Bone Marrow Soup, Part 2: Winter
In cold weather its natural to crave warm food. And the alchemical transformation of solids into liquids, of vegetables and meats or bones into soup, is a way of liberating the essence of these foodstuff into a substance that is much closer to blood, which is the destiny of all food, than foods as solids themselves. That is why when you are sick in China, India, or even Europe and the USA when I was a kid, your mom gave you easily digested liquids and solids like tea and dry toast, or chicken soup, or simply rice water soup (congee in India, or Shi-fan or Jook, in China and Korea). When you are sick your digestion is impaired. You often lose your appetite. Starve a fever feed a cold, but even with a cold if you are a meat eater and in touch with your body you much prefer chicken soup to barbecued chicken.
So eating food in its liquid form sends the nutrition easily into the blood, and in Chinese medicine and Ayurveda blood is fire and its fire that keeps us warm and alive. We are warm blooded. Lose too much blood, your temp drops, you go into shock, and if untreated you die. When they rescue people from shock the first thing they do is cover them.
And blood is essentially liquid essence, or liquid jing. Remember, Jing is stored energy. Red blood cells originate in our bone marrow, which is as deep as it gets. We speak of pith and marrow as metaphors in English for depth. “I feel it in my bones” is an even deeper level of intuition than having a “gut feeling.” So drinking food as soup is like drinking blood, but in a good way. And its appropriate to the winter season, because we drink soup warm and because this is the time of year to nourish essence with heavy things, whereas in Summer we nourish essence with bright colored fresh things like berries, cherries, melons, and salads. This is the yin and yang of essence nourishment. Bland starchy foods like rice nourish the qi; sugars give you energy, which is Qi. Over time if you nourish Qi well you nourish essence.
But deep richly colored foods, from raspberries to red meat nourish essence more directly. We call them “jing tonics.” Plant parts that store energy, like nutmeats and roots, are also jing tonics, as are slippery slimy things that live at the sea bottom, like oysters, mussels, clams, and sea urchins. Not surprisingly, these foods are also high in minerals. But foods which are heavy are harder to digest, foods that are concentrated and heavy all the more so. So while raspberries are easy enough to digest when ripe and sweet, a little bit of deep sea food and nutmeats goes a long way. That is why its nice to eat these foods with either cooked vegetables, or cooked grain, or both, for example as sushi, or in the case of nuts, ground into powder and put on the top of oatmeal, or pureed into butternut squash soup.
Winter is the season that corresponds to “storage” in Chinese Medicine. It is the season of long dark nights and short cold days, the season when plants and trees have sent their energy deep into their roots and bulbs, the time of year when its best to go to sleep early and rise from bed late, not fighting with nature to warm you body up before the sun has warmed the land, it is the season to get more rest, the time when fishermen mended their nets and when all the indoor work that prepared to Spring planting was done, it is the time of year when our own body’s Qi is circulating through the deepest layers of our being, into the Kidney Qi, which is the root of the Qi of all the other organs, is closely associate with Jing, and which governs our bones and hair, the reproductive system, and growth and development in general. People with inherited strong Kidney Qi are lucky; they will be naturally fearless and physically strong, Pitta/Kapha or Kapha/Pitta in Ayurveda, they make good warriors and good bakers.
In Classical Chinese Medicine of the Nei Jing five element theory, we always begin to strengthen ahead of time, so we build Lung Qi in Late Summer, in anticipation of the Metal element ruled Autumn, and in Late Autumn we build the Kidney Qi in anticipation of Water ruled Winter. You see this in agriculture, too. Latue Autumn, called “blood month” in medieval Europe, because it was the time that pigs were slaughtered and their flesh salted as meet to provide protein and fat over the long winter, is also the best time of year to apply compost to the vegetable garden and the base of fruit trees, because it is over the long Winter that the nutritive essence of the compost sinks in deep into the roots to be stored in the soil and roots to provide nourishment for the burst of growth that will occur, God-willing, in Spring.
This is why Late Autumn, and Winter are great times to extract the nutritive essences of bones and plants, which provides our body’s with the most easily digestible minerals and proteins. And the bones of animals and the roots of plants are the most concentrated essence of their being, they are the parts of those animals and plants associated with their Kidney Qi, so when you extract that essence into a delicious hot liquid, you are directly nourishing your own Kidney Qi in a concentrated way, because their is no fiber to deal with. It is the exact corollary to why fruit juice is not good for you; because you have the concentrated sugar of the fruit, without the fiber that slows its assimilation into the blood. But in the case of marrow soup, its a desirable factor that you have an essence of a plant enter the blood stream without interference by fiber.
Let you medicine taste like food, but don’t make your food taste like medicine. One of the genius factors of Chinese Medicine is the way in which herbal medicines in the “tonic” category, what are called “rasayanas” in Ayurveda, medicines that promote health, wellness, and longevity, are prepared as foods. Chinese medicine and culture look at medicines and foods as constituent parts of a long continuum, from at one end, the extremely bitter, hard on the gut, heat clearing attacking herbs used for infections and fevers, to on the other side simple rice, or boiled meat, or fruit. Even milk, which is not a regular part of the Chinese diet is in the Ben Cao, the ancient pharmacopeia of Chinese Herbal Medicine, and described as a tonic for the weak. Also, the nomadic peoples of the west, ruled by what is now called China, were milk drinkers. And at the center of this Aristotelian style description and classification of all the things we put in our mouths and swallow are the tonic herbs, that you can see sold in Chinatown in shops that sell both food and herbs. Here you will find plant food herbs like Lycii berry/Goji, Red Date/Da Zao, Ginseng/RenShen, Astragulus/HuangQi, LilyBulb/BaiHe, as well as animal food “herbs” like dried Sea Cucumber, Dried Scallop, even dried Sea Horse. Even the humble Ginger root/ShengJiang, used in stir-fries, soups, currys and porridges, from Sri Lanka to Korea, is listed in our herbal formularies in hundreds of prescriptions, and often for the very same reason it is used in foods; to stimulate digestive fire in order to digest well the other ingredients, whether broccoli or bai shao/peony alba.