Module 9: Ancient Chinese Herbal Medicine, Diet Therapy, Spices and Cookware

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Han developed the concept of using food as medicine. China's oldest preserved medical books are Han date, and they have plenty to tell regarding nutrition and diet therapy, which is often significant in starving China.

Asians perceive food as having either "hot" or "cold" properties, fulfilling both medicinal and nutritional purposes: three meals a day, each with tea and flatbread (nan or naan). The main meal is typically at night.

Herbal soups are standard and made with peony or rheumannia root, angelica, star anise, wolfberry, cassia bark or prickly ash/fagara. They and other plants present as tonics, concentrates and pastes.

A significant feature of Cantonese cuisine is medicinal food. Dozens of foods are consumed primarily for perceived healthy qualities: snake for winter warmth, watercress for cooling, wild ducks or pork liver for strength and energy due to its strong iron content, certain herbs for cleansing the system, and chicken soup for just about everything else. In Chinese medicine, food is heating, cooling, or neutral. Heating foods are high-calorie, fatty, reddish, or spicy and make the body heat up and produce rashes and sores. Cooling foods are low-calorie, watery, sour, or cool-coloured and make the body colder and cause unnecessary energy and power loss. Neutral food is balanced, such as rice, noodles and whitefish. Chinese wolfthorn fruits and leaves are the strongest traditional foods regarding vitamins and minerals and are used as dietary supplements. All foods have health value in Chinese medicine. Food and medicine are on a gradient scale together. Many foods, including wolfthorn, are consumed for their therapeutic benefit. White fungus, dried scallops, are borderline products on the gradient scale. Moreover, medicinal herbs like ginseng could be considered foods. Food has always been the first course of action when a person feels unwell. After giving birth, women consume foods that are considered reinforcing and warming, and modern research reveals that these foods tend to be rich in iron, calcium, and other minerals, vitamins, or readily digestible protein. These foods restore health and promote breastmilk production.

Pangolin is a superficially anteater-like beast with fur matted into rough scales. It is powerfully nourishing and consumed as medicine rather than as a delicacy. A Gueizhou recipe includes frying it with almost any strong-flavoured component in the Chinese arsenal, implying that the animal's taste must be overpowered. The pangolin seems to have no verifiable healing properties and may be considered therapeutic because of its strange characteristics, implying a powerful qi - spirit or energy.

Another system originated in ancient China and centred on The Yellow Emperor's Internal Medicine Classic, written by one of the so-called celestial emperors, Huang-ti. Possibly written during the Han dynasty, it is relatively contemporary with the other systems. In this system, the first essential principle is qi, which translates to energy, life, or spirit. Qi promotes life and combats malignant outside forces. It also flows across the cosmos, binding the human microcosm with the macrocosm—health results when there is unity between the two, as do prosperity, security, and healthy crops. Two fundamental universal powers, yin and yang, work together in the Chinese structure's core guiding theory. Yin is female: dark, cold, soft, empty, night. Yang is male: bright, light, warm, firm, full-day.

Universal and physical equilibrium relies on combining these two powers, as do the stages or cycles of changes that occur within nature. The building blocks of nature are five kinds: earth, fire, wood, metal, and water. As nature shifts, these forces govern shifting processes, such as generation. Water produces trees; burnt wood creates fire, fire creates ash. Earth is the metal source, and when heated enough, metals move like water. All physiological roles may be defined by such transformations, like breaking down and processing foods. Unique foods or medications support particular transformations, create positive qi, or encourage qi through the body, as does acupuncture. Much like the other systems, this is a natural medicine that considers exercise, air quality, sleep cycles, sexual behaviour, and nutrition to maintain the right balance between the yin and yang energies, keep the qi moving, and maintain physiological transformations.

The notion that foods are heating, cooling, drying, or moistening seems to have been brought from India about the 6th C.E. In the Modern West, the definition of diet is far more restricted than in ancient structures since it only considers food consumption, calories, and vitamins. Little attention is granted to living holistically under external forces. Diet is not carefully regulated according to a person's particular complexion or behaviours. The energy expenditure rate describes caloric needs, and all bodies are believed to require the same nutrients of a given variety to allow for genetic and other sources of variants. This thought process comes from perceiving the body as a food-fuelled motor, an idea that emerged in the nineteenth century after the chemist Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier and later Justus von Liebig's study. This transition was complete only with vitamin discovery in the early twentieth century. The diet definition was even more narrowly described as food consumption or as a rigid weight loss programme.

