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.
Having pig feet can strengthen the body and slow down the ageing process, keeping the skin smooth. People believe that having a fish head can help slow down the ageing process as well. Ginseng is an excellent tonic, and depending on the season, there are significant differences when taking tonic foods. Foods made from sticky-rice have a good texture but are not easy to digest, so most people try not to have too much. Bean curd is easy to make, rich in nutrition, and can be made into a wide range of dishes. People who believe that "food and medicine share the same roots" prefer tonic foods.
Chinese philosophy emphasizes "nature and the people as one." This kind of cultural mindset is expressed in the harmonious co-existence and development of diet and food. As a result, there are several limitations in the Chinese daily diet. These involve a proper variety of foods, seasonal or daily taboos, and "catalysts" or foods that are not appropriate when ill. Prohibitions have been passed down over centuries and discovered by experience, while others have been learned from modern empirical results. There is a strong emphasis on mixing and combining foods. For example, dumplings go with vinegar, scallions wrapped with pancakes need dips, deep-fried twisted dough sticks must go with soya milk, and noodles cannot be enjoyed without toppings and dressings. A table full of home-cooked meals must have meat and non-meat dishes, matching the Yin and Yang. For example, the mixture of main foods and supplementary foods, such as rice and beef, where beef tastes sweet and cold and rice is slightly bitter and wet. The two items are offset when sweetness is paired with bitterness to complement each other.
On the contrary, some foods do not pair well, and when combined, they can cause health problems. Examples include plums and white honey, as they attack internal organs, soya and pork, mustard and rabbit meat and more. Combinations like these can leave a diner unsatisfied, or instead, nauseous or in pain since they overate and ingested too many kinds of foods or contradict each others' properties. Food taboos among the general Chinese public have a lot to do with seasonal characteristics, meaning that the diet needs to change when the seasons change. The general population assumes that eating leek in winter and spring will 'warm the back and the knee.' However, in summer, leek leaves people 'dizzy with lousy vision.' People in Jiangxi Province enjoy spicy fresh peppers in the summer. Dry, hot peppers can also be used for the winter. However, there are no hot peppers in the typical diet for autumn. Other such taboos include:
- Breakfast cannot be dry food or eggs only.
- There should be no smoking during meals or watching T.V.
- When eating, one should not be angry.
- Do not drink too much water before and after meals.
- Have cold drinks, strong tea and fruit.
- After working the vocal cords, cold drinks harm one's throat.
- Do not get a full stomach when going on holidays and riding on motor vehicles.
- Too much sugar is unsuitable after physical exercise.
For some individuals, these everyday eating taboos are not worthy of consideration. However, as soon as one experiences discomfort or special occasions like pregnancy, these taboos must not be taken lightly. As the famous saying goes, "thirty percent treatment, seventy percent prevention." If one does not recognize "catalysts" or avoid "tabooed foods," one can experience adverse reactions in the body or even severe illness. The so-called "catalysts" are foods that may stimulate disease. The selection is broad, including chicken heads, pig heads, seafood, fish, beef and lamb, and various spices and seasonings. Depending on the body's state and the type of disease endured, the "tabooed foods" vary accordingly. For example:
- If one is frail and cold in all four limbs, one must have no watermelon, banana or pear, which has a chilling effect.
- When one has excessive body heat and hunger, amnesia or anxiety, it is best not to consume ginger, black pepper, rice wine and more.
When asthma attacks, eggs, milk, fish and seafood with high proteins become 'tabooed foods.'
- If one has a cough, he should stay away from cold beverages and cold foods, greasy and thick-boiled foods or pungent foods.
- When taking tonics, tea and turnip should be avoided, or the tonic effect will be known.
