Culture - 食- Eating for Harmony

by Prof. Cheng Aimin in Nanjing University

Chinese food is well-known throughout the world for its appearance, aroma and flavor. The uniqueness of Chinese food lies not only in its appearance and flavor, but also in its style of preparation, cooking and presentation. Chinese food culture was gradually formed in the development of Chinese society and civilization and was in turn helped shape the character and temperament of the Chinese people. As a panorama of Chinese culture, Chinese food is generally believed to be one of the best channels to know this country, its people and culture. There is a profound philosophy under Chinese food culture.

It is generally believed by Chinese people, that whatever people eat or drink, not only the quantity, but also the method, affects a certain part or organ of the human body. Therefore, eating and drinking is of special importance to the Chinese, not only to their physical well-being, but also to their mental health and harmony.

Many Chinese, believe in the traditional saying, "food is better than medicine". Therefore, people should resort to nutritional therapy first, and medicine is taken only after proper feeding has failed.

Ancient Chinese medicine holds, that the functions and structures of the human body, can be divided into two categories, yin and yang. 
The two opposite, yet complimentary, forces of nature. Yang stands for anything that is positive, active, ascendant, external or energetic. Such as the male body surface, the upper part of the body, the back and the limbs. Yin stands for anything that is slow, quiet, descendant, internal or stable. Such as a female, the internal organs, the abdomen and the lower part of the body.
The vital process of human body, are manifestations of the motion of the yin and yang. Unity and the contribution of yin and yang, gave rise to various kinds of life phenomenon. When yin and yang are in a balanced state, complementing and promoting each other, the human body will enjoy good health.
When either aspect becomes excessive or insufficient, this will result in the disharmony of yin and yang. In other words, the normal functioning of the body will be damaged, and so heath cannot be maintained.
In the west, people think of balanced diet as one containing certain amounts, and ratios of carbohydrates, proteins, fats, fibre, vitamins and so on. In China however, in order to achieve physical as well as mental health and harmony, people try to attain a balance of yin and yang within the body, by taking to account food properties, as well as personal and climatic factors.
Traditionally, the Chinese people regard of food as possessing the characteristics of yin or yang, that is, having cooling or warming properties.
"Cooling foods", are often low in calories and pale in color. Such as Celery, Cucumber, Crab, Freshwater clams, Persimmons and Green tea. It is more appropriate to eat this kind of food, in hot weather or when someone has too much internal heat - which is regarded by traditional Chinese medicine as a cause of disease.
Warming foods such Meat, Garlic, Pepper, Ginger, Sugar, Wine, Apricots and Black tea, are often high in calories or spicy in nature, and are considered as stimulating.
Cooking can alter the qualities of foods. Roasting and stir-frying, will render a food warm, while Salting a dish, will make eating coated with sauces while cooked.
Besides, the correct combination of one kind of food with another or several kinds of others, will help change their original tastes and
properties, making them more delicious and more nutritious and beneficial to the human body as well.
Therefore, making meals that the Chinese people take everyday, will contain various dishes with different, but complimentary ingredients, flavor and textures. In China, there are not only several major types of cuisine, but also a great variety of cooking methods. Many books concerning food, or food preparation have rewritten throughout Chinese history. According to either folk tradition or Chinese medicine, different flavors are related to different organs of the body. Sourness, is associated to the liver. Sweetness to the spleen. Bitterness to the heart. Hotness to the lungs and saltiness to the kidneys.
If any of these flavours, is excessive in the blood, the related organs will not function properly. And it will do harm to the body, when this occurs often. 
The Chinese also think, that a particular food has some beneficial effect on a particular ailment. Bean curd treats arteriosclerosis. Dried mushrooms, treats high blood pressure. Red beans treats anemia. Pears treats coughing, etc. Therefore, if a person feels ill, his or her family would have prepare for him or her, some special food according to his or her illness.

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