Why do Bastyr University students take Chinese Nutrition Laboratory, a cook-it-yourself elective class?
For Oriental-medicine students, it's a chance to learn how the concepts of yin and yang apply to cooking. For nutrition and culinary students, it's a chance to learn a new philosophy of health. For herbal sciences students, it's a chance to see how plants from the garden behave in the wok or soup pot. For naturopathic medicine students, it’s a chance to learn one more alternative to pills and pharmaceuticals.
And for students in any program, each class concludes with a delicious meal they've learned to prepare.
Students gave all these reasons and more during a recent visit to Chinese Nutrition Lab in the Bastyr whole-food nutrition kitchen.
"I'm interested in integrating more herbs in my diet, and this is a way to do that," says herbal sciences student Katherine Martello. "So it's practical."
They're all good reasons, says instructor Boonchai Apichai, MD (China), MS, LAc, a Bastyr clinical faculty member and longtime practitioner of acupuncture, tai chi and Chinese herbal medicine.
He introduces students to the philosophies of energy and balance that undergird traditional Chinese cooking. All foods have different qualities appropriate at different times. Shrimp, for example, are a warming food, good for kidney and liver health and beneficial for qi (life energy), lactation, and male fertility. They also contain healthy fats.
"People who live near oceans are stronger in omega 3s because they eat shrimp, fish and lobster," says Dr. Apichai.
Americans say "food is medicine" in the informal sense, the way a home-cooked meal can be comforting. But with traditional Chinese herbs, foods have specific medicinal qualities, Dr. Apichai says.
In class he demonstrates techniques like removing shrimp shells (to be used for stock) and preparing Chinese herbs like black fungus and gou qi zi. But the heart of each weekly class is the cooking the students perform in groups. One recent menu: Snow peas with shrimp, fried rice and zucchini soup.
Students shop for the ingredients at Asian groceries to learn how to identify ingredients. Dr. Apichai provides instructions on what to look for in ingredients like egg roll wrappers (look for yellow, not white, the thinner the better). He delivers lectures and stories at natural breaks, while stock simmers or rice cools.
For Gracia Tharp, an acupuncture and Oriental medicine master's student, the class shows how some Chinese herbs taste better than their reputations suggest. "Some of these herbs are notorious for tasting horrible," she says. "But they're not like that in the dishes we cook."
That held true for black chicken with black fungus and lily flowers, a daunting-sounding recipe that turned out delicious, students say.
Tharp plans to incorporate recipes in to her future acupuncture practice — her reason for taking the class.
"We know that patients are not always compliant with taking medicine and herbs," she says. "But we all eat. It's easy to make dinner and add medicinal qualities."