As for scallions and garlic, they are popular spices used in household cooking, and even northerners like to eat raw garlic. However, they are also considered "catalysts." It is beneficial for illness, but those who suffer from extreme internal heat should refrain from eating them. Especially for the elderly, having too much scallion or garlic causes dry eyes and hinders vision. The key concept to be followed is that there is no overall nutrition for some foods during pregnancy. However, due to the prenatal environment needed for the child's development, a pregnant woman's body is usually high in Yang's qi (chi). So spicy, pungent, greasy, and hard-to-digest foods should be avoided. After labour, foods such as crucian carp, pigs feet and eggs are frequently introduced into a woman's diet to induce milk production. However, vegetarian diets are recommended in the few days immediately after birth.
Meats, mainly carp and crucian carp, are not favourable to the healing of cuts. However, the tortoise can warm the body, fill the qi (chi), and is perfect for healing wounds. Of course, certain Chinese abstentions in food are only customary among ordinary people and have no clear scientific basis. Some places in China, for example, assume that a pregnant woman cannot eat rabbit meat or the child will be born with three pieces to the lip like a bunny. She cannot eat the donkey's meat; otherwise, the child's face will be as long as a donkey's. Tortoise meat, eel and loach are often believed to give the baby a little head, face and eyes. However, looking at these views with practical experience, it is clear that these food taboos are nonsense, but it carries the peoples' beautiful hopes for the next generation and can also be seen as a reflection of Chinese folk culture.
The study of diet is an extensive area of expertise since diet and culture have a strong connection. The preferred food of a specific culture may be frowned upon in another culture. Diet taboos in the diet can also also be used as a culture of abstention in the food culture. However, apart from daily life reflections, abstention culture is often closely intertwined with religious beliefs, nationalities or customs and practices of a particular country or region.
Chinese secular food taboos are generally reflected in Buddhism, Daoism, and Islam. For example, Chinese Buddhists are forbidden to eat meat because eating meat is considered the same as killing, a defile of religious discipline. However, in India, Sri Lanka and other countries, and in the Mongolian, Tibetan and Dai minority nationalities of China, the monks do not follow such a religious order. It is more in line with ancient Chinese courtesies during sacrificial ceremonies when people bathed and changed clothes but did not eat meat or drink wine to demonstrate their devout faith. What prohibits Buddhist monks from consuming meat or drinking alcohol is due more to the beliefs and customs of Han Chinese culture. The Daoist religion, which is native to China, also refrains from consuming meat and drinking alcohol. However, unlike the Buddhist approach, Daoists concentrate on maintaining the inner organs and cultivating the soul. They do not promote complicated taste in foods because immortals are expected to become who they are because they do not consume earthly foods. Islam prohibits its followers from consuming animals that died naturally or from having blood or pork, as well as animals that died as a result of strangulation, fall, or the remains of other carnivores. Muslims consider the types of livestock, as described above, to be "unclean." However, if the product, other than pork, has been cared for, it is suitable for consumption. Aside from these species, domesticated animals, such as horses, mules and donkeys, plus small-scale fish, such as crabs and eels, are all on the prohibited foods list.
Folk beliefs, local customs and some occupations or industries have also led to dietary abstentions. Some southern regions of China are happy to enjoy wild meat and seafood. However, consuming snakes, a common practice in these regions, is considered an act of sacrilege in other places where the snake is thought to be a guardian of humans. Instead, it should be cherished and cared for so that man and snake can live in harmony. Fishers living along the coast often have many food taboos because of their particular occupations. For the first meal of fish in the new year, raw fish must be brought to the boat's bow and offered to the King of the Dragon and the God of the Sea. When eating the fish, after finishing the meat on the side of the fish that faces up, the entire carcass must be removed before eating the underside, but the fish must not be turned over. Each meal must have fish leftovers, with a bowl of fish soup to be poured into the pot to cook the next meal. The importance of these customs is to symbolize the constant availability of fish. The food leftovers, including carcasses of fish and muddy waters, should not be poured into the sea. The Tibetans on China's western border have many meat-related taboos, and snake or marine species are seldom eaten. Some p