Chinese medical nutrition has a wealth of knowledge to share about how to use everyday food items as medicine.
Even the founder of the Hippocratic oath in modern-day medicine, Hippocrates, believed this, instructing, “Let thy food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”
In Chinese medical nutrition, we utilize the basic relationships between each organ system, a flavor, a color and a season to first understand what flavors of foods can be helpful in nourishing an organ.
The idea of medical nutrition is that you utilize food to protect your health and prevent disease throughout the year. Part of protecting against disease is understanding what to eat — and when to eat it.
For instance, if you often catch a cold or the flu in mid-autumn, you would start to eat more lung-supporting foods right at the change of seasons around the autumnal equinox.
When you use the chart provided alongside this article to inform your diet during the seasons, you can start to protect your health.
To continue with the autumn cold-and-flu example, white foods and aromatic/pungent foods will help protect your immune system and lungs from the dry, crisp air of autumn. Foods such as onions, leeks, garlic and radishes, and spices such as cardamom, cinnamon, curry, oregano, basil and perilla will support the lungs through the cold, flu and cough season. If your lungs start to feel dry from cold, or a dry cough develops, the white meat of pears is especially helpful to moisten your lungs.
When you are sick for a long time or are suffering from a more complicated ailment, using Chinese medical nutrition can become more involved.
Just like any cooking, you have to start somewhere. When you are new to cooking, you start by following simple recipes and, over time, you start to adjust recipes to your taste, throw in a pinch of this and a dash of that, until you stop using recipes altogether.
The same process occurs when using Chinese medical nutrition: You start with the basics in the chart, and then slowly develop a stronger understanding of how to adjust the basics to your individual needs.
The simple way to follow the chart is to start adding the flavor and the color of the food associated with a season. If you know a certain organ needs a little help, then you can start using some of the flavors throughout the year.
Some of the flavors need a little more explanation than the chart provides. The flavor “sweet” for the spleen and stomach is actually the sweetness of grains and root vegetables, not sweeteners, fructose or refined sugar. The salty flavor for the kidney and bladder is a delicate balance, too. The salty flavor is, again, the flavor in foods, such as celery, but not added salt.
All of the flavors, when used in excess, will actually do more harm than good. You can see this with Type 2 diabetes acquired through excessive sugar consumption, or the danger of injuring your kidneys and creating high blood pressure by eating too much salt.
Arguably, our Western diet has plenty of salt in it. We rarely have to seek it out.
When your body is in balance — i.e., no health problems at the moment — then blending all five flavors into one meal is an excellent exercise. It can be an entertaining culinary task to identify the flavors you underutilize and use them more.
If you look at many Asian recipes, all five flavors are generally present. For instance, the secret ingredient to a good curry is something sweet. In a curry, it is easy to blend curry paste (pungent/spicy) with coconut milk (sweet), then add some carrots (sweet), snow peas (green, bitter/sweet), onion (pungent), a dash of fish sauce or tamari sauce (salty), and place it on a bed of rice with a handful of arugula (bitter), finally squeezing a lime wedge or two over the whole meal (sour).
With brothy soups, it will often enhance the broth to add a few teaspoons or a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar, or squeeze the juice of a small lemon into the broth.
If you add some Swiss chard or kale to the soup at the end, you fulfill the need for the bitter flavor.
It is often easy to represent the sweet and pungent flavors, since Western recipes frequently use carrots (sweet) and onions (pungent). If you want to change it up, consider using squash or sweet potatoes in your soups, stir-fries and curries to achieve the sweet flavor. You can rotate leeks for onions and experiment with culinary spices.
Any spice that feels like it opens up your sinuses and improves your ability to inhale when you smell it is considered aromatic/pungent.
We are lucky to live in an agricultural community where it is easy to get fresh, seasonal produce. It is remarkable to watch fruits and vegetables arrive that support each organ system in their season.
I invite you to experiment with incorporating all five flavors into a few meals a week and to pay attention to the color of your produce throughout the seasons. It can help enliven the experience of cooking and, hopefully, bring some fun back into the kitchen.