The end of this month will see Chinese New Year being celebrated throughout the world so I thought this would be a good time to talk about Chinese food. Chinese food is steeped in a rich history of cultural, religious and philosophical traditions. As the Chinese believe in the concept of Yin and Yang, and that life is about a balance of extremes, so the food is meant to be a delicate equilibrium between flavors, textures, and healing properties. As Eileen Yin-Fei Lo notes in her book, The Chinese Kitchen, “What we Chinese eat to nourish ourselves we also eat to contribute to our interior balance and well-being. Food in China is to a great degree medicine.” In effect, so much of Chinese cuisine is based on balancing yin and yang, and the five elements.
As much of Chinese culture and philosophy is broken down into Yin and Yang, so too is Chinese food. Foods are classified as being yin or yang, depending on whether or they heat or cool the body. Yin foods have a cooling effect on the body while yang foods have a warming effect. People need different types of food at different times and when they consume too much of one type or another, they develop imbalances and, subsequently, illnesses.
At yet another level, the Chinese view the universe as made up of five principal elements: Fire, Earth, Metal, Water, and Wood. Each of these elements influences the other, and every living thing falls under one element. Foods can also be categorized as being “Earth” foods or “Metal” foods, etc… We need a combination of all these and, when we consume too much or too little of one type of food, we create imbalance. These elements also correspond to parts of our body, therefore, excess or deficiency of certain foods can weaken the corresponding organs.
Traditional Chinese cuisine views food as a key to maintaining health and vitality. Foods can help us achieve a state of balance and increase our qi (life-force). Therefore, to maintain a state of balance, it is important to eat a varied diet, rich in whole, seasonal foods.
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