Qi is an essential tenet of Chinese Medicine. The Chinese character for Qi is comprised of two elements. One represents vapor or steam; the other rice. The word Qi is loosely translated as energy, a term that makes some Chinese Medicine practitioner’s bristle because of its New Age connotation rather than Ancient scholarly interpretation.
In Chinese Medicine Qi is understood to be “the basic substance by which all movements and mutations of all phenomena in the universe arise and (from a physiological perspective) the fundamental constituent of the body.” Often we speak of Qi’s function rather than form. At it’s most basic, Qi is that which activates, warms, transforms, contains and stores and as such—it is our life force.
Regardless of Qi’s etymological roots, most of us do not have enough of what ever IT is to care. By mid-winter, total exhaustion is sort of the expected/accepted state of affairs. Given the image of both steam and rice (a clear reference to food and diet) it makes perfect sense to look to our kitchen and trusted cooking pot for help. This recipe for Mushroom Barley Soup has all the properties needed to build Qi—the warmth to restore, sweetness to nourish and strength to supplements one’s reserve.
Mushroom Barley Soup and a few words about Chinese Medicine and Diet.
Chinese Medicine understands imbalances of any sort to be the cause of disease. This principle is especially important as it relates to diet. The Chinese diet embraces all foods – as an imbalanced diet is a clear catalyst for disease. Chinese Medicine avoids extremes (fasts, restrictions etc); the reason being that extremes set off system alarms and rogue modes of compensation, which in time, turn pathological. So while this recipe can be made without the addition of lamb and lamb bones, these ingredients are very much part of the soups medicinal nature as Chinese medicine recognizes that meat, not a lot, well cooked and of high quality, is an integral part of a healthy diet. That said – barley, onions, garlic and mushrooms—all work a magic of their own. All is not lost in a vegetarian version. Feed this soup to your friends and family, maybe with some kale, along side or stirred in, eat slowly, converse freely and think Qi.
3 tablespoons olive oil
3 medium onions, peeled and diced
4 cloves garlic, minced or sliced
Several sprigs fresh thyme
1 tablespoon Sea Salt, plus more for seasoning later
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more for seasoning
1 lamb bone – tell butcher what you are doing and ask for a nice bone with some meat – does not have to be a lot (or can be). I have used shank, rib or shoulder. Honestly whatever you can get is fine. Ask butcher to cut into a manageable size if necessary
1 cup red wine – a little more, a little less – no matter.
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
¾ cup pearl barley
4 cups mushrooms, preferably Maitaki, brushed free of dirt, broken or chopped into small pieces
Preheat oven to 250 degrees. Heat olive oil in a large heavy bottomed soup pot with tight fitting lid over low heat. Add onions, cover and cook slowly until onions release their water and begin to melt down. Stir from time to time. When onions appear soft and translucent (this takes time, we are talking about 25 minutes) remove cover, increase heat and cook, again stir to prevent burning, until onions are a dark golden brown. They should look and taste sweet and delicious. Add garlic, thyme, salt, pepper, lamb bone, wine and cold water.
Bring liquid to a boil, cover and transfer to hot oven. Let simmer several hours, about 3 hours, more or less depending on demands of day and oven.
Melt butter in a large skillet, cast iron is my personal favorite, over low heat. Add barley and gently toast - just until grains smell sweet. Add mushrooms and cook long enough to give a little color, about 5 minutes more. Remove pot from oven and stir in mushrooms and barley. Continue cooking on stove top, covered, until barley is tender, about 45 minutes. Adjust seasoning with more salt and pepper.
Remember the image of rice and steam. This is Qi. Keep soup covered so none can escape from food.
Frances Boswell is a licensed acupuncturist at her practice, Qi Sera Sera Acupuncture, in New York City. She focuses on a lesser-known branch of Traditional Chinese Medicine, which identifies poor diet as a common cause of disease. Traditional Chinese Medicine understands that the importance of food goes beyond ingredients' vitamins, mineral, nutrient and caloric content; food has its own energetic and spiritual role in our health. Frances' aim is to teach this ancient wisdom, apply it to everyday cooking, and work with patients to modify their diets, in addition to acupuncture, to help them live, eat, and be well.