Chinese Herbs vs. Swedish Christmas Food

As the 2016 holiday season comes to an end, I look outside my window with a cup of hot chocolate in hand thinking about my first Christmas in Sweden. As a holiday enthusiast it is nice to experience different Christmas culture and one of the big things I have noticed is that everywhere here sells lussebullar (saffron buns) and pepparkakor (gingerbread cookies). Why does selling holiday baked goods interest me? Because my Chinese medicine background taught me that saffron and ginger are herbs that are commonly used in medicinal formulas and may be categorized as a toxic component if used incorrectly. So this got me thinking, what makes a baking spice into a toxic herb?

What is saffron and ginger?

In Chinese medicine, each herb is categorized into “temperature” and “flavor”. Saffron is warm and slightly bitter, its main function is to invigorate blood to promote and stimulate menstrual flow or the blood circulation system. So not only it is used to treat patients that had irregular menstruation but also for those that have cardiovascular diseases and stroke; Ginger is hot and spicy, its function is also helping the blood circulation system but more in warming meridian and stopping bleeding. So it is a good idea to put some ginger in food or tea in the winter season to help warm the body, especially in temperatures below zero degree Celsius. And this is where the two world connects: the knowledge of an ancient study of herb usage lines up with a winter culture tradition.

While the idea of warming up your bodies in the cold winter lines up with the Chinese medicine usage of ginger. Generally the herb saffron is used with extreme caution and restrictions in Chinese medicine. For example, in Chinese history, saffron, in high dosage, has been used as a toxic drug to put in food to induce a miscarriage in pregnant women. Since its function of activating and accelerating blood circulation makes the uterus contract and eventually lead to a miscarriage. So we are taught that saffron should not be included in any treatment for pregnant women. However, lussebulle in Sweden does not come with such a warning.

So how come lussebulle is safe for all to eat but saffron is not?

After some research I think the difference lies in the following 3 points: dosage, preparation and origin.

1. Dosage

Chinese medicine uses saffron in concentrated liquid form, using about 3-9 grams each dose. Mixed together with other herbs, saffron is cooked by boiling down a pot of water until only one cup of concentrated medicine is left. This is meant for daily intake at a high dosage. Lussebullar on the other hand only have saffron sprinkled into the bread as an added flavor, no more than 1 gram in a serving. The dosage is significantly lower and the frequency of intake varies from person to person.

2. Preparation

As I have mentioned above, for Chinese medicine saffron is prepared with water boiling into a liquid concentrate. For lussebullar, the saffron is prepared with yeast and heat. This is an entirely different process which probably changes the saffron properties, instead only providing the flavor function.

3. Origin

Saffron has different places of origins. Different types of saffron such as Carthamus tinctorius L. and Crocus sativus L. have different quality and strength when it comes to toxicity function. So maybe the saffron we learned in Chinese medicine are not the same ones as the saffron used in lussebullar.


Of course, there are plenty other holiday treats and traditions to enjoy in Sweden. The Chinese medicine doctor in me just got carried away thinking about the little interesting coincidences between my past and present. All this talking about desserts also makes me realize that it’s time for fika. Maybe today I will have a piece of lussebulle and pepparkaka with my coffee.



Jennifer Tsai

KI Digital Ambassador

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