Whoa, I Think I Just Made Kombucha

A friend surprised me a few weeks ago by lending me her continuous brew kombucha set-up. Apparently a "symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast" (SCOBY) isn't so appetizing to a pregnant lady. "Sure, thanks!" I naively responded. I've had a couple of bottles of kombucha tea over the years...kind of fizzy, kind of yeasty and stringy, yum. I'll give it a shot!

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What really excited me was how much money I could save by brewing the kombucha at home instead of buying it at the store. That stuff can be really expensive, and I can be really cheap. I'm also down with anything that reduces the amount of additives, preservatives, and other artificial baggage that comes with my beverages.

A week later, she shows up at my house and unloads the blessed gift--the kombucha, not the baby--in my kitchen. She starts heating up water, stirring in loose-leaf black tea, requesting all sorts of wooden spoons, cane sugar, and glass bowls. I'm trying to keep up, tossing things over to her so she could work her magic on a new batch of kombucha tea for my tasting pleasure. "It's easy--here's the directions!" Technically she stayed for another hour, but I felt like she ran out right then. I was so less prepared than I knew.

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All week, I tried but failed to resist lifting the lid and looking down into the brewing tea vessel. I imagined all sorts of bacteria riding along from my exhaled breath and taking up shop in the floating white SCOBY. It's a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast, and I'm surely going to disrupt the balance in there. Sure enough, at the end of the week, I panicked and almost threw out the entire 2-gallon batch of tea. Relax, Juli...maybe the black spots aren't mold...how could they not be mold? I've left a colony of bacteria and yeast on my counter all week!

Compromise with myself: I'll pick off the top layer of SCOBY (where suspicious black spots appeared), throw that out, and then move on to tasting the brew out of the spigot on the bottom. Deal! Except yuck...apparently my turbinado sugar was a big deal, because it was all wrong. I was drinking apple cider vinegar out of a pretty glass. Next compromise: I will bottle this product as apple cider vinegar and use it for marinating meat, pouring in my laundry, and catching random fruit flies in the kitchen.

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With the first batch of kombucha a near failure, I pressed on. That's the great part about a continuous brew kombucha set-up. You get to try again. Immediately. You actually kind of have to try to again immediately, because that SCOBY is calling out to you, "Feeeeed meeeee!" Armed with the recipe and faced with the challenge of having to do this all by myself this time around, I readied the supplies. Wooden spoon, glass bowl, big boiling kettle of water, sugar, loose-leaf black tea, and a cup of the old batch to use as "starter liquid" for the new batch. And, Go!

I followed directions, poured in fine evaporated cane juice this time instead of big brown bad boy turbinado sugar crystals, and put the lid on that thing for another week. I slept better, knowing that black specks in the SCOBY were most likely the remnants of the loose tea that I couldn't strain out with my low-quality kitchen equipment. This time, I tried even harder, yet still failed daily, to resist lifting the lid, breathing my germs inside the brew. Despite my breath germs, Kombucha Tea Batch #2 was a huge success!

"Holy cow, I think I just made kombucha!" This is stuff you can sell in a store, people!

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Now to challenge myself again, I attempt what is called a "second ferment" of the tea. I bottle up the delicious tangy tea and dump cherries or blueberries into the jars. I leave these jars on the counter for another three days, and then I refrigerate them to stop the fermentation process. Success again! The result was a super tasty, kind of fizzy, fruit infused kombucha batch that I slurped up in the next three days. Looks like I need to squeeze three gallons into that vessel for Batch #3....

Here's a detailed plan and recipe if you want to try this at home: How to Make Kombucha Tea. I promise, it gets easier!

Choosing Your Intern

You've made the first move. You've called to schedule an appointment in the AOM clinic. Just as you think you're almost done with this first critical step, the receptionist throws a massively important, yet completely unexpected, wrench in your plan. "Which intern are you looking to schedule with?"

Oh. My. God. What do you do? Which name do you say off the top of your head? As you feel the pressure mount in those two seconds of silence on the phone, your brain quickly scans the names, personalities, general skill levels, and specific competencies of every student you know at NUHS.

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It might not seem like a big decision to some, but for many patients, your intern will make or break the entire appointment. I've heard it all in the halls of the clinic, "He got a D on that Point Location Exam, so I don't want to schedule with him!" "She's the only one who follows up needling with tui na every week--I want her!" "I only (or, I don't) want my best friends seeing me with my pants down." If you're bringing sensitive people--the elderly or young children--then even appearance might matter. If I scheduled my kids with a super-tall bearded man, they might run outside and hide by the swans!

