Chinese Culinary Herbs: Astragalus (Huang Qi)

The Chinese have a long history of using herbs  in cooking not only for flavour but also for therapeutic reasons. It’s a great tradition that we could learn a lot from, but some of the flavours are a little challenging to the average Western palette – and that’s one of the reasons I love to use the mildly flavoured Astragalus.

Astragalus, or ‘Huang Qi’ in Chinese, is a wonderful herb, used both medicinally by Chinese herbalists, and also added to food in homes across China. It is an effective and very safe Qi tonic, and can be used to boost energy and strengthen then Lungs and Spleen. It can be used as a restorative when there is fatigue or low energy due to illness or over-exertion, or as preventative and tonic for everyday use.

Astragalus is particularly noted as a tonic to the immune system – in Chinese terms it strengthens the wei qi or ‘defensive Qi’. Regular consumption of this versatile herb can significantly strengthen immunity, and research has shown increases in white blood cells and other indicators of immunity following its consumption.

These days, almost all of us could use extra Qi, and astragalus is so easy to use, and so effective that it deserves a place in every kitchen, in my opinion. I like to make meat stocks, and always add astragalus to my stock pot, and I also add it to soups, stews, casseroles, sometimes even porridge!

The herb astragalus is the root of the milk vetch (a kind of legume.) The roots, which can grow quite large, are dried and thinly sliced before use, and are almost always bought ready-sliced. They are a pale yellow or cream colour. They have only a very mild taste, and are quite suitable for adding to most dishes.

The roots are very fibrous, and are not eaten – boil them up and use the liquid, discarding the roots themselves. Because they are large pieces of root it’s easy to put them into a stew or casserole with all the other ingredients and then remove them before serving. Use one or two slices of root per portion when cooking.

You can get astragalus from Chinese supermarkets, or consult your local Chinese medicine practitioner to get the best quality roots.

Contraindications: Astragalus is very safe, and is regularly used as a cooking ingredient in Chinese homes. If you react very badly to beans and legumes, it’s possible that astragalus could have similar effects. Pregnant or breastfeeding women should consult a professional before taking astragalus or any other herb.