The Chinese tradition of healing is based on a central idea—balance—and three primary forms of delineating the forces involved in this balance: yin and yang, the theory of opposites that are interconnected and mutually dependent; the Taoist concept of the five elements or five evolutions; and the concept of qi, or "intrinsic energy." Traditional Chinese knowledge of digestive anatomy is relatively precise. However, physiological principles focused on these theories vary considerably from their Western equivalents. Both body parts and physical acts performed by the body have either yin or yang characteristics. Food is yin, whereas eating is yang. For example, overeating induces a surplus of yin that can only be offset by compensating for the lack of yang by exercising. Foods themselves also have yin or yang attributes, but a well-balanced meal is one that chooses foods to match their yin and yang qualities. Digestive organs are either yin, like the liver, or yang, like the stomach, small and large intestine, and gallbladder. Emotions influence both organs' balance of operation, where rage influences both the liver, the yin-related organ, and the yang-related gallbladder, causing both to malfunction. The Taoist five elements of wood, fire, earth, metal, and water may be used to identify digestive system organs, tastes and smells, body orifices and tissues, emotions, and natural phenomena like the seasons. The order of the elements often gives directionality in the sense that the elements obey each other in the order of their respective seasons, and the role of one organ relies on the proper function of the previous organ within the chain.

Furthermore, the five Taoist elements operate in conjunction with the yin/yang system, such as the liver, a yin organ, and the gallbladder, a yang organ, which both correspond to wood, and anger, which is connected with both organs, therefore also corresponds to wood. As the body's "intrinsic energy," qi is essential to processes and transitions that transfer food to the proper location within the body, converting it into nourishment. Each food offers a qi quota or qi activation, or qi stagnation if poisonous foods are consumed. In fitness, food will help qi pass down through the "triple burner," consisting of three torso divisions:

  • the upper burner, devoted to respiration, containing the lungs and the heart

  • the middle burner, devoted to digestion, containing the spleen, the thyroid, the liver, and the gallbladder

  • the lower burner, devoted to expulsion, containing the kidneys, the bladder, and the lower intestine

For example, radishes are thought to help qi travel downward, facilitating digestion and wellbeing. Thus, these three interlocking structures help coordinate and guide eating activity by offering a system to perceived features of each food eaten and each health condition observed.

The Chinese approach to health rests in its "food and medicine sharing the same roots" ideology. The firm conviction that food has medicinal properties and beneficial benefits have contributed to adopting many edible plants and herbs. Moreover, with the advantages of disease control and health protection, Chinese homes have become daily dishes. At the same time, cooking pursues refinement. The amount of food and ingredient blending is critical, and it is advised to blend meats and non-meats. If producing recipes or soups, foods with good nutritional content are mixed to reach a healthy nutritional intake target.

Furthermore, dining is advised until the stomach is around 70 to 80 percent full since this tradition is passed down to generations as a secret to long life. The Chinese were granted the ability to learn about several edible plants unfamiliar to the West, and they found that plants can receive many of the vital nutrients of the human body.

In traditional Chinese medicine, duck is a luxury tonic food. It is believed that routinely eating duck improves health.

Laba porridge is now much more refined and has a better nutritional value. Top-quality laba porridge has therapeutic results ranging from benefitting the spleen, stimulating appetite, replenishing qi (chi), cleansing the blood, battling cold weather, and more. It is the usual winter tonic fare.

The selection of ingredients for any dish considers health benefits above all else. Turnip can relieve excess body heat and, therefore, is a fitting complement to lamb dishes, which cause high body heat. Spinach and tomatoes contain acidic qualities, so being coupled with calcium-rich bean curd would cause calcium salt (calcium hypochlorite), being unfavourable for digestion and absorption.

The backbone of Chinese food culture is diet therapy. The tradition of combining food and herbal medicine has existed since ancient times. The God of agriculture in Chinese legends, Shennong, taught people how to grow crops and mastered medicine by tasting hundreds of different herbs. Although it is a legend, it reflects a basic traditional Chinese philosophy, that "food and medicine share the same roots." So people's dietary intake and disease prevention and treatment have a very close relationship. Since days have gone by, Chinese people have paid close attention to health preservation and prolonging life. Huangdi Neijing's book first introduced a comprehensive view of dietary nutrition. Nutrition can be whole and balanced when the diet is comprehensive. The "five tastes" are included in the diet so that no particular taste is excessive enough to harm the internal organs. China's food culture's essence is to rely on daily diets to improve physical health and fend off illness. Compared to medicine, food is more gentle on the body. Each type of food contains a specific "fine extract" that can affect the body. When expelling excess heat from the body, the medicinal belief is that pears work for the lungs, bananas help the rectum, while kiwis work for the bladder. Different tastes have different influences on the body, and sourness usually goes to the liver, and pungency goes to the lungs, bitterness to the heart, saltiness to the kidneys, and sweetness to the spleen. Different elements are absorbed by different internal organs and have different effects on the body. Relying on food's nutritional content to influence the body is a feature of Chinese food culture, where hot and spicy food moves the flow of qi (chi) through the five primary organs.

