You may think it’s only a tenacious plant that covers telephone lines and blankets roadsides from Virginia to Florida, but kudzu is actually a highly valued herb. It’s the remedy of choice throughout Asia for a host of disorders, including indigestion and stomach cramping, headaches, even alcoholism – and it’s an important part of the cuisine of China and Japan, as well.

Kudzu (Pueraria lobata) is one of the world’s largest vegetable roots, averaging two hundred pounds and reaching up to seven feet in length. A member of the legume family, kudzu has been part of the cooking in China and Japan for more than two thousand years. It was introduced to this country around the turn of the century as a solution for erosion and soil depletion and as a food source for grazing livestock. But kudzu did a bit too well and has overrun millions of acres in the southern United States, earning itself a reputation as a tenacious and nearly indestructible plant.

Kudzu root’s medicinal effects have been known in China for generations. Its first mention comes in the ancient herbal Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing from the first century A.D., according to Steven Foster, author of Herbal Emissaries (Healing Arts Press, 1992). It’s been used to treat a host of maladies: fever, stomach upset, diarrhea, headaches, hangovers, muscle aches, and the aches and pains of the common cold. Beyond this, kudzu is used throughout Asia as a thickening agent, giving body to soups and sauces without adding an overpowering flavor.

The starch that makes kudzu an outstanding jelling and thickening agent in cooking is partly responsible for its medicinal action. According to Subhuti Dharmananda, Ph.D., director of the Institute for Traditional Medicine and Preventive Health Care in Portland, Oregon, this starch also contains flavonoids, which are responsible for its strong medicinal effect on the digestive and circulatory systems. Flavonoids, which occur naturally in kudzu 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.

Compelling Research

The medicinal effects of kudzu’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 kudzu 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, kudzu 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 kudzu has focused on its use as a treatment for an entirely different type of problem: alcohol abuse. Fascinated by reports of Chinese physicians using kudzu 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 cases,” 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 kudzu, 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 kudzu will continue, both in the United States and in Asia, although kudzu’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 kudzu root extract for a wide range of both minor and serious illnesses.

Although kudzu 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 kudzu 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 kudzu or another herbal remedy, talk with a trained healthcare professional.

Kudzu Remedies

As a remedy, kudzu root is used in two ways: as powdered starches l and as whole dried root. Kudzu 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 kudzu 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 kudzu cream (see recipe, page 40) for colds, general body pains, stomach cramps, and diarrhea. Kudzu 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.

Kudzu cream and other remedies are made using kudzu root starch while medicinal kudzu teas are usually made using pieces of the whole kudzu root, which contains more water-soluble medicinal flavonoids, some of which are lost during starch production. Kudzu root tea (kakkon) is found in herbal shops and some natural foods stores and frequently contains several other medicinal herbs including ginger, licorice, and cinnamon. To brew a tea, Dharmananda suggests steeping 6 to 15 grams of dried whole kudzu root (or so to 60 grams of combined dried herbs) with two cups of boiling water.

Kudzu root also can be taken as tablets or tinctures, usually in combination with other herbs. These products are fairly rare but can be found in natural foods stores or in Chinese pharmacies under the names ge-gen or ko-ken. However, these concentrates should be prescribed by a qualified herbalist in order to treat specific conditions. Moreover, according to medical researcher Keung, kudzu root should not be taken with prescribed drugs because it can alter the metabolic effects of other medications. If you are already taking prescription drugs, see your physician before using concentrated forms of kudzu.

Here is a recipe for making kudzu cream. If you’re taking it to treat digest) discomfort, it will be most effective if you drink it about one hour before a meal.

Note: Serve the cream warm but alloy it to cool for one minute after you prepare it.

STOMACH-SETTLING KUDZU CREAM

Serves 1

This recipe makes a thick, pudding like cream. If you’d prefer to make a thinner drink, reduce the amount of kudzu to one rounded teaspoon.

  • 1 1/2 tablespoons kudzu starch
  • 1 umeboshi plum, pitted and minced, or 1 teaspoon umeboshi paste
  • 1/4-1/2 teaspoon fresh ginger juice (finely grate gingerroot and squeeze to extract juice)
  • 1/2-1 teaspoon shoyu (optional)

In small enamel or nonmetallic saucepan, thoroughly dissolve kudzu starch in 1 cup cold water. Add umeboshi and bring to simmer over medium heat, stirring frequently. As soon as mixture begins to bubble around edges, stir constantly until kudzu thickens and becomes translucent. Gently simmer 1 to 2 minutes, then remove from heat. Add ginger juice and, if desired, shoyu to taste.

