In south China almost everybody loves white polished rice (essentially empty calories), but once upon a time, only royalty, nobility and rich merchants could afford the polished stuff.
The poor folks had to eat the less costly "inferior" substitute "coarse" grains, the unprocessed whole grains like wheat, barley, millet, oats, corn, bean and peas. All the stuff we know today is best for you - and today it also cost more than polished white rice.
Unprocessed whole grains and legumes - beans, peas, lentils - are a major source of complex carbohydrates, vitamins, protein and fiber.
Traditional Chinese medicine refers to "coarse grains" - all grains and beans except for rice and flour and recommends many kinds of congees for general health and keeping the digestive system in good shape.
Whole, unhusked grains are known to contain nutrition and vitamins lost after processing.
The thick layer that gathers on the surface of millet congee is believed to be as reinforcing as ginseng soup.
These grains and pulses (legumes) include wheat, sorghum, millet, corn, unpolished rice, buckwheat, barley, oats, black beans, horse beans, lima beans, green beans, peas, lentils, chickpeas and many plants with edible seed pods.
Rich in fiber, these grains eaten regularly promote movement of the bowels and help detoxify the system, help prevent hemorrhoids and cysts in the colon, which can lead to cancer.
The fiber also quickly absorbs water when it enters the stomach, enlarging the volume of food and making you feel full. You then, presumably, will eat less and lose weight.
Vitamins are contained in the outer later of grains; polished grains lack the essential nutrition that promotes cell metabolism and strengthens immunity and the nervous system.
Eating these coarse grains adds less blood sugar and cholesterol than eating fine flour or rice. TCM prescribes these whole grains in dietary therapy to reinforce energy or balance it.
Both wheat and fu xiao mai (blighted wheat) can be used as herbal medicine in TCM, but they have different functions. As whole grains and some legumes can be difficult to chew and digest, the need to be boiled or steamed.
Wheat refers to the full and heavy grains that sink in the water while blighted wheat refers to the shriveled seeds that float on the surface. It is said to boost heart qi (energy), and may contain a fungus or other element with medicinal uses.
Wheat is a "cold" (yin energy) food that helps soothe the nerves and benefits the spleen and digestion. Eating soup of wheat, licorice and jujubes can help relieve menopausal symptoms and mood problems caused by insufficient blood.
Blighted wheat is also "cold." Though it helps stabilize mood, it can also relieve night sweats in menopausal women. It is usually combined with other herbs such as huangqi (milk veteh).
Millet is mildly "cold" yet very energy reinforcing. It also benefits the kidneys, dispels pathogenic heat in stomach and acts as a diuretic.
Its reinforcement function was recognized by ancient Chinese who called it dai sheng tang (replacing ginseng soup). Many women in north China would reinforce themselves with millet congee with brown sugar after giving birth, as it helps nourish yin energy and blood. And the thick layer that forms on the surface of millet congee is said to be the most nutritious part.
Millet congee is said to treat digestive ailments. It can improve appetite, and stop vomiting and diarrhea, according to "Compendium of Materia Medica" by Li Shizhen in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).
But do not eat millet together with almond, as the combination can cause vomiting and diarrhea.
"Neutral" energy corn can strengthen the spleen, act as a diuretic, releva edema, decrease blood fat and help in weight reduction. Eating congee with rice and corn powder as breakfast every day can help prevent or treat problems such as high blood pressure, high blood fat and hardening of arteries. Oatmeal does the same. Eating soup or tea of corn silk can act as a diuretic, help reduce high blood pressure and lower blood sugar.
Don't eat too much each time - it can cause gas.
Mildly "cold" pearl barley benefits the digestive system and is cited by TCM in weight loss. It can benefit the spleen and stomach, reinforce lungs, dispel pathogenic heat and dampness and act as a diruetic, according to "Compendium of Materia Medica."
It is also prescribed for diarrhea due to weak spleen, sore muscles, joint pain and edema. It's one of the many health foods that are said to help prevent cancer. Add some steamed pearl barley to congee in summer. In winter, cook reinforcing soup with pearl barley and pig's feet, pork chops or chicken.