The Energetics of food in Traditional Chinese Medicine
Traditional Chinese foodies must have had a great time exploring food. They developed a complex and deep understanding of not just the taste of food, but its very nature. Food as medicine is a very ancient idea. Keeping in mind these principles can help us live in balance within ourselves, and also in harmony with the changing seasons.
Foods are broadly divided into 5 flavours – salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and pungent or spicy. Each flavour corresponds to a specific Chinese organ system: Kidneys, Spleen, Liver, Heart and Lungs respectively.
Pungent flavours have an action of dispersing and promoting circulation of qi and blood.
Sweet flavours have a nourishing, harmonising and moistening action.
Sour flavours promote absorbing, consolidating and astringent actions.
Bitter flavours have the action of drying or resolving dampness and purging.
Salty flavours have the effect of softening hard masses.
Our bodies need all of these in moderation, and in varying combinations according to our constitution and health. Often Asian meals will offer a variety of dishes so that each person can eat according to their specific needs. Note that the ‘sweet’ flavour does not mean the intense concentrated sugars we are surrounded by; rather a mild sweetness such as in red dates or sweet potato. Examples of the 5 flavours are:
Sour | Kidneys: pomegranate, vinegar, lime, lemon, fermented foods
Bitter | Spleen: Parsley, mustard greens, kale, dandelion greens, collard greens, burdock root
Sweet | Liver: Rice, chicken, whole grains, sweet potatoes, cabbage, carrots, onions, squashes, corn, fruits, goji berries, honey
Pungent | Heart: spring onions, daikon radish, ginger
Salty | Lungs: seaweeds, miso, sea salt, tamari, pickles, ocean fish, shellfish
Traditional Chinese physiology used the analogy of our digestive system (Spleen and Stomach) being like a cooking pot over a fire (the yang of the Kidneys). Although raw fruits and vegetables, and copious cold water are usually considered beneficial, in traditional Chinese medicine having too much of these can cause an imbalance in the body. This is because different preparation methods have different energies, from cold to neutral to hot, with raw foods at the cooler end. Eating too much of these can dampen the ‘fire’ of digestion and lead to mucus (Dampness), congestion, fatigue and depletion, feeling cold, abdominal pain, a poor appetite, and bloating.
The embodied warmth of foods increases with different preparation methods, with raw fresh foods the coldest, through raw dried foods, with steaming being relatively neutral. Sautéing, frying and baking further increase the warmth of foods. In general, lightly cooked vegetables are beneficial to our digestion, and slow cooking, stewing and braising are great ways to warm and nourish ourselves in cold weather.
Foods themselves were found to have a warming or cooling nature. In cold weather great warming foods include: ginger, garlic, cayenne, black and white pepper, green onions, chilli, nutmeg, squash, sunflower seeds, walnuts, chestnut, brown sugar, clove, dates, fresh ginger, coriander, chives, rice wine or vinegar, cinnamon, capsicum, caraway, mustard greens, pine nuts, rice milk, parsley, cayenne, and turmeric
As always, listen to your body, it’s amazing.