Traditionally, there are many customs that the Chinese practice to maintain harmony and balance, such as fortifying themselves in Winter with special tonic foods, matching the Chinese zodiac of prospective mates before getting married, arranging the living environment and surroundings with good Feng Shui, and practicing special breathing exercises to regulate their respiration and stay healthy by balancing the forces of Yin and Yang.
The Chinese pay attention to maintaining an internal and external balance, and a harmony of the Yin and Yang (the dual principles of male and female, or positive and negative), which has influenced the concepts of “hot” (Yang food) and “cold” (Yin food) in Chinese food and medicine. The root of Chinese goldthread, for instance, is considered “cold” and can relieve internal heat, while ginger duck is considered “hot” and a fortifying dish in the Winter. Certain foods are also said to “clash” with other foods and to produce harmful effect when eaten together.
Taking tonic foods, or Chin-Pu, is a part of indigenous Chinese culture. When fortifying themselves with special tonic foods, they pay attention to the problem of kidney, and there are many concoctions designed to increase the Yang element in the system. The concoctions of traditional Chinese medicine that has come down and continued to be observed today have undergone thousands of years of experimentation.
Tonic foods and tonic remedies have been around for thousands of years. Traditionally, the Chinese take tonics at every stage of their lives. Even before their child is born, pregnant women think “I must eat to nourish two, for a healthy mother means a healthy baby,” and eat extra tonic foods, such as chicken with ginseng giving a strong physique.
The most popular food for new mothers is the sesame-oil chicken. The two main seasonings in sesame oil chicken — ginger and rice wine — are supposed to remove cold from the body and stimulate circulation. The new mothers need to keep themselves warm, avoid chill and eat nourishing foods in order to have a speedy and full recovery.
Adolescents, especially those from families with short stature or who are physically puny, are often fed chicken spiced up with Chinese herbal medicines to give their development a boost at this important time. Older people need tonic foods once failing sight and thinning hair signal that their bodily organs are aging.
Tonic foods are also taken on the first day of Winter, when recuperating from illness, and by women who fail to become pregnant. In those cases, herbal concoctions of “Four Ingredients,” Chinese angelica root (or Dong Gui), Chinese wolfberry fruit and ginseng are taken, while simple chicken soup with Chinese red date (Jujube) also has a tonic effect.
Tonifying is one of the eight methods of treatments in Chinese herbal medicine which is designed to provide a coordination between vital energy and blood. Tonifying is a way of treating consumptive disease or deficiencies in the body’s vital energy and blood or bodily organs.
The traditional Chinese medicine holds that the blood gives rise to the body’s vital energy, which is divided into five categories — named after the Five Elements of metal, wood, water, fire and earth — which have a growth-promoting or growth-inhibiting effect on one another. Balancing these types of energy is the key to physical health, and tonifying requires that you first know which type is deficient. Chinese medicine doctors examine the patient and inquire carefully to determine the patient’s physical state before suggesting what tonic concoctions or foods he or she should take.
In traditional Chinese medicine, people’s physical nature is classified as “cold” or “hot,” and foods are similarly classified. The genes shows that different people have different type of constitutions. For example, it appears that people with cardiovascular diseases rarely get cancer, because heart disease is what Chinese medicine calls a “hot” condition, whereas cancer is a “cold” one.
For example, the lamb meat is “hot,” pork is “warm,” and duck is “cool.” Interestingly, where vegetables and fruits are largely determined by their colors: Light-colored food like Chinese cabbage and radish are “cool,” while dark-colored food, such as red beans, spinach and apples are “hot.”
People who are “hot-natured” should eat more “cool” foods, and vice-versa, to achieve a proper balance. Many common eating habits and practices of the Chinese can be explained in terms of Chinese medicinal theory.
For instance, the main reason why people take tonic foods in Winter but not in Summer is that tonics are mostly “hot.” If taken in the Summer, people would have no appetite for them, and since the body is meant to retain the tonic’s heat, any benefit would be lost in the Summer as the excess heat would just be sweated off.
