Most foreigners in China who hang out with Chinese friends will inevitably have been warned of the dangers of eating certain foods at certain times of the day/year, and if you are suffering from certain ailments you may also have been privy to gems of wisdom about how best to vanquish these symptoms using the natural healing power of foodstuffs. This all boils down to the Yin and Yang of things; the way balance needs to be restored by combining certain elements which favour either property.
The ancient Taoist (道教) concept of Yin and Yang is deep and penetrates almost anything you can think of (and some things you can’t). The basic premise is that they are opposites, but rather than being totally opposed, they work with and against each other, to continuously strive to create a balance, yet never quite reaching equilibrium. Thus explains their dependence upon one another and ensures their eternal longevity.
There is a strong belief amongst many Chinese that one can be healed through careful application of Yin or Yang elements. In crass terms, Yin represents (amongst other things): female, dark, soft, cold, wet, and diffusive properties; by contrast Yang is characterized by masculinity, daylight, hard, fire, dry and aggressive properties.
Food for thought
Thus each ingredient found in a dish has either Yin or Yang attributes, and can create—or relieve—certain symptoms. The key is finding a Yin/Yang balance between all meals so that no symptoms arise, but when you have favourite Chinese dishes you just can’t keep away from, it’s harder than it sounds. Sometimes when you really go overboard on certain types of food, symptoms will appear pertaining to whether you’ve had too much Yin or too much Yang foods. Yang foods are ones that add to the heat in your body, so things like chili and hotpot are obvious, but also beware of peanuts, beef, lamb, sugary foods like cookies, and citrus fruits. Doing ‘fiery’ things is also a sure-fire (pun intended!) way of increasing your chances of shang huo, so try to avoid stress, booze, smoking, flying off the handle, and insomnia. Here’s a brief rundown of what to expect:
Shang huo 上火 (Internal Heat)
Some of you may have heard this term and scratched your head, because there is no perfect translation into English. Shang huo occurs when you have had too much Yang food—dry, hot, spicy things—and the correlating symptoms are often: cold sores, dry skin, sore throat, blocked nose, outbreaks of pimples, toothache etc. Yang supplies the body with warm energy and if you overheat and the above symptoms occur, you need to balance it out with Yin foods.
Qu huo 去火 (Damping Internal Heat)
A common misconception is that shang huo is equivalent to indigestion or heartburn, and that the Western remedy of a glass of milk of magnesia is enough to cure it. But it’s more complex than that (as always with China!) and requires specific foods to ‘qu huo’: alleviate the internal heat. This is achieved through consumption of Yin foods. Yin being the cold, dark, wet medium offers relief in cold, wet, mushy foods, so things like fruit (barring citrus) are obviously good. Another remedy is to ensure you are taking lots of water onboard, by drinking either water or herbal tea. Mind you, most Chinese people do this religiously anyway, and will urge you to do the same. If you listened to basic physics classes in school, you will know that food with a higher calorie content generates more heat in the body, so lay off the fatty foods and try a lighter diet instead. Green vegetables, turnips, carrots, melons, pulses (the green bean or ‘lü dou’ is praised nationwide for its health-giving properties… where else in the world can you buy odd-tasting, slightly powdery green-bean ice cream?), leaner meats like poultry or fish, and milk are all your allies in the fight to qu huo and restore your natural balance. Soup and zhou, Chinese rice-based gruel, are also perfect for quenching the fire that rages inside of you, and all of these things are readily available at restaurants, markets and supermarkets, so if you’re getting a bit spotty or you’ve got a sore throat, chug down a few litres of scalding hot tea then head out to stock up on fruits and veg. You need never set foot inside a Chinese hospital.
Zibu 滋补 (Nourishment)
The Chinese are often quick to point out the benefits (and dangers) of things, and food is no exception. A good example of this is going to eat hotpot with Chinese friends, and waiting for the inevitable onslaught of information about every ingredient that eventually makes its way into the bubbling cauldron in front of you: “Here, eat this. It’s good for your [insert appropriate organ here].” Different ingredients are good for boosting different elements the body needs. For example, chomping on chunks of duck’s blood is good for boosting the iron content in your blood (although in the West most of us are happy with plain spinach for this). Gobbling ginseng will help alleviate fatigue and acts as a natural aphrodisiac, but be warned – consume too much and all your hair will fall out! (so when you see horny bald men you know what they’ve been feasting on!) If you scoff seaweed (海带), you’ll reap the rewards of vitamins A, C and B12, iron, potassium, magnesium and iodine, AND they’re naturally low in calories and fat content! Tofu should not be written off as a flavourless blob only fit for veggies and vegans, because it is high in protein and calcim and it’s ‘good for the skin’ (you will hear this phrase a lot if you hang out with Chinese foodies!)
You don’t have to believe everything you hear about the healing benefits of food in China, but for an ancient civilization that has always laid massive emphasis on food and subsequently left an indelible mark on the culture (so much so that the most common greeting is “Have you eaten yet?”), you should at least realize and respect the importance and relevance it has to Chinese people. And even if eating melons or pumpkin cakes won’t cure your toothache, it still tastes good, so grab some chopsticks and get stuck in!
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Keywords: Yin yang balanced Chinese foods Shang huo qu huo zibu nourishment
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