It feels like spring took a blink of an eye to appear in New York. Just a week or so ago, it felt like we were still in the middle of a sleepy, quiet winter…and then, magic! The world awoke! Things are budding and blossoming quicker than my trigger finger can press my camera button. Spring is fleeting, and what is also fleeting is the momentary calm I am feeling before my spring allergies hit. Very soon, I’m expecting to feel that familiar itchy, scratchy feeling tickling the back of my throat. This will be followed by teary, itchy eyeballs, and a congested, drippy nose. While I haven’t fully kicked my body’s habit of reacting this way, especially when pollen production goes into overdrive, studying Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) has taught me different ways to approach my allergies and it’s helped me cope a great deal.
I’m a firm believer that much of our body’s fortitude comes from what we eat and how we treat ourselves. With allergies, for instance, it’s common to think of pollen and other air-born particles as the enemy, but the truth is that it’s really about our immune system. If our bodies are balanced and healthy, pollen is just pollen, and the body pays no attention to it. But if the immune system is hypersensitive, it can start misidentifying typically harmless substances (like pollen), as threats and target the body against it quicker than Tina Fey’s mean girls got to Lindsay Lohan.
Traditional Chinese Medicine is aligned with this view, but its approach is more metaphorical. Allergies are related to the element of wind. You know the saying, “spring is in the air”? Well, it’s taken pretty literally here. Pathogenic influences are carried in the wind, but it only affects people whose “defensive qi” is weak. Also known as wei qi, the defensive qi is the energy on the surface of the body that acts as a protective shield against the elements of nature and our environment. When the defensive qi is vibrant and strong, it staves off potential invaders. On the other hand, a weak defensive qi is like what happens at the end of a football game when the offensive linemen are tired and they just can’t provide the protection the quarterback needs. The barrier gets broken down and the opposing team invades.
Strong defensive qi is the result of healthy organs keeping energy flowing smoothly. Energy from the Lung, Spleen, and Kidneys are especially involved in creating an elite A team defense system. Lung energy helps out by overseeing the respiratory tract, which takes in the air of the environment. Kidney energy is in charge of bodily growth and is connected to hereditary conditions, like eczema and asthma, both of which are related to allergies. And Spleen energy is closely tied with metabolic functions, making sure that nutrients and fluids get transformed and transported properly throughout the body. If the Spleen energy isn’t functioning well, digestion becomes sluggish, fluids stagnate, dampness in the body grows and mucous forms, clogging up the lungs and breathing functions. If you feel foggy-headed and heavy-bodied during allergy season, you know what I’m talking about.
Knowing what goes into creating strong defensive qi means you can start building up protection long before the first gust of pollen hits the air. In other words, you can lessen or prevent allergies BEFORE they start. This year, I’ve taken some active measures to fill my mealtimes with dishes that nourish the energy of all three of these organs, and so far, the tickle down in my throat has been dormant. I’ll be talking about ways to clear itchiness and heat from allergies in another post soon, but today, I want to share a dish that’s been a familiar part of our rotation this past winter. If nothing else, this dish is a SPLEEN BOOSTER and it’s packed with ingredients that nourish the body’s digestive functions.
This hearty meal-in-a-soup is all kinds of nourishing. It’s a medley of nutty and chewy textures with meat so tender it falls off the bone. Pair that with a flavorful broth and velvety spinach leaves and you have a winning dinner that is filling, comforting, and super spleen qi strengthening. Start with a pound of pork ribs, preferably organic. Add some fresh, sturdy spinach leaves. Then pull in the three power ingredients: barley, fox nuts, and lotus seeds.
Barley, or yiyi ren, is the unsung hero in this dish. When my mom would make this soup when I was little, I would dip my spoon in and pile a heaping spoonful of soupy barley into my mouth. I always thought it was rice, but instead of mushy, bland rice dissolving on my tongue, I would instead be rewarded by the chewy bounce of barley. It’s a nice change of pace sometimes. Sweet and bland in nature, barley is actually an ingredient that goes to the Spleen, Lung, Kidney, and Stomach channels. It’s a fantastic spleen nourisher and is especially known to resolve dampness in the body by helping the spleen process and metabolize fluids.
