The theory of yin and yang is applied to all Chinese things including the classification of food and herbs. For over three thousand years the Chinese have combined the various ingredients for cooking food and the various types of food in harmonious balance for sustenance and the improvement of health. Since the 5th century BC, they have discovered the secrets of using herbs and other natural ingredients for healing. The ancient records named Huangdi Neijing contain information on the anatomy of man, the causes of illnesses and the method of healing.
During the Three Kingdoms period the well known physician, Hua Tuo, was skilled in applying a form of anesthesia for surgery. By the first century AD three thousand types of herbs were recorded in the Shennong Bencaojing for curing ailments. Ming dynasty physician Li Shi Zhen contributed much to the development of Chinese herbal medicine by compiling his voluminous Bencao Gangmu on 1892 types of Chinese herbs. His writings were translated into many foreign languages after publication.
To remain healthy a person needs fresh air, exercise, nourishing food and a healthy mental condition. Thus, the Chinese pay a great deal of attention to the way foods is cooked and a balanced diet is maintained to sustain and prolong life.
Chinese cuisine is a 3,000-year-old art based not only on skill and using the best quality ingredients but also on applying the ancient art of balancing the yin and yang qualities in the food. The Chinese classify each type of vegetable and meat in terms of yin and yang, and combine vegetables with meat in such a way that each cooked dish will be balanced. They know that food may be changed from one the other depending on the way it is cooked.
For example, a steamed fish is yin (cooling) but a deep fried fish is yang (heating). The skill of balancing food was developed as early as the 16th century BC. A minister of the ruler of the Shang Kingdom named Yi created Chinese cooking utensils and the art of cooking using the nature of the food to balance the diet.
During the 5th century BC cooks began to create cuisines with medical values. In the publication called Huangdi Neijing, a Warring States record, there are rules on how to regulate diet and improve the taste of food. The Han publication, Shennong Bencaojing, listed certain herbs and vegetables as being beneficial to the body.
By the Song Dynasty it was recorded that many diseases could be cured through proper diet and eating the right food. The development of cooking skills and lists of food for curing ailments intensified during the Jin, Yuan and Qing dynasties.
Classification of Foods
Different foods were classified according to their perceived nature. They might be han (cold/yin), liang (cool/yin), ping (neutral), wen (slightly warm/yang), and ri (hot/yang). Han and liang foods were believed to reduce fever, relieve thirstiness and coughs while wen, warm foods reduce running noses, headache, etc...
The five tastes of food are sour, sweet, bitter, hot and salty. Sour food relieves diarrhoea, asthma and other disorders. Slightly sweet food relieves ailments connected with the veins. Bitter food helps to cure an overheated body system. Hot food helps blood circulation and salty food helps to stop diarrhoea.
Han food (cold food) includes bitter gourd, lotus, water melon, sugar cane, tomato, banana, dong gourd, yellow gourd, snail, crab, etc...
Liang food (coold food) includes luobo, sigua, pocai, maize, green bean, bean curd, orange, apple, pear, duck egg, abalone, frog’s leg, mushroom, etc... Han and Liang food such as abalone regulates the liver function because it cools the “yangness” in the system. Hot food is chilli, pepper and other foods with a hot taste.
Wen food (mild food) includes apricot, ginger, spring onion, onion, papaya, glutinous rice, wine, vinegar, almond, dates, venison, prawn, fish, chicken meat, beef, goat meat, liver, ham, etc... Wen and hot food such as apricot stimulates blood circulation and nurtures the heart and lungs.
The neutral or ping food includes rice, sweet potato, flat bean, yellow bean, black bean, red bean, red carrot, ground nut, lotus seed, corn, pomfret, fruit, pork, goose meat, frog meat, butter and milk and these foods nourish the spleen and balance the digestive system.
Knowing the nature of individual foods enables the Chinese to eat the proper food to nurture the various internal organs, balance the yin and yang, and enhance the qi of the body.
For example, to nurture the stomach they believe one should eat carrots, melons, apples and vegetables. To nourish the spleen one can drink honey and drinks made from herbs prescribed by a Chinese medicine shop.