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September 8, 2009

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Home » Feature » Health and Environment

That wonderful little worm

WALK into any big TCM pharmacy and the first thing you see are strange tonics, weird objects - like dried up "worms" - extravagantly packaged on beds of colored satin, encased in fancy see-through boxes and locked behind glass cases.

Depending on their size, quality and arrangement in perfect shapes, they can cost tens of thousands of yuan, sometimes 9,000 yuan to 15,000 yuan (US$1,317-2,195) per 500 grams.

These are famous energy-reinforcing tonics for the weak, the elderly, for people who want to build their immune systems and cure just about anything ails them. Sore back and knees, cough, impotency? No problem, try a worm.

These tonics make very nice presents, especially if you want to impress someone and show off your wealth.

You can also buy tonics in smaller quantity or select them loose. These are much more affordable.

In coming weeks we will discuss a variety of famous, fundamental TCM herbs.

These include cordyceps ()(also called aweto, caterpillar fungus, Chinese caterpillar, or "summer worm, winter grass"); varieties of bird's nest (the nests of some swiftlets are made solely of saliva); dendrobe plant (orchid stems dried and wrapped in balls) and varieties of well-known ginseng root.

Cordyceps, a little dried yellow-brown worm, is famous in TCM and traditional Tibetan medicine and is exported worldwide. It is "neutral" in energy and reinforces both yin and yang energy.

It is commonly called aweto, dong chong xia cao (summer worm, winter grass) and caterpillar fungus. It's known in the West as a "medicinal mushroom."

This looks like segmented caterpillars with rings, 16 feet and a long darker growth extending from the head.

Aweto comes mainly from the Tibetan Plateau, Qinghai Province, western Sichuan Province, southwestern Gansu Province and northwestern Yunnan Province.

The creature is the result of a parasitic relationship between the fungus cordyceps and the larva of the ghost moth (thitarodes). The fungus germinates in the larva, kills and mummifies the insect host, and then the cordyceps grows from the head of the insect.

The larva is infected in winter and the fungus grows in summer, hence the name "summer worm, winter grass."

Sweet taste

The dried brittle larva is 3 to 5 centimeters long, up to 0.8 centimeter thick with a coarse yellowish-brown surface. The slender sporophore growing from the head is dark brown and longer than the larva, 2-8 centimeters long. It smells like an earthy, fishy mushroom. The taste is rather sweet.

The fungus only grows above 5,000 meters. It is usually picked in summer and autumn and sun-dried to be used as herbs, says He Liqing, staff of Leiyunshang Pharmacy on Nanjing Road W.

Aweto is famous worldwide and was exported to Japan and southeast Asia as early as the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Demand is greater today.

It is sometimes sold in capsules, but it is difficult to guarantee the quality in this form and there are many fakes. It's best to buy your own and grind it to powder.

In TCM, aweto is "neutral" in energy and reinforces both yin and yang energy at the same time °?- yin energy in the lungs and yang energy in the kidneys (especially the reproductive system).

It is considered a powerful aid to the immune system. It reinforces essence and bone marrow, helps stop bleeding, resolve phlegm and relieve coughing. Its benefits were recorded in "Bencao Congxin" ("Materia Medica") by Wu Yiluo of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) in 1757. The book describes 720 kinds of medicine.

Aweto travels through the lung and kidney meridians to take effect. It is used to treat, among other things, sore back and knees, impotence, night sweats, coughing, asthma and general weakness from long illness and old age. It helps women recover from childbirth.

Modern research confirms its benefits, notably its immune-boosting functions. It helps decrease blood fat, sooth nerves and is anti-bacterial.

Aweto can be used alone or with other herbs. It can be made into soup, tea or wine.

If you suffer from a sore back, impotence, ringing in the ears or poor memory, try cooking aweto soup with du zhong () (eucommia bark from the hardy rubber or gutta-percha tree).

If you are weak, easily catch colds and suffer from night sweats, cook aweto soup with chicken, duck, beef, pork or mutton.

It is not necessary to eat a lot at one time since the body cannot absorb it all, says pharmacy lady He. Usually, 3-5 grams a day is enough, but for immune benefits should be taken consistently for up to two months.

The best aweto is said to come from Yushu City, Qinghai Province.

Aweto soup for basic reinforcement
Use a small double-boiler.
Put 4 pieces in a small pot of water and lower into a larger pot.
Cook for around 45 minutes. Remove aweto and reuse.
Drink at least twice a week. Each piece of aweto can be used three times.

Aweto congee
Ingredients: Aweto powder (5g), sticky rice (50g), rock sugar
Make congee with the sticky rice and sugar.
Add aweto and simmer for 10 minutes.
Eat twice a week.

Aweto and duck
Ingredients: Aweto (10g), a duck, yellow wine, salt
Chop up duck, put pieces in earthen pot with water.
Add water, yellow wine and salt. Simmer for two to three hours.
Eat occasionally.

How to choose aweto
Not all worms are equal. Some are fake.
Color: The larva part should be deep yellow or yellowish brown with 20-30 rings grains. Inside it should be white or yellow-white, depending on region. The protruding fungus is usually chocolate brown. Colors change with production region.
Feet: There should be eight pairs of feet in the middle, with the feet in the middle more prominent.
Smell: Real aweto smells like earthy, fishy mushroom.
Choose only complete, not hollow, aweto. Some fakes are "empty," the active ingredients extracted. These are usually thin and shrunken. Some fakes are reinforced with toothpicks.
Aweto then can be ground into powder. When you put real aweto in hot water, it will expand and the color will not change. Fakes may not expand and often lose color and come apart.


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