Chinese dietetic therapy is one of the branches of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), alongside acupuncture, pharmacopoeia and tui na massage. Physical training techniques such as quigong and t’ai chi ch’uan are part of Chinese culture and go hand in hand with TCM. This practice is based on a 2000 year-old vision of the universe, where all things harbour two inseparable and complementary principles: yin and yang. “A manifestation of the Qi [energy] that fills the Universe, yin and yang are defined reciprocally and coexist in a dynamic and interdependent relationship.”1 Thus, night belongs to yin and day to yang, low is yin while high is yang, slowness is yin and speed is yang, and so on. In China, this view of the world also applies to food.
The nature of food
Chinese dietetics classes foodstuffs according to their ‘neutral’, ‘warm’, ‘hot’, ‘fresh’ or ‘cold’ character. This categorisation reflects the effect the food creates in the body. This may be a sensation of heat or coolness, no matter what temperature the food is served at, or a feeling of invigoration (energy boost) or relaxation (energy dispersal). Food can be described as strongly yin (cold), yin (fresh), neutral, yang (warm), and strongly yang (hot). Yin food ‘refreshes’ the body. Almost all green vegetables are included in this category – artichokes, spinach, cucumbers and so on. Root vegetables, such as beetroot, carrots and turnips, and tubers, such as potatoes and Jerusalem artichokes, are considered ‘fresh’. Milk, yoghurt, light cheeses and eggs are also seen as yin, alongside some seafood such as oysters, mussels and all shellfish. Salt, savoury condiments, soy sauce and nuoc mam fish sauce are also yin.
Meanwhile, yang food ‘warms’ the body and has an invigorating effect. Many kinds of meat belong to this category, such as game, beef, lamb, chicken and offal, as well as prawns and fatty fish. Butter, cream, fatty cheeses and most herbs and spices are also seen as warm or hot. Sugar, alcohol, chocolate, coffee and black tea are classed as yang.
‘Neutral’ foodstuffs bring balanced energy, structure and stability. They are often characterised by a relatively mild taste, “the flavour of nutrition par excellence, fortifying, strengthening and nourishing.”2 Most cereals and pulses fall in this category.
The influence of preparation and cooking methods
While each type of food has its intrinsic character, this can be modified to some extent depending on how the food is prepared. Cooking in an oven and fire-based cooking, such as grilling and smoking, are seen as yang-type processes on food, meaning it becomes more yang (more warming or invigorating). Poaching, boiling and steaming are cooking methods referred to as ‘with water and heat’, of a neutral or yin character, so “the food is more easily absorbed by our digestive system, thereby requiring little energy expenditure. It provides a comforting temperature and warms the body.” 3 If food is left raw (to eat in a salad for example) or fermented (such as making yoghurt from milk), these are considered strongly yin preparations, while frying food is seen as strongly yang.