I got to thinking about Goji Berries in Chinese Herbal Medicine recently, when someone wrote in to ask whether Goji berries are best eaten raw or cooked? The following is my response to the following question sent in.
I received a box of dried fructus lycii, (goji berries)from a friend and on the back of the box it says ‘this product needs to clean and cook thoroughly before consumption. However, other google references to the berries say they can be eaten like raisins. Do these berries have to be clean(ed) and cooked?
Goji Berries in Chinese Herbal Medicine Are Often Cooked in Soup
Excellent question: it sounds like you bought some from a Chinese market or supplier? If so, yes, those ones definitely do, as they have been processed, stored, and packed in un-sanitary conditions. The storing of dried fruits like Goji berries in the past was very unhygienic, and, depending, can be so to this day.
Foodstuffs in storage are susceptible to mouse and rat feces, dust, people spitting, sneezing and coughing, so the Chinese were and are very keen to wash and cook such things so as to avoid food borne infectious disease. That is one of the reasons you don’t see European style salads in India or China. You eat raw things you can peel or scrub. So, for the Goji you ask about, protect yourself from food borne bacterial or viral infection and cook them.
Chinese medicine also considers raw food harder to digest, and dried fruits, having such intensely concentrated sugar are considered damp producing, so to get the full benefit of Goji they were cooked and the essence extracted into a very digestible liquid, either with other tonic herbs like Astragalus or Ginseng, or in soup, like Chicken Soup with Goji.
Tonic herbs like Goji were often cooked with easy to digest meat like Chicken and in soup in Chinese Medicine because when your digestive fires (Agni in Ayurveda) are stoked by the process of eating delicious aromatic cooked food like soup, your increased digestive enzymes help you break down the nutritious food like Goji.
But if you buy the Goji from Heaven Mountain (see link below) or at Whole Foods, or any reputable un-dyed, un-sulphured, organic brand, and if you have strong digestion, and don’t have a damp condition (e.g. dried fruit does not give you gas), then by all means eat a small handful a day raw, or bring them on a hike in your trail mix just like other dried fruit such as raisins.
Red Dye and Sulphur Dioxide in Goji Berry
A secondary issue in making sure you buy your Goji from a reputable supplier like Ron Teagarden’s Heaven Mountain brand, is that the cheaper Goji from China, such as you find in the Chinese herb store in Chinatown or the Chinese grocery like 99 Ranch Market here in San Diego, California, are typically dyed red with god knows which toxic dye.
Of course they are also treated with sulphur dioxide as a preservative, as are any dried fruit that is not known to be specifically “un-sulphured.” The quality of the Chinese herb story/grocery Goji is also typically lower to start with. So that is why I recommend Heaven Mountain, for example ( see below link).
Goji Berry in Chinese Herbal Medicine Theory
Goji Berries in Chinese Herbal Medicine are in the category of herbs that nourish and reenforce the Blood, Yin, and Jing. Blood and Yin are what happens to Qi and and Yang when they become material. Jing is how this material is stored for the future. Qi and Yang are a kind of energy, for example the difference between your voice or muscular strength when exhausted versus when well rested.
Yin and Blood, on the other hand comprise substance, are are found in our body fluids and structures, like the internal organs and bone marrow. As is typical in Yin-Yang theory, there is always Yang within Yin, because all structures in our body have metabolic processes that go on inside the structure, and metabolism, involving heat and movement, are Qi and Yang functions.
In any case, in Chinese Herbal Medicine theory when our Qi, Yang, Yin, and Blood and Jing/Essence become depleted through overwork, illness, loss of blood, excessive breast feeding and childbirthing, excessive ejaculation, drug use, mental health disorders involving mania especially, we can replenish it, to some degree, with Chinese tonic herbs.
Goji Berries Have Two Methods of Application
Goji Berries, like most tonic herbs, have two modes of application:
- With Other Herbs in Chinese Herbal Medicine Formulas that target specific constellations of symptoms, for example, dry eyes, weak night vision, and hair loss
- As general food medicine nourishment to promote health, wellness, longevity, and in the recovery from illness–here they are often cooked with nourishing flesh foods that are high in jing, or essence.
Cooked with other Herbs
Goji berries in Chinese Herbal Medicine (Go Ji Zi/Fructus Lycii) were traditionally used to nourish the blood and essence/jing, in conditions of weakness such as impotence and erectile dysfunction; for chronic low back or knee soreness; for the severe wasting and thirsting associated with diabetes and tuberculosis. They are an excellent food, combined with walnut and black sesame, for the kind of hair thinning associated with stress and menopause… For more complete info, see my earlier article
Goji also is considered to have an affinity for the eyes, so it is used for the kinds of visual impairment associated with migraines. It is also used in hot type digestive disorders like gastritis where there is dryness in the mouth, a bitter taste, and acid reflux.
Goji berries for treating specific diseases are combined with other herbs cooked in herbal teas–in fact the word for such a tea in Chinese–Tang–does not connote tea at all to a Chinese speaker, but is synonymous with the English word soup. That is because these herb teas are thick like soup, whereas tea, such as green or black tea, is light.
Once these herbal formulas are cooked, they can be dehydrated and made into pills (wan) or powders (san). Those are called “ready made” herbal prescriptions, which have been used since the 12th century for convenience sake.
Cooked as Soup with Meats and Vegetables
Another reason why Goji are typically cooked–cooking foods makes them easier to digest. Goji are historically cooked in many kinds of meat soup from chicken to pork to sea turtle in which they combine with the equally blood and essence nourishing properties of the flesh food, and they are balanced by the use of digestive herbs like ginger or dried tangerine peel, as well as the inclusion of light green leafy vegetables like cabbage or bok choy. I have also cooked them with tofu, which is lovely, as the red berries contrast beautifully with the white tofu.
It is in this soup form that historically goji were seen to have their full benefit as a nutritive food to promote wellness and longevity–as essence extracted into a very digestible liquid. And when your Spleen Qi/Agni is being stoked by the process of eating delicious aromatic cooked food like soup, your body is probably secreting increased digestive enzymes.
Historically China was a land of famine. Goji, having such high nutritive benefit, were a boon for skinny underfed folk. In the USA it is rare to find skinny underfed people, we are are chronically overfed, congested, and stressed. When we are mildly emotionally depressed we tend to eat more; in Chinese culture people lose their appetite with stress.
So be careful. Know your body and digestion. Use Goji as a raw food snack if you have regular bowel movement, a clean thin white tongue coat, are not obese, do not have digestive issues involving gas, bloating or pain. And when you do buy them get them from a reputable, clean source, like this one Heaven Mountain Goji Berries.
Contraindicated in Weak Digestion/Metabolism with Dampness
Like all nourishing foodstuffs in Chinese medicine, from milk to meat to sugary fruit, Goji berry is contraindicated in cases of weak digestion with accumulated dampness. If you are overweight, have chronic weak digestion, have a thick tongue coat, for example, or if everything you eat gives you gas, especially sugars, then you need to restrict sweet foods like Goji. Keep them to a minimum, and combine them with other foods that balance the effect, like in Chicken Soup with daikon and fresh ginger.
Eyton Shalom, M.S., L.Ac.
copyright eyton j. shalom, march 2013 san diego, california, all rights reserved, use with permission