In traditional Chinese medicine, it's not necessary to hold your nose and swallow a bitter potion to stay healthy and boost energy in winter. An array of appetizing dishes, known as yao shan (Chinese medicinal diet 药膳), can do the trick.
The 12th lunar month, the coldest of the year, starts on Saturday this year, and TCM has a year-round clock for health living. It also relies heavily on food therapy to keep the body in balance. At this time of the year, the body needs more warm or hot (yang) energy, nourishing food to build up yang and keep qi (energy) flowing well.
"The Chinese medicinal diet is a distinctive food style in Chinese culture that follows the principles of traditional medicine. It uses the nature of food and herbs to adjust/balance a person's physical condition," says Dr Shang Li, deputy secretary-general of Shanghai Association of TCM.
Generally, medicinal diets include stews and soups, pot (food and medicine braised together in a hot clay pot), congee, desserts, tea and wines.
"Compared with Western extract supplements, the nutrition in this diet is much more easily assimilated," Shang adds.
The theory of food and medicine having the same properties is recorded as far back as "Huangdi Nei Jing" or "The Yellow Emperor's Inner Cannon" (estimated 475-221 BC), the fundamental text of TCM.
"There's no distinct line between the two. Food with strong energy properties can be used as medicine, while mild medicine can also be presented as food," Shang says.
For example, jujubes or Chinese dates are warm (yang) in nature and often prescribed as dessert ingredients, while the "velvet" coating on the antlers of young deer is used to make medicinal wine. It's considered a powerful yang tonic for the endocrine and immune systems. (Some people consider it cruel to kill deer for what is commonly used as a male sex tonic and energy-booster for athletes.)
Some foods themselves are mild but when cooked with other ingredients and eaten regularly over time can prevent and cure some ailments.
For example, Shang notes that cinnamon, a popular Western seasoning with anti-inflammatory properties, can reduce internal heat when cooked with rhizome of coptis (Chinese golden thread). When cinnamon is cooked with gui pi (1e?¤) or Chinese cinnamon bark, it can soothe and calm the nerves.
However, there are misconceptions that a medicinal diet can replace medicine in curing certain ailments.
"Medicine used in food therapy is mostly mild in nature. You can't expect a bowl of ginger soup to cure the flu," Shang emphasizes.
"You can't understand and enjoy a Chinese medicinal diet until you know its cultural value and the Chinese world view, which is totally different from the Western view," Shang says.
The Western approach is generally scientific and empirical, breaking everything down into its elements and studying their properties and effects. The Chinese approach, influenced by Taoism and concepts of harmony, is more abstract and metaphysical, seeing everything in terms of harmony between heaven and humans.
"TCM pursues health by establishing a harmonious relationship between people and nature, so a practitioner considers an individual's constitution, mood, attitude, health status, season of the year and environment in prescribing medicine or a medicinal diet," Shang says.
It's said that Chinese believe you are what you eat, while Westerners believe you eat what you need.
For example, the Western approach analyzes chemical compounds in ginseng, such as ginsenosides and phytoestrogens, and tests their benefits. The Chinese approach considers ginseng as yang in nature, supplying qi, the invisible energy of life.
Chinese medicinal diets rely on the principle of four qi and five wei (flavor), which relate to harmony.
The four qi of all food and medicines are cold and cool (yin), hot and warm (yang). Cold balances hot and warm balances cool.
Five wei are sour, sweet, salty, bitter and spicy. These correspond in TCM to five organs - sour for the liver, sweet for the spleen, salty for kidneys, bitter for heart and spicy for lungs. A balance in flavor indicates internal harmony.
"Ben Cao Gang Mu" or "The Compendium of Materia Medica," written by herbalist Li Shezhen in 1578 reflects Chinese philosophy in categorizing the world.
For many Chinese, food therapy or medicinal eating doesn't refer to a special cuisine but part of daily life.
"Eating cool (yin) lotus root in hot summer, hot lamb in cold winter, dry and spicy chili during the wet season - these are the natural habits of life," says Wendy Wang, a middle-aged Shanghainese.
"There's no noticeable effect in a short time. However, if the diet becomes habit, you will feel the comfort of a body that is in balance," she says.
The concept of Chinese food therapy is becoming more popular overseas, including Western countries. Medicated soup packets and herbal wine are popular outside China.
"For many health-conscious food lovers, a Chinese medicinal diet is ideal," says Yuri Shirasaki, a Japanese working in Shanghai. He likes soup containing herbs and gui ling gao (turtle jelly 龟苓膏, though today it isn't made with a turtle's lower shell, but with sarasparilla simlax root), a popular black jelly-like dessert.
Many people from around the world come to China to learn TCM and food therapy. But in China, many young people don't embrace the diet.
"I don't dare order dishes with herbs such as angelica root (dang gui 当归) and ingredients with a strong nature such as venison (with yang energy) since I don't know my TCM constitution and whether these ingredients have side effects," says Selin Xu, a 25-year-old local.
Further, it's hard to find a restaurant serving food therapy dishes, except for some with warming dishes for winter.
"Unlike Western medicine with its standardized theoretical system, TCM and medicinal diet originate from ancestral practice and daily-life experience. In TCM, there's no standard answer, which doesn't make it persuasive in modern society," says Shang from the Shanghai TCM Association.
For the same patient, two herbalists might well prescribe different medicine and different diets, depending on their own interpretation of a person's constitution and habits. Also, the effect of one diet on two patients with similar symptoms may be different.
