Did you know that in Chinese culture food and medicine are strictly interrelated? Eating is much more than mere nutrition, in fact nutrients can help restore the spiritual and physical equilibrium.
Have you ever watched the movie Eat Drink Man Woman (饮食男女)?
It’s a fascinating and delicate moving portrait of three sisters and their father in the 90s Taipei. If you haven’t watched it yet, well, we highly recommend it. If you have though, we bet you haven’t forgotten the opening scene: the poetical depiction – visually and auditorily – of the preparation of a plenty of Chinese dishes that literally makes you salivate for several minutes. It is a long, slow, meticulous process that considers not only the importance of flavor but also the visual presentation of food. The lavish banquet displayed in the first sequences of the movie is not an invitation to binging; on the contrary, the table covered with delicious dishes enhances your awareness of food richness, of its meaning as well as of the nutritive value of each dish. In other words, it prompts you to slow down, chew and savor your meal as if it was worth a gold ingot.
Chinese culture is well known worldwide for its ‘food obsession’ , as it offers an extremely wide range of ingredients and recipes that meet the regional resources diversity and produce 1001 delicacies. The Chinese expression”南甜北咸，东辣西酸= Sweet in the south, salty in the north, spicy in the east and sour in the west” sums it up (and simplifies it) quite effectively. Generally speaking, the country’s main ingredients are cereals and legumes, rice products are consumed in the south while wheat is mainly used in the north. Since they use chopsticks, food is at bite-size (no knives nor forks) and you won’t find any bread or salt on the table.
But Chinese food tradition has much more than that to offer: in fact, in Chinese culinary and medical history, food entails energetic properties and cannot be merely categorized in proteins, carbohydrates, fat etc. as they must follow specific rules in order to preserve the interactive equilibrium of body & spirit; in short, in order to preserve life.
In particular, the ancients texts of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) integrate food into the articulation of pathologies and treatments in accord with the flow of qi 气 aka vital energy, the yin yang 阴阳 theory, the cold-warmth balance and the five flavors.
0. Qi aka Vital Energy
The character 气 qi in traditional Chinese referred to the steam of cooked rice. In TCM it represents the vital energy, the essential breath of life whose unbroken flow ensures a healthy body & mind. The correct movement of the qi might be hindered by environmental, external conditions as well as by the occurrence of diseases. The observance of the following principles guarantees its correct movement.
- Yin Yang Principle
In Chinese culture food is classified according to the two opposites of yin yang: 阴 yin representing the female side and the moon, being cold, wet, dark, slow and 阳 yang representing the male side, the sun and being hot, spicy, dry, energetic and fast. In order to preserve health, one should seek to maintain the equilibrium between the two counterbalancing eventual inclinations towards one side. In the same way, the preparation of meals should respect this principle and include ingredients belonging to both poles.
Some examples? Most of the vegetables and fruits are yin (and cold), spices and red meat are yang (and hot); potatoes, legumes and cereals are neutral (that’s also why they constitute more than 80% of the Chinese diet).
How do they affect your health?
Yin nutrients moisten and cool bodily functions, while Yang ones activate body functions.
- Five Flavors
Pungent, sweet, sour, bitter and salty.
Every meal should find a balance between these five flavours, each of them being responsible for specific organs: Pungent > Lung and Large Intestine; sweet > stomach and spleen; sour > liver and gall bladder; bitter > heart and small intestine; salty > kidney and bladder.
Pungent flavor stimulates appetite; sweet one nourishes the body and fights intoxications; sour food is astringent; bitter taste dries dampness; salty one nourishes the blood.
- “..’cause you’re hot ‘n’ you’re cold” Katy Perry about Chinese food
As mentioned before, yin and yang entail different degrees of coldness and warmth which should be balanced. Therefore, food can also be classified according to this principle.
Fatty flesh, oily nuts, spices and alcoholic drinks are hot, while fruit and vegetables are mainly cold.
The methods of preparation of food can also affect the coldness-warmth of a meal: if you boil or steep the ingredients or serve raw food, the result will be cold; grilling, roasting, baking, deep-frying will produce a hot meal; steaming and stewing will preserve the balance of the dish.
With age the body becomes colder and colder, therefore the consumption of hot food should be increased.
- Tone up your body without gym
Fast or slow, hot or cold but also flaccid or tense: another pivot in TCM is identified with the ‘fullness’ of the Qi, which may result in the tenseness of the limbs. In order to restore, enhance or strengthen the Qi, one should eat 补bu food (it literally means ‘to fill’) such as bird’s nest or chicken cooked in broth. This helps regulate yin-yang balance and stimulate sexual appetite.
- Poisoning combinations
Finally, TCM proscribes the consumption of some food combinations such as persimmon and crab, honey and garlic, green beans and dog flesh (sic).
As you can see, there are plenty of rules and principles you should observe in order to ‘keep the balance’.
Do you need an example?
#Chinese Typical Breakfast
The so-called 粥 zhōu（黑粥 black rice congee or 米粥 white rice congee) is rice porridge cooked for a long time with plenty of water. Toppings: peanuts, meat, fermented tofu, pickled vegetables for the salty version; red beans for the sweet one.
We do not provide any kind of medical indications, but simply wish to enhance your nutrition awareness 🙂
Frederick J. Simoons, Food in China: A Cultural and Historical Inquiry
Judith Farquhar, Appetites: Food and Sex in Post-Socialist China
Huangdi Neijing, The Classic of the Yellow Emperor