Believe it or not, I would rather avoid this article altogether, but some things do not work without a brief explanation. I will at least try to simplify this topic as much as possible and make it useful even for a non-expert on Chinese medicine.
In the West, food is judged just by nutritional values. In the Chinese diet, the energetic properties of food are much more important. In Traditional Chinese Medicine as well as in dietetic is used a so-called “warp consisting of eight“. According to this scheme, everything can be characterized by the principles of Yin and Yang, cold or heat, inner and outer, emptiness or fullness. These conditions can be combined in various ways, and their correct assessment then determines the direction of therapy and a proper diet.
Yin & Yang
The concept of Yin-Yang duality origins in classical Chinese philosophy and it is a primary guideline of Traditional Chinese Medicine. To seek a balance in diet, we can define food as predominantly Yin or Yang but we have to remember that nothing is just Yin or just Yang. We can only talk about more Yin or more Yang nature. In a very simple and general way, Yang represents everything light, clean, warm, dry and rising upwards. Yang tends to expand into space without a distinct shape, it is an invisible motive force. Jin has opposite properties. Tranquillity, persistence, coldness, humidity. It attracts, leads inwards, creates distinct and tangible forms. Classification of food into Yin or Yang is not absolute, but for our purposes will be enough to stick to this simple scheme.
If it grows above ground and likes sunshine, it is probably yang;
If it grows in the soil and darkness, it is probably yin;
If it is soft, wet and cool, it is more yin;
if it is hard, dry and spicy, it is more yang.
The five different natures of foods
The natures of foods refer to their capacity to influence the human body. The nature of food could be cold, hot, warm, cool and neutral, and this refers not to the state of the food but its effect on our bodies. Cold and cool nature are the carriers of Yin energy, hot and warm nature have Yang qualities and neutral or balanced nature is something between Yin and Yang. It is important to know about the energies of food because different energies act upon the human body in different ways. For example, if a person suffers from joint pain particularly on a cold winter day, eating foods with warm or hot energy can relieve the symptoms. On the contrary, if a person suffers from skin eruptions, fever etc it is beneficial to eat foods which are cold or cool in nature.
The five flavours, five elements, five seasons
Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water; five basic building blocks of nature. Like the concept of Jin and Yang, the idea of Five Elements is also based on traditional Chinese philosophy. These five elements are related to the seasons, to the individual organs in the body and in the context of Chinese dietetics also to the five flavours of food.
The five flavours of food include spicy, sweet, sour, bitter, and salty. Seasons from the Chinese point of view are also five: Spring, Summer, Indian Summer, Autumn and Winter.
The wood has Yang energy, expands, rises and grows. To the element of wood belong spring season, liver and gallbladder. A sour taste associated with this element reduces and harmonises its excessive expansion.
The Yang element of the fire is connected with summer, heart, small intestine and bitter taste. A bitter taste can balance and cool the overheating.
The Indian Summer is not actually an annual season, but the period that corresponds approximately to September. This period is ruled by the earth element. The flavour of the earth is sweetness. However, I do not mean the sweet taste of industrially produced candy, but naturally sweet foods such as Hokkaido, sweet potatoes, corn, nuts, etc. Sweet taste benefits the spleen and stomach, helps to generate enough energy to prepare us for the upcoming colder seasons.
Autumn is the season of metal. Metal controls the lungs and the large intestine. In the autumn, people often suffer from respiratory problems. Spicy flavour helps breathing and digestion and dissolves the mucus. In this season don’t forget to enjoy e.g. spicy mulled wine or ginger tea.
Winter is linked to Yin, the element of water, salty taste, kidneys and bladder. Salty taste helps to keep the warmth inside the body so that we can better cope with cold winter days. However, we must treat the salty taste with care and avoid industrially produced salty foods (sausages, canned foods). Instead, we should consume more seaweed, legumes, fish, eggs and, to a reasonable degree, meat. It is also important to prefer cooked food before the raw.
Four movements of energy
In the concept of TCM, there are even more classifications such as movements of energy. Food acts on the body through specialized movements. Energy moves toward different regions and internal organs within the body. The four movements are upward, downward, outward and inward.
Finally, I would like to point out that the categorization of food is not ultimate. The ambiguity of Chinese thinking leads us to intuitive cooking. Some foods have more than one energy direction and two or more flavours. We can also change the food’s thermal properties by the cooking method. For the sake of simplicity, I have decided to distinguish mainly the thermal and flavour properties of the food in my posts. Other properties I deal with only if necessary. I’ve also created a chart which I hope will help you with your orientation and inspire you to experiment. The chart you can find here.
I wish you a lot of fun in the kitchen.