The Language of Food
Now that we have established these basic differences in outlook we can learn to speak the language, not Chinese but the language of food. Food is described in a language which seems more poetic than scientific. Our western food labels list the principle nutrients, fat levels and carbohydrate count (a labeling system which panders more to the neuroses of western society than truly serving our understanding). For example I have just pulled a can of sardines out of our larder and on the back I read that it contains 190 kilocalories of energy, 21.3 grams of protein, no carbohydrates and 10 grams of fat per 100 gram serving. This sparse set of numbers which fails to even tell you that sardines are an excellent source of calcium is quite honestly of little use to anyone except weightwatchers or possibly athletes. It reflects the view of the body as machine still at the heart of western medicine. I don’t know what it says on a can of sardines in China because I can’t read it. However I do know that sardines are described within Chinese nutritional theory as follows: they are neutral in temperature possessing a salty and sweet flavour. They nourish the Blood, help remove water from the body and especially benefit the Stomach and Spleen.
So what does this mean? Let’s take it stage by stage. Amongst the qualities assigned to food in Chinese medicine, the temperature is the most important. This does not mean whether you eat it hot or cold but is instead a measure of the effect on our metabolism after initial digestion, its energetic temperature. Quite simply, some foods warm us up, others cool us down. Cucumbers, tomatoes and yoghurt, for example are down at the cooling end whilst peppers, lamb and garlic are up at the warm end. Sardines, then, are in the middle.
With an understanding of the temperatures of food we can already establish a few guidelines about the right kinds of food for our condition. A primarily hot person will need to eat a somewhat cooling diet: plenty of fruit and vegetables, fish rather than meat and not too many spices or fatty food or heating substances such as alcohol. A cool person will need a more warming diet: plenty of stews and casseroles, warming ingredients such as ginger or garlic and not too many cooling substances such as tea or raw food.
Sometimes when we are ill with a cold or the ‘flu there may be a simple cure right in our kitchen: a hot acute illness where we are restless, feverish, inflamed, perhaps with a sore throat or high temperature, can be helped by a cup of elderflower or peppermint tea or by a simple thin vegetable soup of courgette, celery or carrot. It can also be made worse by eating inappropriately i.e. eating hot foods such as a Mexican style fry up or congesting foods such as meat and dairy. If your illness is more cold with shivering, aches and a desire to curl up with a hot water bottle the opposite principle can be applied: ginger tea or a thin onion soup will be helpful and cold foods such as fruit or salad, or congesting foods will slow down the recovery.
The flavour of a food tells us a little more about its action. There are five basic flavours (sweet, pungent, salty, sour and bitter) each of which benefits a particular organ and carries out certain actions. Sweet foods are seen as moistening and nourishing, pungent foods as dispersing stagnation and promoting flow, salty foods as softening and detoxifying, sour foods as stimulating absorption and contraction, and bitter foods as draining moisture and counteracting dampness.
A food may have various other actions, strengthening some function or substance or regulating the flow of our body’s energy. Some foods strengthen our Blood, some our Qi, some our Yin and some our Yang. Others drain dampness, stimulate circulation or drive out pathogenic forces. Sardines are especially good for the Blood, chicken nourishes our Qi, sesame seeds strengthen our Yin, walnuts strengthen our Yang. Other foods have more regulating actions: fresh ginger drives out Cold, cabbage removes Heat, fennel circulates the Digestive Qi, olives remove Toxins and rye drains Dampness.
When we look at our diet from an energetic perspective it becomes apparent that we are already applying energetic principles to balance our food. Many traditional recipes reflect an underlying understanding of energetic principles. For example, let’s look at lamb and mint sauce: lamb is seen as a ‘hot’ meat in Chinese medicine and mint as a ‘cool’ herb so we can see that the combination creates a natural balance. Watermelon on the other hand, which is ‘cold’ is often eaten with ‘hot’ ginger. Similarly beef, which is seen as a dense and somewhat ‘dampening’ food is helped by horseradish which both cuts through beef’s heaviness and helps dry the dampening effect. You may be able to think of other examples of traditional combinations which feel right together.
Our diet adjusts naturally to season and weather. We need more warming foods in winter and can accept more cooling foods in summer. In dry climates we need more moistening foods, in damp climates more drying foods. In England, which tends to be damp and cool, a national diet which is generally warming and drying would be appropriate. Unfortunately our national diet is overdependent on wheat, dairy, sugar, meat and fat, a very dampening combination made worse by our sedentary lifestyles. A more appropriate national diet would include several more native grains such as rye, barley and oats, considerably less sugar and dairy (goat and sheep products are more suited to our needs), a wide range of vegetables and fruits, a little fish and meat (less beef and more chicken) and the imaginative use of a far wider range of edible leaves and seeds than we habitually consider edible.