Kitchen Healing

In the world of Chinese medicine, food is the main remedy for what ails you.

By Lisa James

April 2010


It may have been the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates who said, “Let your food be your medicine, and your medicine be your food,” but it was the Chinese who really took that idea to heart.

“Unlike in the West, traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) makes no clear distinction between food and medicine,” say Yuan Wang, Warren Sheir and Mika Ono, authors of Ancient Wisdom, Modern Kitchen (Da Capo). “Respect for the healing properties of food is woven into the fabric of everyday cuisine.” They note that in China it isn’t unusual to find restaurants that specialize in such dietary remedies.

TCM is based on finding balance among the basic elements and energies that make up the body, a concern reflected in East Asian cuisines. For example, “certain seasonal dishes can bring a person in line with the time of year,” say Ancient Wisdom’s authors. “Particular foods are thought to counteract an individual’s own personal tendency toward, say, lethargy or restlessness.” Some Asian ingredients, such as goji berries, have pushed themselves into Western consciousness as superfoods. Others such as ginseng, known in the West strictly as an herbal medicine, appear on ingredient lists in Eastern recipes.

The recipe shown here is an example of what the Chinese call a congee, or porridge, generally made with rice. While it can be enjoyed as a warming breakfast by just about anyone, the Ancient Wisdom authors say it’s especially good for someone “with an impaired digestive system, upset stomach or reduced appetite.”

Finding Asian ingredients is easier than it used to be. Many health food stores carry such staples as azuki beans, licorice root and culinary mushrooms; other items can be obtained at Asian specialty markets.

Healthy eating involves more than just balancing carbs, fats and proteins. It means eating to support your own inner balance as well.

ET Recipe

Go-To Ginger and Jujube Porridge

1 1⁄2” to 1” piece fresh ginger, peeled and minced
10 dried Chinese red dates, seeded and diced*
1/2 cup uncooked short-grain rice, rinsed and drained**
4-5 cups water
pinch salt (optional)
honey (optional)

1. Place the ginger, Chinese red dates, rice and water in a medium-size saucepan
and bring to a boil.
2. Lower heat to low and simmer gently, covered with lid slightly ajar, for 45-60 minutes,
stirring occasionally. Add extra water if the porridge is drying out and/or threatening to
stick to the bottom of the pot.
3. Add a pinch of salt, if desired, to bring out the flavors. Serve warm,
with honey to taste.
* Also known as jujube or hong zao; in Chinese medicine red dates are
considered sweet and warming.
** For brown rice, use 1/3 cup rice and 5-6 cups water.

Serves 1. Analysis per serving: 525 calories, 9g protein, 1g fat (none saturated), 3g fiber,
122g carbohydrate, 29 mg sodium

Reprinted with permission from Ancient Wisdom, Modern Kitchen:
Recipes from the East for Health, Healing and Long Life by Yuan Wang, Warren Sheir and Mika Ono (Da Capo, www.dacapopress.com)

Tasty Healing, Chinese Style

Flavor is one of food’s greatest attractions, no matter what national cuisine is under discussion. But in Chinese medical theory, “each taste is linked to a general type of therapeutic effect,” say Ancient Wisdom, Modern Kitchen authors Yuan Wang, Warren Sheir and Mika Ono. They add that traditional Chinese medicine recognizes several healing flavors:

Bitter: This flavor tends to revive appetite while drying “dampness” (excessive fluid buildup). “Bitter foods are used to treat fever, constipation and some types of cough, as well as addressing conditions such as arthritis.” Examples: cilantro, tea

Salty: This flavor is used in Chinese medicine to soften such firm masses as cysts and inflammation. But too much salt can damage the vascular system, which correlates with such conditions as high blood pressure. Examples: miso, seaweed

Sour: This constricting flavor helps “counteract symptoms such as diarrhea and excessive sweating.” This means it should be avoided under conditions that indicate excessive contraction, such as arthritis. Examples: kiwi, lemon

Spicy/Pungent: Foods that feature these flavor notes tend to “disperse and circulate qi and invigorate Blood.” Too much spice, however, can promote insomnia, skin disorders and restlessness. Examples: chili peppers, garlic

Sweet: This flavor “strengthens, improves, moistens and harmonizes many systems of the body.” Used to ease weakness, thirst and dry cough, excessive sweet can cause fatigue and obesity (effects corroborated by modern research). Examples: almonds, pears

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