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If you haven't thought about which intern you will choose for your first or next acupuncture appointment, here is a handy guide to help weigh your options. No, I'm not going to provide a rating list of each intern in clinic this trimester, complete with names, pictures, and assorted blasphemies or accolades. Instead, I'm going to walk you through the options that may or may not be important to you in your decision-making process.

  1. Do you want your friends to see you naked?
    Most of us don't mind in a medical setting, but if you get stage fright in this arena, consider it a factor. If you can't relax, then your acupuncture treatment can't be fully effective.
  2. Do you want to build a long-lasting relationship with just one intern?
    Don't select someone who's graduating at the end of the trimester. Many of us are part-time, which means that we will be a regular presence in the clinic for a year or more.
  3. Are you only concerned about having the most informed, top-of-the-class intern right now?
    Then go ahead and choose that fabulous intern who has the most experience with add-on extras--if you can get into her packed schedule!
  4. Should your treatment philosophy match your provider's?
    I think so, and I consider this when scheduling an appointment myself. Do I get a good feeling from this person? Do they ooze positive energy? I come to the clinic to build my qi, not to have it stolen.

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Image source: www.visualphotos.com

Now for the great part--there isn't one intern who fits every criteria! This is wonderful news, because it means that a variety of options exist for each patient who walks through the door. Each patient is different, and each intern is different. If you've tried acupuncture once, but just didn't get that great feeling, then try again with someone else! If you were lucky and hit it out of the park with your first intern, then stick with that person, or ask him or her for a referral for another intern who treats in a similar style.

Good luck, and happy hunting!

Want to Freak Out an MD?

2014-07-03_yurasekWhen they ask you why you came in for an appointment today, go ahead and let them know that your urine is coming out in long, clear streams, and that your dreams have been creepily vivid this week. Tell them that your bowel movements are light brown, formed, and coming with ease twice per day in forearm lengths that would make Dr. Yurasek proud. Mention that you've been feeling kind of cold and that you can't stand being out in the wind. That heaviness in your arms? Mention it.

Dive straight into the rest of Oriental Medicine's famed "Ten Questions," noting whether you've been extra hungry, not so thirsty, frigidly anti-sexual, exhausted from periods with quarter-sized black clots, or muzzy-headed in the afternoons. It all matters. If you're in an AOM clinic, these are the types of things you can expect to be asked by your acupuncturist or herbalist. No one here bats an eye when patients share the color and consistency of their bowel movements. In fact, if you withhold that information, we can't really help you very well.

Here they are, in detail but translated by me:

The Ten Questions

  1. 2014-07-03_outlineDo you feel hot or cold, or do you experience fever or chills?
  2. Are you sweating and is it during the day or at night?
  3. What's up with your head and face? (EENT)
  4. Do you have any pain anywhere?
  5. How's your urine and stool coming out?
  6. Are you thirsty? Hungry? Got cravings?
  7. How've you been sleeping?
  8. Anything noteworthy going on in your abdomen/thorax? Who says "thorax"?
  9. What's up with your gynecology? If male, you can put "N/A," thank goodness.
  10. 10. General/Past Medical History (in case we didn't cover it all yet)

Your acupuncturist or herbalist not only wants to know these things, but also actuallyneedsto know many of these things in order to properly diagnose your condition and begin a treatment plan. If you have long, clear streams of urine, loose stool, weak knees, a sore lower back, and feel cold all the time...well, we know what's going on. No, I'm not going to tell you here. Look it up. Better yet, visit an acupuncturist!

So, if you're in an AOM clinic, have your thoughts on these vital topics prepared beforehand. Otherwise, you might be so thrown off guard by some of the Ten Questions that you can't formulate sentences. That's actually fine, because none of the 10 questions directly correlate to grammar skill level. Thank goodness, right? However, if you find yourself in the office of an MD, keep in mind that you might not want to just jump right in with details about where you are in your menstrual cycle and how gassy you've been, if your chief complaint is seasonal allergies. Just a tip, from me to you.

How to Make Granola

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A friend once asked me if I knew how to make granola. I'm sure I looked puzzled as I answered, "No...I thought granola was...like...its own...thing...?" As in, I thought granola grew out of the ground. Actually, it's not that I was firmly certain that was the case. It's just that I hadn't given it a thought before I was hit with this question.

Wrong! The farmer doesn't harvest a granola crop. Someone has to make it, as in, out of other ingredients. This same friend, who was at that point now fully aware of my ignorance on the topic, was resourceful enough to send me over her family's granola recipe. Turns out, it's easy, quick, and flexible for when I'm out of half of the things the recipe actually calls for--as usual.

