Oriental Wisdom in the Western Kitchen
“Let medicine be your food and food be your medicine” said Hippocrates, the man who is reputed to be the father of western medicine. Somehow or other we have lost this sense of the value of food just as we lost the practice of energetic medicine. In the latter part of this century we have increasingly looked to the east to replace this loss. This article is about how we can adapt oriental wisdom into western culture, specifically how we can incorporate oriental ideas about food into a western diet, without abandoning our own traditions.
East and West
To begin with it is helpful to explain one or two differences in viewpoint between East and West. You may already be familiar with the notion of Qi, the fundamental reality underlying our physical existence. The Chinese, along with many cultures (our own included until a few hundred years ago) perceive a subtle reality underlying our material life. Not unlike modern physics, the world is seen in terms of energy and vibration. The subtle movements of Qi are traced in medicine, in agriculture, in all fields of human life and the vast workings of the cosmos are seen mirrored in the details of daily life. The cultivation of our lifeforce, our Qi, is the fundamental principle of leading a healthy life.
Secondly, a western understanding of food is dependent upon the laboratory, upon the analysis and breakdown of food into its basic constituents. In the west food is described as possessing certain quantities of nutrients (this much protein, that much iron, this much vitamin A etc). Eastern understanding is derived from the observation of human behaviour once a food is taken into the body. Food is assessed according to the nature and quality of its Qi. All foods are seen as having certain behaviours when they enter the human body. Some foods activate our metabolism, some foods slow us down; some foods generate warmth in the body, some generate coolness; some foods are moistening, some drying; some nourish our kidneys, others our liver or heart.
Thirdly, one of the basic principles of eating ‘orientally’ is that we eat according to who we are. There is no such thing therefore as the universally applicable ‘right’ diet. Each person will have a different constitution and therefore different nutritional needs. It is not possible to diagnose our own constitution by reading a short article like this one. This is better done with the help of a skilled practitioner of oriental medicine. Suffice it to say that a person is described as a combination of certain basic qualities such as Excessive or Deficient, Hot or Cold, Dry or Moist. A person may also be described as having a particular tendency towards imbalance in an organ or element. These constitutional patterns are what determines each person’s best diet and what is right for one person may not work so well for another.