Natural food is medicine. In herbal medicine food herbs are the ones that can be used for general well-being. Mountain yam is one.
Chinese medicine isn’t big on unnecessary supplementation. It doesn’t create superfoods that are held out to be universal panaceas, and then encourage indiscriminate consumption of them. Instead it is well known that people who naively take a lot of strong tonics such as ginseng, reishi mushroom, or horny goat weed often harm themselves and need professional treatment. However there are medicinals that are classed as food herbs because their effects are gentle, and these are traditionally consumed as part of a balanced diet. They are used moderately though, and just as some foods are not the best for some people, they are sometimes inappropriate additions to some peoples’ diets.
My favourite is mountain yam or shan yao. When I was living in Japan I used to cook fresh mountain yam with chicken or pork. It’s delicious so I was eating it before I knew it was a herbal medicinal. The school Judo coach advocated eating it for strength and stamina, and as it is a food rather than a medicinal supplement there is nothing wrong with his advice.
Shan yao improves digestion and respiration, and supplements the deep reserves of endurance or resilience. It strengthens the back and knees, and improves reproductive health. As it moistens as well as strengthens it is more balanced than some tonic medicinals that are warm and drying, and is thermally neutral so won’t upset those who tend to get a bit too hot or cold. It is particularly appropriate for those whose digestion or respiration is a bit weak and tend to have loose stools or chronic breathing difficulties. It also limits pathological fluid emissions such as excessive sweating or urination. So while it is a healthy addition to most people’s diets, it is not appropriate for those who have something that they need to sweat out so people with colds, acute respiratory conditions, or excessive urination because of heat or infection shouldn’t eat too much of it.
The dried yam can be rehydrated and added to soups or stews. Sometimes I just grind it up and cook it with rice. Next weekend I’ll head out to the Footscray markets to see if I can find some fresh shan yao.