2014-06-25_ingredientsHere's the basic ingredients list:

  • 4 cups oats
  • ¾ cup brown sugar
  • ¼ cup water
  • 2 tsp. vanilla
  • ½ tsp. salt
  • 1 cup nuts

I translate that as old-fashioned oats (steel-cut definitely doesn't work…oops), turbinado sugar, water, homemade vanilla (we can talk about that another time), sea salt, sliced almonds, black sesame seeds, and sunflower seeds. Start out by boiling the sugar and water together, and then stir in the vanilla and salt. Combine everything else, dump the wet mixture on top, stir, and spread evenly across a parchment-paper lined baking sheet. Finally, sprinkle cinnamon, ginger, and turmeric on top, then slip into the 275º oven for one hour. Or, as my granola friend said, "sometimes I do 30 minutes at 350º because I'm impatient." 

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It's glorious. After making my entire house smell like Christmas, it comes out of the oven all golden brown and audibly begging me to eat it. I do. I burn my tongue. It's just part of the process. Then, I let it cool unattended on the counter for about an hour, and then we pour what's left of it into Mason jars for the week. Yum.

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Why do I make my own granola? I don't trust what any commercially produced granola contains by the time it reaches my mouth. I think mine tastes way better. I'm fairly sure it's cheaper to make your own. Plus, my house smells like Christmas. I think that's just the cinnamon, but I don't want to pin it down and ruin the magic. In a larger way, making granola is just one more small step that I've taken in the direction of natural living. It's a process. I don't know anyone--certainly not myself--who has been able to flip the switch one day from all commercial products to all homemade products. The world in which we circulate today is a mass-produced, globalized society. We want it bigger, better, and right now.

I suggest taking a small step whenever you can. Relax. Make some granola. Smell it. Eat it. Repeat.

How to Use Chinese Herbs

Think it's too difficult for you? I think you're wrong. File this post away under the "if I can do it, you can do it" series. Unfortunately, this practical how-to post is the result of someone actually needing to use raw Chinese herbs to feel better--and that someone is me.

Remember that whole "damp-heat in the gall bladder" thing from a couple of weeks ago? Yep, me too. Turns out, I still have that going on. Yes, I self-diagnosed and self-treated in near silence. Did I say I was good at this? I'm sorry. No. I'm a student. I know close to nothing. In my defense, upon an actual visit to the NUHS AOM clinic to exercise my student-access-to-free-care privilege, I learned that I nailed my diagnosis and was only one off in my acupoints selection plan.

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Ingredients for Treatment

I was indeed on my way towards getting back to normal, but not quite there yet. No. What I needed was a boost -- a big powerful boost in the health direction. I needed herbs from Dr. Cai. After showing my tongue and displaying my pulsating wrists to the masses of interns, I left the clinic with my trusty sack of Chinese herbs. At Dr. Cai's request, I also needed to add in a slice of fresh ginger and three red dates with each batch, which I happened to have on hand.

Many people would peer into this bag thinking, "What the heck do I do with this pile of roots, bark, mushrooms, berries, and other unidentifiables? Technically, there could be geckos and cicada shells in there...shudder. In fact I refuse to look up everything in the formula shown on my receipt just in case therearegeckos and cicada shells in there.... So, here it is--your pictorial step-by-step guide to using raw Chinese herbs in a decoction. This is the instruction sheet that goes home with the patient.

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Instructions for Cooking Chinese Herbal Formula

What this is trying to say is dump one batch of the herbs into a pot, soak it, bring it to a boil, then simmer to reduce the liquid to a drinkable amount. Now, you'll want to find the perfect balance between "disgusting taste" and "effective dose," and that isnoteasy. You know you want to concentrate the liquid for potency, but you also know that you're increasing the taste by the same stroke.

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Before Cooking and After Cooking

Most herbal decoctions do not taste good. Face it. Most of us are damp. We eat dairy and fried foods (mmmm...fried dairy), and we end up with damp-heat. Thus, we need bitter herbs much of the time. Who's the lucky fella who gets a simple Spleen Qi deficiency diagnosis that results in a sweet licorice and berries formula to take home? Not this guy!

So, I soak my bitter herbs, I boil my bitter herbs, I simmer my bitter herbs. I drink my powerful decoction, and I go to sleep to let my body do its thing. I wake up a little better, and I know I have five more nights of chugging down my "bedtime tea" before my tongue can register just how gross it really tastes.

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"Bedtime Tea"

I could avoid much of the "hard work" in this process by requesting my herbs in granule form (like a dusty powder that you stir in warm water to dissolve). But then I'd lose a little potency. I could avoid all the work and the taste by requesting a patent pill formula, but then I'd lose even more potency. No thanks, weak sauce. I need the most full-strength option known to man -- ancient Chinese man, specifically. I need to decoct my raw herbs!