Smooth and Silky Sauces

One of the world’s finest cooking starches, powdered kudzu root produces sparkling, translucent sauces and adds a pleasing texture to soups, puddings, and glazes, with no starchy or overpowering taste.

When you buy kudzu, the starch will be in small chunks, which should be stored in a sealed jar. Crush the chunks with the back of a spoon or with a mortar and pestle before measuring. Use approximately one and one-half tablespoons of kudzu starch per cup of liquid for sauces and gravies and two tablespoons per cup for jelling liquids. For most preparations, completely dissolve the measured amount of kudzu in a little cold water, then add it to the other ingredients near the end of cooking time. Gently bring the mixture to a simmer, stirring constantly while the kudzu starch thickens and becomes translucent.

GLAZED TOFU AND MUSHROOMS

Serves 4

This dish is hearty and satisfying. The kudzu makes the sauce appealingly thick and also delivers digestive benefits.

  • 1 pound fresh extra-firm or firm tofu
  • 2 tablespoons peanut oil or toasted sesame oil
  • 8 ounces fresh mushrooms
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • Pinch sea salt
  • Pinch ground white or black pepper
  • 3/4 cup vegetable stock or water
  • 2 tablespoons shoyu or soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon mirin or 2 teaspoons dehydrated cane juice
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons kudzu starch
  • 1 teaspoon ginger juice (optional; finely grate gingerroot and squeeze to extract juice)
  • Few sprigs fresh parsley or cilantro leaves to garnish
  1. Slice tofu crosswise into 1/3-inch-thick slices. Place on one end of a clean kitchen towel, fold the other end of towel over tofu and press lightly to absorb excess water. Cut each slice in half lengthwise, then in thirds crosswise, to form six bite sized cubes per slice.
  2. Heat 1 1/2 tablespoon oil in large skillet. Pan-fry tofu over medium heat on one side until golden and crisp, about 5 minutes. Turn and fry other side, then remove to platter.
  3. Remove stems from mushrooms, rinse caps, and cut crosswise into three to four pieces. Add remaining oil to skillet and saute garlic briefly over medium-low heat, being careful not to burn it. Add mushrooms and salt and pepper and saute 1 minute. Add l tablespoon water, toss, cover, and cook about 3 minutes. Add fried tofu and toss gently. Remove from heat.
  4. Combine stock or water with shoyu and mirin or cane juice. Add kudzu and dissolve. Return heat to low and add liquid mixture to tofu and mushrooms, stirring constantly to avoid lumps. Continue stirring gently until sauce thickens and becomes translucent. Simmer gently 1 to 2 minutes, then remove from heat. Add ginger juice, if desired.
  5. Serve garnished with sprigs of parsley or cilantro, or mince the garnish and sprinkle over dish. (You also can serve over rice.)

CIDER-POACHED PEARS

Serves 6

This simple dessert provides a warm, sweet ending to any fill meal. Kudzu aids digestion and also adds a pleasing texture with no overpowering taste.

  • 3 ripe but firm pears, peeled, halved, and cored
  • 3 cups cider or apple juice
  • 1 teaspoon cider-spice mixture or 1 cinnamon stick and several whole cloves
  • Small pinch sea salt
  • 1 tablespoon maple syrup
  • 1 tablespoon kudzu starch
  • Walnuts or pecans for garnish, chopped and toasted (optional)
  1. Arrange single layer of pear halves on bottom of medium-sized saucepan. Pour in mixture of 3 parts cider or apple juice and 1 part water to almost cover pears. Add spices and salt. Simmer, covered, until pears are tender but not mushy. (Check after 15 minutes.)
  2. Remove pears with slotted spoon, drain, and place in small individual bowls. Strain poaching liquid, then return it to pan. Simmer liquid down to 1 cup. Strain, and stir in syrup.
  3. Dissolve kudzu starch in 1 tablespoon cold water and add to liquid, stirring briskly Continue stirring over medium-low heat until kudzu thickens and becomes translucent. Simmer 1 minute more.
  4. Immediately ladle sauce over pears. If desired, add a sprinkle of toasted nuts.