Friday, 29 August 2008


"He that takes medicine and neglects diet, wastes the skills of the physician." - Chinese proverb

Last night we went to dinner at a Chinese restaurant in Brisbane’s Chinatown. The Chinatown Mall in Duncan Street, Fortitude Valley, has been a centre of Asian commercial and cultural activity since its official opening on the 29th of January 1987. Streets are signed in both Chinese characters and English. Both the Mall's Wickham and Ann Street Official entrance gates are guarded by pairs of stone lions, presented as a gift from the People's Republic of China. The 320 kg stone carvings stand as a symbol of friendship and cultural respect. They also function as sentinels - protectors whose mere presence is said to guard against evil spirits.

The Chinese food in Australia generally tends to be very good and there is a great variety of regional cuisines represented: Cantonese, Beijing, Szechuan, Hunan, etc. A good indicator that a restaurant is good is generally the large number of Chinese diners there! Brisbane, like most other major cities in Australia has its fair share of restaurants and eating Chinese is very popular here.

Food in China is very symbolic and there are strong philosophical elements that govern its preparation and ingredients that balance each other in the recipe. Everyone is familiar with the concept of yin and yang: Hot and Cold, Male and Female, Dark and Light, Winter and Summer. Yin and yang represent the concept of duality, each half making up the totality of the whole. It is appropriate to view them as complementary pairs and the Chinese believe problems arise not when the two forces are battling, but when there is an imbalance between them in the environment. Floods, divorce, or even a fire in the kitchen - all can be attributed to disharmony in the forces of yin and yang.

A basic adherence to this philosophy can be found even in Chinese form, from stir-fried beef with broccoli to sweet and sour pork. There is always a balance in colour, flavours, and textures. However, belief in the importance of following the principles of yin and yang in the diet extends further. Certain foods are thought to have yin or cooling properties, while others have warm, yang properties. The challenge is to consume a diet that contains a healthy balance between the two. When treating illnesses, an Oriental physician will frequently advise dietary changes in order to restore a healthy balance between the yin and yang in the body. For example, let's say you're suffering from heartburn, caused by consuming too many spicy (yang) foods. Instead of antacids, you're likely to take home a prescription for herbal teas to restore the yin forces. Similarly, coughs or flu are more likely to be treated with dietary changes than antibiotics or cough medicines.

Yin Foods: Bean Sprouts, Cabbage, Carrots, Crab, Cucumber, Duck, Water, Watercress, Tofu.
Yang Foods: Bamboo, Beef, Chicken, Eggs, Ginger, Glutinous Rice, Mushrooms, Sesame Oil, Wine

Almost no foodstuff is purely yin or yang - it's more that one characteristic tends to dominate. This is why there is not complete agreement among experts as to which foods exhibit yin or yang forces. It also reinforces that it is not so much the individual ingredients, as the balance and contrast between ingredients in each dish, which is important. Interestingly, cooking methods also have more of a yin or yang property, as the list below demonstrates.

Yin Qualities: Boiling, Poaching, Steaming
Yang Qualities: Deep-frying, Roasting, Stir-frying

Like the concept of yin and yang, the Five Elements Theory is at the cornerstone of Chinese philosophy and medicine. The Chinese believe that we are surrounded by five “elements”, but more correctly “energy fields” or “forces”: Wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. However, the elements are not static: they are constantly moving and changing. Just as an imbalance between yin and yang can produce destructive forces, keeping all elements in balance promotes harmony both in our surroundings and ourselves. Of course, balancing five elements is a little more complicated than achieving harmony between two opposing forces. According to Chinese belief, each element acts upon two others, either giving birth to it or controlling it. For example, wood gives birth to fire and controls or suppresses earth. Similarly, fire gives birth to earth and controls metal. All the elements are constantly interacting with other elements—none stand alone. The table below outlines the relationships:

Gives Birth To Controlling
Wood - Fire Wood - Earth
Fire - Earth Earth - Water
Earth - Metal Water - Fire
Metal - Water Fire - Metal
Water - Wood Metal - Wood

As for diet, Chinese herbalists believe that, to properly treat a patient, you must know the state of the five elements in their body. A deficiency or an excess of an element can lead to illness. cure common illnesses. Treating a cough with winter melon tea and fresh water chestnuts is just one example. Suffice to say that practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine rely on it to explain the relationships between the body organs and tissues, as well as between the body and the outside environment. The table below outlines the relationship between the five elements and body parts, feelings, colors, and taste.

Element Yin Yang Feelings Colors Tastes
Wood Liver Gall Bladder Rage Green Sour
Fire Heart Small Intestine Happiness Red Bitter
Earth Spleen Stomach Thought Yellow Sweet
Metal Lungs Large Intestine Sorrow White Spicy
Water Kidneys Bladder Fear Black Salty

How would a physician use the above information to make a diagnosis? Let's say a patient suddenly developed a preference for sour food. This could indicate liver problems. Of course, the actual process of examining a patient and making a diagnosis is much more complex than merely consulting a chart. It requires a thorough understanding of the interaction between all the elements and a good knowledge of the Chinese philosophical system on which disease diagnosis and treatment is based.

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