I bought pearl barley here at our local grocery store because it was what was available. Pearl barley is especially shiny and smooth because the hull and bran have both been polished off. However, my preference is for the bran to stay intact. “Hulled barley” is the kind you can typically find in Asian supermarkets and it has a great, nutty texture. Barley takes a while to cook so I’ve taken the liberty here to give the barley a little extra cooking time by letting it simmer in its own pot for half an hour. It’s not necessary but quickens the overall cooking time a bit. I like my barley a bit “al dente” – cooked but with a nice chew.
Fox nuts puff when cooked, invert its fluffy interior almost like a kernel of popcorn. The flavor is pleasant, mild and a little nutty. Also known as “qian shi”, these starchy white seeds are a staple in northern and western parts of India. They come from a type of water lily and are harvested in ponds and wetlands. Targeting the Spleen and Kidney channels, fox nuts are mildly sweet in nature and slightly astringent, which means they can bind up rogue fluids in the body (which is helpful in cases of a runny stomach). A spleen strengthener as well, these little beauties are probably my favorite ingredients in this soup.
Creamy, with a hint of bitterness, lotus seeds are another important component. Texture-wise, these nutty orbs are both a little creamy and a little crunchy, as long as they aren’t overcooked. Also known as lian zi, these shelled and dried seeds stem from the head of the lotus plant. Like fox nuts, lotus seeds also have a hint of sweetness (that is to say, not sugary, but sweet as rice is sweet) and have astringent properties. They enter the Heart, Spleen, and Kidney channels and are especially good at nourishing the digestive system and supporting those with weak appetites.
Add to this trio of seeds and grains, a pound of pork ribs, cut between the bones. Therapeutically, pork is neutral in temperature and is sweet and salty in its nature. This makes pork an ideal base for broths. Adding in pork ribs makes this an instant bone broth, giving this dish an extra dimension of flavorful depth and nutrition.
Give the fox nuts and lotus seeds a good soak for at least half an hour before adding them to the soup. If you get the unhulled barley, it’s a smart idea to boil them separately for 15-20 minutes as they take a little longer to cook. Then add them into the soup as well.
Let the flavors co-mingle with spoonfuls of soy sauce and rice wine. Simmer and allow the flavors to meld for 1-2 hours, until the meat begins to fall off the bone.
At the very last minute, add a half bunch of rinsed spinach leaves. Allow the heat and broth to wilt it down into a dark green, velvety mass. Stir it into the broth – and there you have it, a happy meal for the spleen and belly.
Pork Rib Soup with Barley, Fox Nuts & Lotus Seeds
Makes approximately 4-5 hearty bowls.
- 1 lb pork spare ribs
- 1 1/2 cups barley
- 3/4 cup fox nuts
- 1/2 cup lotus seeds
- 2 tablespoons soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons Shao Xing Chinese rice wine, optional
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon pepper
- 1/2 bundle spinach, washed
- Soak the pearl barley in water for at least 30 minutes, then drain.
- Combine the fox nuts and lotus seeds in another bowl of water and soak for at least 30 minutes. Drain and set aside.
- Fill a 5-quart soup pot halfway with water and set on high to boil. Place the pork spare ribs in and cook for 5-10 minutes, allowing the dregs to foam up to the surface. Drain the pot and rinse the ribs off. Trim away any excess fat.
- Rinse off the soup pot and refill halfway with fresh water. Place the parboiled spare ribs back in and bring to a boil. Once boiling, reduce to medium heat. Add in the soy sauce, rice wine, salt, and pepper. Simmer for an hour.
- Fill a smaller pot with water and bring to a boil. Once boiling, add the drained barley and cook for 15-20 minutes, until the barley is tender but still chewy. Drain the barley.
- After the spare ribs have been cooking for roughly an hour, add the cooked barley and drained fox nuts and lotus seeds. Simmer for another hour.
- Add the spinach and cook until wilted, about 5 minutes.
- Soup’s up! Ladle into bowls and serve.