drop soup on the fly. But now, with a baby to come in a few days, I’ll be freezing some gelatinous chicken bone broth from Nguyen Eng’s book to keep handy postpartum.
Both Nguyen Eng and Masako Wilkins stress that it’s not about being perfect, or following practices to a T. Rather, their brands of Asian American health and healing wisdom come down to finding a balance with our traditions, picking and choosing what works well for us and not sacrificing health for the cost of convenience.
“This is really what sets Asian American herbalism apart for me,” Masako Wilkins says. “I want to honor the medicine and not tear it down in any way, but it really goes back to the everyday things that we make for ourselves in our kitchens and gardens.”
Cathy Erway is a James Beard Award-winning food writer and the author of The Food of Taiwan: Recipes From the Beautiful Island. She hosts the podcast Self Evident, exploring Asian America’s stories.