With the peak of humidity and heat in the summer, drinks like lily bulb soup, chilled tea, mung bean soup, sweet-sour plum juice, and more can protect against heat fever. In autumn, when the air is dry, it is beneficial to eat food that moisturizes the lungs, like pear, persimmon, olive, turnip and tremella. Turnip is often eaten daily because it is cheap and has health-enhancing effects. Turnip with braised ribs or simmered lamb have tonic effects, and Chinese chestnuts, Chinese yams and river snails are also essential medicinal products for the fall season. The best time for tonics is winter. Upon entering the winter season, the Chinese like chicken, pig legs, beef, lamb, longan, walnut, sesame and other high-fat and high-calorie foods.

Every generation has different dietary therapies. Middle-aged people experience the body slowly shifting from energized to weak and need high-energy foods with protective health qualities and age-defying properties to slow down the ageing process. With a slower metabolism, middle-aged people should eat less meat from four-legged animals, such as beef and pork. Instead, they should eat "two-legged" animals, such as chickens or "one-legged" fungi or "no leg." fish. Medicine falls short compared to food in terms of providing nutrients to the body, and food works equally as well as medicine to treat illnesses. Every family knows that common fruits and vegetables can prevent and cure diseases. They believe that if a family member falls ill with a cold, to cure it: cut a few slices of ginger and add a few scallions, then add brown sugar to boil in water and drink while it is hot, then sleep under thick blankets to cause sweating, and the cold will be gone. Hen stewed in clear soup, brown sugar millet, and stir-fried sesame seeds are an excellent option for women after work that helps them quickly restore physical energy and function, relieving excess heat and revitalizing the body and mind.

Therapeutic diets combine traditional Chinese medicine with conventional food and cooking. Variety and dosage are strictly controlled. Using food instead of medicine is different since therapeutic diets make medicinal herbs taste delicious and are easier to consume. The combination of medicine and food forms a new kind of food by taking medicinal properties and the taste of great food, bringing Chinese food therapy to a new height. Popular medicinal diets include pastry, porridge stews and dishes like Duck with Chinese caterpillar Fungus, Whole Chicken Stewed with Ginkgo Nut, Stir-fried River Snails with Rice Wine, Pig Stomach with Lotus Seeds, lily bulb porridge, edible fungus cake, Chinese yam and more. Today, both large and small, Chinese cities have specialty medicinal diet restaurants, and business is prosperous. Not only did Chinese medicinal diets radiate domestically, but they are also being introduced overseas. It has been widely accepted and imitated by foreigners and is becoming part of their local food culture.

Wine made from slender acanthopanax bark, chrysanthemum wine, ginseng wine, oolong tea, ginger juice candy, sour plum and other traditional Chinese tonic drinks and foods have a large market in foreign countries. The famous western drink gin's main ingredient is a Chinese medicinal herb—the seed of Oriental arborvitae, making people calm and relaxed. Chinese Food Therapy and Medicinal Diet Practice are gaining more and more Western followers in a unified desire for health and longevity. Although Western medicine can cure many pains and illnesses, its chemical compounds' and properties can have strong side effects and have no nutritional value. However, Chinese medicinal diets revolve around natural plants and herbs, with long-term use being an accurate and safer dosage, and it can nurture the body and preserve health by strengthening the body's immune system, achieving the goal of slowing the ageing process and prolonging life. Taste usually represents the uniqueness of different regional cuisines. However, from a health preservation point of view, diets heavy on saltiness, sweetness, sourness or pungency are physically unfavourable for the body. Consuming excess salt damages the heart, spleen, and kidneys. Too much sour and pungent taste can cause ulcers. Achieving good health requires a harmonious balance of "five tastes" and light seasoning.

Since ancient times, the Chinese have eaten porridge, or congee, to prolong their lives by having a bowl of thin porridge on an empty stomach every morning. Porridge is said to prevent disease and maintain health, and carrot porridge can prevent high blood pressure. To increase essential vitamins to improve kidney function, which are organs with the nature of Yin, those who consume excessive meat and seafood should eat vegetable or wild herb porridge. Having less meat and seafood but more vegetarian dishes and porridge has always been a good option for people looking for health benefits. Vegetarian dishes with vegetables, bean-based ingredients and fungi are easy to digest and nutrient-rich. However, eating only non-meats is also not appropriate, as it is not sufficiently balanced and well rounded in nutrition for the essential nutrients the body needs—for example, calcium is rarely found in vegetarian foods. When using the five tastes in harmony and with a balanced diet, a reasonable dietary structure can be made, but it is increasingly dependent on dietary and nutritional health studies.