Wasabi & sushi, roast lamb & mint sauce, pickled ginger & raw fish; the combination of certain foods has been engrained in many cultures for years. Italians have basil in tomato pasta sauce while indians have yoghurt & cucumber on Indian curries; but how did these combinations come about? Who decided we would have mint sauce with lamb and how did they decide that? TCM food therapy can help us understand and provide us with information on how to balance our foods to maintain health.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) foods are classified by their ‘nature’ rather than the vitamins, minerals and pharmaceutical properties that define them in western terms. Food natures are classified by temperature including foods that are cold, cool, neutral, warm and hot. They are also classified by flavour. The five flavours relate to the 5 elements, they include:
Spicy/pungent: metal and lung
Sour: wood and liver
Sweet: earth and spleen
Bitter: fire and heart
Salty: water and kidney
An individual that has a weak kidney for example will crave salt just as a person with a weak spleen will crave sweetness. These flavours can help tonify the desired organ. However, an excess of these foods will cause damage.
Hot and cold foods must also be combined to give balance. For example, in China, fish is almost always cooked with ginger, garlic, shallots or chilli, this is because fish is of a cold nature and the spices are of warm natures. This creates harmony in the dish. In western culture mint is a cooling herb, thus, it is commonly seen accompanying lamb dishes. Lamb is one of the hottest natured foods. These practices help our digestion and promote optimum extraction of nutrients from food.
The Five flavours also have their own characteristics and functions on health:
Harmonises the liver and calms the body, it will ease tension.
Can act on the heart and clear heat from the body. Signs of heat may include thirst, dry skin, yellow urination, sweating and red skin. It can also help to dry the body and clear masses. This is different to salty natured substances that clear accumulation but have the function of softening without drying.
Can tonify the body. This makes sense, think of when children eat sugary lollies they have a sudden spike of energy. Sweet foods such as apples, liquorice root, honey and dates thus tonify the body and help support energy production. However, this is where balance plays a part. Too much sweetness will damage the body!
What does pungent or spicy mean? Pungent is a type of food that has a spreading dispersive feel, it opens and moves. The best example is that of peppermint oil. Think of the effect this has on sinuses when used in a vaporizer. It spreads and clears. Pungent foods are used for clearing the body and promoting movement. In Chinese medicine a common cold is said to be caused by ‘invasion of wind’ in the exterior. Pungent foods can eliminate this wind pushing it up and out to relieve signs of cold and flu.
Salty foods are associated with dissolving masses and removing moisture and phlegm. It softens without drying like bitterness. Examples of foods and herbs include; seaweed, kelp, cuttlefish bone and oyster shell. It is interesting to note these all come from the ocean. So it makes sense that salty natured substances are found where water is because they have the function of removing moisture. Everything in the natural world occurs in balance.
These principles of the different flavours and temperatures of food are not only applied to diet, but are the pillars on which Chinese herbal medicine is understood and prescribed.
So was tasting and understanding foods for their natures and flavours something that was only necessary in earlier times? Now days food can be identified and categorised by a deeper understanding of pharmacology and nutritional constituents.
Both are important.
Both traditional and modern perspectives give depth into the understanding of food and health. Just like chinese and western medical systems, food therapy is much the same; western science looks deeply into details while TCM has a broader holistic approach that involves the use of the senses and the practical use of logic.
So next time you go to the kitchen to cook up a feast, think about your digestion and how you can allow it to function optimally.
Think carefully about what you are doing and take care to balance your flavours and temperatures. For example if you drink fruit juices in the morning make sure to balance its cold nature by including a bit of ginger. If you are having a tomato pasta sauce, include the pungent, warming herb of basil that will move and break through the cool acidity of the tomato. Include yogurt with your spicy curry. This will balance the heat in the curry and also restore the bodies moisture after the drying spices.