When I moved away from home, my mother would phone to ask what I’d had for dinner. If, in the dead of winter, I said I had eaten a salad, her response would be pained silence. In Mama’s mind, I was committing food suicide, sustaining myself with chilled, raw “yin” foods during the coldest time of year. “You must eat a combination of warming and cooling foods, with an emphasis on the warming ones,” she would caution.
In my Chinese family, food was central to a sense of well-being. My parents’ cooking was based on the Taoist principles of yin and yang, opposites that, in balance, create harmony at the table and in the body. Mama would repeatedly remind us that without moderation in our diet, we were prone to illness. For instance, rashes or fevers signaled too much heat, or yang; conversely, too much yin could make us feel weak and faint. Adding appropriate foods would calm and cure our bodies.
The Chinese believe that all foods possess warming, cooling, or neutral natures. Meats, poultry, onions, and spices are said to be yang, tending to warm and invigorate; yin foods such as cucumber, tofu, and watermelon soothe and cool. Rice and fish are believed to be neutral. Cooking techniques are also categorized: Stir-frying, deep-frying, and roasting impart a yang influence, while gentler methods such as steaming and poaching are considered yin. To balance a meal, home cooks might serve a combination of stir-fried yang dishes, steamed yin dishes, and plenty of harmonizing rice.
Seasons are also classified as yin or yang. During the yang seasons of spring and summer, we would eat cooling foods such as stir-fried bean sprouts with a little pork, tofu dishes, and plenty of fruit. In the milder yin months, my mother prepared hearty meat or chicken stews and stir-fries spiced with the warming flavors of ginger, garlic, and scallions. Essentially, we ate only what was in season.
I was always taught that eating in extremes was a recipe for sickness. For example, the summer cookout includes such yang dishes as spareribs and hamburgers, but also uses a yang cooking style in a like season. Even though you might also be eating salads and watermelon, these are not cooling enough to offset the overabundance of yang elements. As my mother might say, no wonder we’re out of balance.
Though little medical research supports the theories of yin and yang, they have been a way of life in China for centuries. Often when I explain this eating philosophy to friends, I am besieged with requests for lists of yin and yang foods. But eating in harmony is not as simple as a shopping list. Rather, it is about understanding the energetic properties of foods and the effects they have on the body. Even most Chinese people cannot explain the characteristics of most ingredients. It would be akin to telling someone how to ride a bicycle.
Very few books about the subject exist in English, and those Chinese who are knowledgeable learned from generations of culinary traditions. If you want to learn more about the yin and yang of good health, seek out a Chinese herbalist. They are plentiful in cities with Asian communities and usually are the best sources of guidance. Remember, every individual’s needs are different, and vary with age and gender. But at its core, this seemingly mysterious concept is deceptively simple.