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Eating for Health


TO the Chinese people, the function of food goes far beyond that of merely filling the stomach. It is also essential for maintaining a healthy organic balance, reinforcing immunity and -- last but not least -- avoiding unnecessary visits to the pharmacy. Putting their money where their mouth is, Chinese people drink green tea to improve their digestion and eat special porridge to keep warm during the cold winter days. There is a specific term in Chinese -- yaoshan or medicinal food -- for dishes with medicinal functions.

In ancient times the Chinese believed that treatment of any disease consists of three stages. The first is yaoshan -- medicinal food, the second daoyin -- physical exercise. The third, drugs, were considered a last resort if the first two failed. As Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) still follows these rules it may be assumed they are effective. Any TCM practitioner will tell you that medicine and food share the same origins, which is why an everyday meal can also be of medicinal value.

According to ancient theory, the body is an organic whole. If any part of it does not work properly within the overall regime the body becomes unbalanced and the person falls sick. Medical remedies opposite in nature to the illness being treated should be prescribed in order to return the body to a balanced state. For example, medication considered hot by nature is used to treat diseases cold by nature.

Dishes are as varied in nature as medicaments, but as food attributes are weaker than those of drugs a proper diet can only cure minor illness over a long period of time. In treatment of serious illnesses, a proper diet acts as a supplement to medicine. In any event, Chinese doctors insist that a proper diet is in itself an excellent preventive remedy.

The recommended dietary regime comprises five tastes: sour, bitter, sweet, pungent and salty, and four natures -- cold, hot, warm and cool. The five tastes determine how a food or drug affects the organism. For example, pungent food promotes circulation and evaporation of vital energy qi. Bitter tasting food opens blocked centers and promotes healthy bowel movement. Eating sour dishes accumulates and concentrates vital energy, and salty food alleviates all feelings of heaviness. The four natures are effective in treating diseases through being opposite in nature to them, and each of the four seasons has associations with a particular organ.

Summer corresponds to the heart, autumn to the lungs and spring to the liver. As the heart is hot by nature it is considered advisable to eat cold, bitter food in summer. Considered the time to accumulate vital energy, dishes eaten in autumn should be more nutritiously sour and sweet. Illness most likely to strike this season are respiratory infections, but eating properly and drinking plenty of water fends them off. Spring is the best season to replenish the liver and winter is the time to nourish the kidneys.

All food possesses healing properties. Take, for example, the radish. According to Chinese tradition, this product is sweet and pungent by nature with no harmful elements. Raw radish promotes saliva secretion and alleviates dryness in the body. It promotes digestion, reduces heat (shanghuo), assists circulation of vital qi energy and dissolves phlegm.

One of the most popular street snacks sold all over the country from autumn to spring is hawthorn coated in caramel and on a stick. Nowadays, it is made from other fruits -- oranges, strawberries or kiwi, but traditional bingtang hulu is the hawthorn version. The best time to try it is Chinese New Year -- a time of widespread gastronomic indulgence -- because this fruit kebab is believed by all to improve digestion. The health-giving properties of hawthorns were, incidentally, defined centuries ago by famous Doctor Li Shizhen (1518-1593).

According to TCM theory, walnuts are by nature sweet and slightly warm and are good for the lungs and kidneys. They also provide essential energy for metabolism and blood circulation and strengthen the reproductive function. Eating walnuts on a regular basis improves the skin, stops the hair going gray, warms the lungs and inhibits coughs. One particular anecdote is used to describe the walnut's healthy effects:

An aged imperial court official had a cough for so long that he became too weak even to take medicine. Imperial medics prescribed him a mixture of three walnuts, three pieces of raw ginger and a cup of warm water to drink every evening before going to bed. He soon recovered.

Another example of dietary healing powers is the chestnut. Fried and sugared chestnuts are a favorite Parisian delicacy and are also widely enjoyed in North China. From late autumn to early spring Beijingers can be seen eating chestnuts with relish. As we now know, the Chinese always have a reason other than liking a flavor for eating particular foods. As long ago as the Tang Dynasty (618-907) Doctor Sun Simiao confirmed that chestnuts are good for the kidneys.

Chestnuts are salty and warm, just what the TCM doctor orders for the kidneys in winter. They are especially beneficial to arthritis sufferers because healthy kidneys add strength to bones and tendons.

In traditional terms, winter is the time to accumulate energy so as to be strong and robust in spring. Black sesame and other black products can also be beneficial as they nourish the five internal organs (heart, liver, spleen, lungs and kidneys), strengthen muscles and the spirit too. It is also widely believed that black foods are beneficial to the weak, sick and aged as well as to those whose hair is turning gray or falling out.

It is plain to see that the Chinese lay great store on a good digestion. They strongly believe that a properly functioning stomach inhibits disease of all kinds and that it is the straight track to a fresh complexion and good health.

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