And, why are the Chinese so fond of dark skin chicken and pork from black-bristled pigs? Under the Five Elements, the kidneys are classified as black, and since the kidneys represent the entire immune system you do your whole body good by eating black foods.
Most tonic foods can be made into gruel, liquidized, fried with vegetables or steeped in wine, and if herbal medicines are added too, they must be warmed through for the properties of the medicine to be released.
Of course, there are some tonic foods which are milder in nature and are suitble for the majority of people, just as multi-vitamins in Western medicine are safe for the average constitution. Common Winter tonics, such as concoctions of “Eight Treasures,” “Four Ingredients,” and “Ten Complete Ingredients,” astragali and Chinese angelica root (or Dong Gui) are all of this kind.
Western medicine also has its tonifying methods. For example, patients with difficulty in swallowing or loss of appetite are fed a balanced mixture of proteins and nutritions according to their conditions and calorific needs. Western medicine takes a direct approach, while Chinese medicine takes an indirect one. Under the Western system, a weak patient is injected with glucose, which takes effect immediately. Chinese medicine has a regulatory function which is more comprehensive and helps gradually build up the immune system. It is like helping people not by giving them money directly, but by teaching them the skills to earn an income.
Actually, some Chinese theories about tonic foods parallel Western theories, as if taking different paths towards the same goal. In the case of the sesame-oil chicken eaten by the new mothers, the sesame oil is described in Chinese pharmacopeias as benefitting the muscles, stifling the pain. Of the other ingredients, ginger and rice wine, the former stimulates sweating and warms the body, while the latter promotes the circulation. Also, the chicken meat is rich in protein, so a nourishing and delicious dish of sesame-oil chicken is really just the thing to aid quick recovery after childbirth.
Who needs the tonic foods most? First and foremost the elderly, weak, mothers and children. Elderly people have weak organs, and in the Winter they feel cold, especially their hands and feet. Old people usually take “warm” tonics, but people who suffer from dryness in the mouth, ringing in the ears and sleeplessness should take “cool” tonics and avoid extremes of “cold” or “hot.” Eating more sea cucumber, phytin, cordyceps, fish soup and sparerib soup will increase the colloid within the bones. The above categories of “the weak, women and children” actually refer to the sickness, new mothers and underdeveloped children.
Before prescribing any tonic remedies, a doctor must first read the patient’s pulse and vary the quantities of medicine according to the individuals, otherwise it will be ineffective or even produce adverse effects. If a person is too weak, the quantity of Chinese angelica root must be lessened or it will cause diarrhea. People with colds must not take tonics. And, people with any form of high blood pressure should not take ginseng. If someone with a cold takes ginseng, it is like a battlefield where the enemy seizes your ammunition and makes off with it in the confusion. These days, some restaurants add Chinese herbal medicines, such as wolfberry fruit, to their dishes to attract customers in need of a modest pick-me-up.
People whose constitution is already “hot” enough should not fortify themselves any further with “hot” foods such as lamb meat, which can bring on nosebleeds. These days, mothers don’t usually breast-feed so they only need a normally nutritious diet. If they over-eat the tonic foods, the surplus fat can easily give rise to chronic disease. In the past, people used to be under-nourished so they took the tonic foods. Today, people who are in good health should go on a balanced diet.
Following are some of the Yin food and Yang food:
Yin (Cool) Foods:
Asparagus, Banana, Bitter-melon, Chinese cabbage, Daikon, Duck Meat, Green Bean (Mung Bean), Mango, Pear, Radish, Seaweed, Tea, Tomato, Water, Water-melon, White Gourd, etc.
Yang (Hot) Foods:
Almond, Apple, Basil, Beef, Chestnut, Chicken, Garlic, Ginger, Ginseng, Green Onion, Lamb Meat, Longan, Mushroom, Orange, Papaya, Peanut, Perch, Pork (Warm), Red Bean, Red Date, Sesame oil, Shrimp, Spinach, Walnut, Wolfberry Fruit. etc.