Kuzu power: macrobiotics expert John Belleme teaches us new respect for a much maligned plant
By: John Belleme
Roots are the focal points of a plant's energy. That is why roots have always occupied a special place ill man's diet, as well ms in his medicine chest. Popular roots such as ginseng, dock, radish, beets, and carrots are prized for their concentrated food value and healing power. Kuzu (Pueraria lobata) root (also spelled kudzu), one of the world's largest vegetable roots, is considered big medicine in Japan and China. Averaging 200 pounds, the kuzu root is the traditional medicine of choice for a host of digestive disorders. It is also the world's premier cooking starch.
Kuzu also has a dark side. A sea of green tendrils and leaves that blankets seven million acres of the southeastern United States from Mat to October, kuzu smothers utility, poles, trees, and barns. This prolific vine causes millions of dollars in damage each year. It's no wonder that kuzu has been jokingly referred to as "a vegetable form of cancer" and "the weed that are Dixie." Ironically, while irate farmers and utility companies are spending millions spraying kuzu with toxic chemicals, natural foods stores are selling the starch extracted from the powdered root for $16 a pound! In the East, however, kuzu, a member of the legume family, has enjoyed an excellent reputation and has been part of the cuisine of China and Japan for more than two thousand years. The starch that makes kuzu an outstanding idling and thickening agent in cooking is partly responsible for its medicinal action. Some of kuzu's complex starch molecules enter the intestines and relieve the discomfort caused by over acidity, bacterial infection, and in the case of diarrhea
According to Subhuti Dharmananda, Ph.D., director of the Institute for Traditional Medicine and Preventive Health Care in Portland, Oregon, kuzu also contains a very high concentration of flavonoids, which are responsible for its strong medicinal effect on the digestive and circulatory systems. Flavonoids, which occur naturally in kuzu and other plants, are fairly well known as antioxidants. However, they also have the ability to inhibit the contraction of smooth muscle tissue, thereby increasing blood flow and relieving cramping in the intestines.
The medicinal effects of kuzu's flavonoids were proven during numerous clinical studies in China in the 1970s. The results, published in several important Chinese medical journals, showed that crude kuzu root preparations or its extracted flavonoids, given as injections or taken orally, reduced high blood pressure, relieved chronic migraine headaches, and eased aches in the shoulders and neck. In China, kuzu flavonoids have successfully treated sudden deafness, which can be caused by restricted circulation. Flavonoids also have been shown to lower cholesterol levels, reduce the risk of the formulation of blood clots, and protect against heart disease.
Recently, research on kuzu has focused on its use as a treatment for an entirely different type of problem: alcohol abuse. Fascinated by reports of Chinese physicians using kuzu to treat chronic alcoholism, Harvard medical researcher Wing-Ming Keung traveled to China to collect clinical information. During his visit, Keung interviewed thirteen traditional and modern physicians and compiled three hundred case histories. "In all causes," said Keung, "the medication (a tea made from kudzu root and other herbs) was considered effective in both controlling and suppressing appetite for alcohol and improving the function of alcohol affected vital organs. No toxic side effects were reported by the Chinese physicians." When Keung returned to Harvard, he conducted his own research, which confirmed what he had learned in China: that kuzu, for reasons still not understood, can curb the desire for alcohol as well as its ravages on the body.
Obviously, research on the medicinal value of kuzu will continue, both in the United States and in Asia, although kuzu's capabilities are far more extensively studied and documented in the East than they are in this country. For example, key Chinese medical texts describe the properties and uses of tablets made from kuzu root extract for a wide range of both minor and serious illnesses. Although kuzu may not be well known to Western herbalists, it is commonly prescribed by American acupuncturists trained in Oriental herbology, to be used in conjunction with acupuncture treatments. Acupuncturist Mary Cissy Majebe, O.M.D., director of the Chinese Acupuncture and Herbology Clinic in Asheville, North Carolina, uses teas made from kuzu root and complementary herbs for specific conditions requiring the elimination of accumulated heat (as with head colds, influenza, and muscle stiffness) with "excellent results." However, she stresses that similar symptoms do not always indicate the same underlying cause of illness. If you have a condition that you think would benefit from kuzu or another herbal remedy, talk with a trained healthcare professional.
As a remedy, kuzu root is used in two ways: as powdered starch and as whole dried root. Kuzu starch remedies can be used to treat minor indigestion; some experts use it to treat colds and minor aches and pains as well (eating lots of foods made with kuzu starch can have the same effects and is considered good preventive medicine). Teas can be used when a different type of medicine is needed: for chronic headaches, stiff shoulders, colitis, sinus troubles, tonsillitis, respiratory ailments, hangovers, allergies (especially hay fever), bronchial asthma, and skin rashes.
In his book Healing Ourselves (Avon Books, 1973), holistic health practitioner Naboru Muramoto recommends a drink called kuzu cream (see recipe) for colds, general body pains, stomach cramps, and diarrhea. Kuzu cream is also recommended for neutralizing stomach acidity and for relaxing tight muscles. When made with the addition of ginger juice and minced umeboshi (salt-pickled plum), the drink is especially potent. The ginger aids digestion and circulation while the salt plum neutralizes lactic acid and eliminates it from the body.
Kuzu cream and other remedies are made using kuzu root starch while medicinal kuzu teas are usually made using pieces of the whole kuzu root, which contains more water-soluble medicinal flavonoids, some of which are lost during natural processing of roots into starch. Kuzu root tea (kakkon) is found in herbal shops and sonic natural foods stores and frequently contains several other medicinal herbs including ginger; licorice, and cinnamon.
Here is a recipe for making kuzu cream. If you're taking it to treat digestive discomfort, it will be most effective if you drink it about one hour before a meal.
Note: Serve the cream warm but allow it in cool for one minute after you prepare it.
STOMACH-SETTLING KUZU CREAM
This recipe makes a thick, pudding-like cream. If you would prefer to make a thinner drink, reduce the amount of kuzu to one rounded teaspoon.
1 1/2 tablespoons kuzu starch
1 umeboshi plum, pitted and minced, or 1 teaspoon
1/4-1/2 teaspoon fresh ginger juice (finely grate ginger-root
and squeeze to extract juice)
1/2-1 teaspoon shoyu (optional)
In a small enamel or nonmetallic saucepan, thoroughly dissolve kuzu starch in 1 cup cold water. Add umeboshi and bring to simmer over medium heat, stirring frequently. As soon as the mixture begins to bubble around the edges, stir constantly until kuzu thickens and becomes translucent. Gently simmer 1 to 2 minutes, then remove from heat. Add ginger juice and, if desired, shoyu to taste.
Kuzu starch is also a very useful and beneficial thickening agent in all types of cooking.
For several recipes using kuzu starch, please see Japanese Foods that Heal, by John and Jan Belleme.
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