"To be safe, I prefer ingredients and medicine with a relatively mild nature, such as jujubes and medlar (loquat)," says Sam Yuan, chef de cuisine at the Waldorf Astoria Shanghai on the Bund.
Some nutritionists are skeptical.
"A Chinese medicinal diet is not 100-percent safe. I think exploring the pharmacology of herbs and ingredients is more important than discussing their TCM nature, and it's hard to get the dosage precisely right," says Fu Kang, a Shanghai-based nutritionist.
Combining health and art
Still, some chefs do combine TCM with food and are skilled in presenting the beauty of medicinal dishes.
"I prefer adding medicine, like ginseng and medlar, to soups, because long cooking releases most medicinal properties," says Du Caiqing, chef de cuisine at Hyatt on the Bund.
Du designs different therapeutic gourmet recipes for men and women. For ladies, he cooks pigeon with angelica root and tian ma (gastrodia elata 天麻, the tuberous root of an orchid-like plant) to nourish the yin (cool nature). For gentlemen, he braises beef or lamb (both yang) with ginseng to strengthen their yang (hot nature).
Eiddy Wu, Chinese executive chef at Shanghai Marriott Hotel City Centre, uses mild herbs such as dong chong xia cao (cordyceps or caterpillar fungus, literally "winter worm summer grass" 冬虫夏草), ling zhi (ganoderma mushroom 灵芝), and mai dong (lilyturf root or radix ophiopogonis 麦冬). Cordyceps and ganoderma are famous tonics that boost the immune system and have legendary, life-extending properties.
Chef Wu has a trick to reduce the bitterness of herbs: He dries them and then stir-fries them in advance, adding Chinese rice wine and ginger while cooking.
This gently sweetens the taste and highlights a pleasant herbal aroma.
"I follow a big principle - one dish for one medicinal effect. If you add ingredients and herbs with various health benefits, they can cancel each other out," Wu says.
Cantonese cuisine is famous for its medicinal soups and stews, changing according to the season. "My perspective is to supply warmth in winter, cleanse of heat or fire in spring, remove moisture in summer and nourish the lungs in the autumn," says chef Yuen at the Waldorf Astoria Shanghai.
He pays attention to the age of his guests.
"People of different ages have different requirements for nourishment. Some medicinal dishes are not suitable for teenagers," Yuen says.
Goose braised with herbs and radish
Goose prepared Yangzhou style is dried and then marinated in sauce. It has a lean, tender texture and a rich, savory taste. Radish absorbs the flavors from the fowl and the herbs, ginseng and medlar, which supply qi. They have a mild flavor that does not overpower in a dish that is juicy, with layers of flavor.
The herbs are suitable for both men and women. Radish is also medicinal, nourishing the stomach and spleen in winter.
Venue: Xin Da Lu China Kitchen, Hyatt on the Bund
Address: 1/F, 199 Huangpu Rd
Chicken marinated with herbs in wine
The dish features a complex medicinal aroma, slightly sweet, and rich chicken taste. The herbal bitterness is cut by Shaoxing rice wine, which also tenderizes the meat and gives it a mellow character.
Herbs include dang shen (codonopsis root 丹参), sha shen (adenophora stricta 沙参, bellflower family), medlar and angelica. Dang shen supplies qi, warms the stomach and nourishes the spleen. Angelica is sweet and warm (yang), replenishing the blood and expelling cold (yin). It's suitable for women, who are naturally yin in nature and need warm energy in winter.
Venue: Man Ho Chinese Restaurant, Shanghai Marriott Hotel City Centre
Address: 4/F, 555 Xizang Rd
Chicken soup with angelica
Chef Kevin Kong uses aromatic angelica root to bring out the delicate flavor of chicken. The soup is complex and balanced.
"Angelica itself has a comparatively strong flavor. To ensure it does not overpower the chicken, I add mild ingredients that are sweet and warm, including jujubes, medlar and longan," Kong explains.
The soup must be cooked for a long time to absorb all the flavor and medicinal properties of the ingredients, hence, it must be ordered at least a day in advance.
Venue: VUE Chinese Private Dining, Hyatt on the Bund
Tel: 6393-1234 ext 6330
Address: 31/F, 199 Huangpu Rd
Double-boiled turtle soup with sea horse
Turtle is both medicinal and delicious. It nourishes yin energy and protects the liver, while it has a rich taste and silky texture. Sea horse is yang in nature, benefits the kidneys and improves blood circulation.
Chef Yuen uses a stock made from chicken, pork bone and ham.
Venue: Wei Jing Ge, Waldorf Astoria Shanghai on the Bund
Address: 5/F, 2 Zhongshan Rd E1
Medicinal tea and snack
Chinese pharmacies also sell packets of medicinal soups and teas.
Si Wu Tang is a warming tea recommended in winter. Tea packets include angelica root, di huang (rehmannia glutinosa or rhizome of Chinese foxglove地黄), shao yao (paeonia lactiflora or peony root 芍药), and chuan xiong (ligusticum wallichii 川芎 or rhizome of Sichuan lovage in the carrot family).
It promotes blood circulation and wards off excessive yin. It's used for treating menstrual pain.
Some medicines are made into snacks sold in pharmacies. They include e jiao (阿胶) candy, a gelatin made from donkey skin and jujubes, which tastes sweet and sour. It nourishes the blood and moistens the lungs.