Although it may not feel like it’s arriving, winter is nearly here. One crucial Chinese solar term marked Li Dong (立冬) or “Winter Begins” last Thursday.
For many Chinese people, seasonal change brings about a change in diet to meet the body’s specific needs for that time of year.
“To combat the cold weather, more energy is needed by the human body to keep it working properly,” according to Dr Jiang Zaifeng, director of the Traditional Chinese Medicine Health Department of Bao Zhi Di Culture and Arts Salon.
“In TCM concepts, reinforcing the body and storing sufficient energy can help people adapt to the cold weather better just like animals storing foods or fats for hibernation,” he adds.
Foods with energy-adjusting effects can work as well but more safely than medication, TCM practitioners say.
Foods that help reinforce the positive, bright and masculine yang and its complementary negative, dark and feminine yin, as well as the qi or energy flow, and blood are especially popular to help people of different health conditions get through the cold winter.
For yang energy
Mutton, a yang-reinforcing food, is on almost every Chinese family’s winter recipes. Hot pot mutton, braised mutton, baked mutton and mutton dumplings are all popular for their flavor and benefits.
Modern research shows that mutton is rich in protein, fat, vitamins B1 and B2, and elements like calcium, phosphorus, iron, potassium and iodine.
“Ben Cao Gang Mu” (本草纲目) or “Compendium of Materia Medica,” a herbal classic from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), describes it as helping warm the body, reinforcing energy, improving appetite and relieving discomforts related to pathogenic coldness and tiredness.
Jason Yao, 66, starts his winter preparations by cleaning and dividing fresh mutton and herbs into portions.
Yao, a lawyer who learned TCM at a young age, has had a bowl of braised mutton noodles in the morning and a small cup of deer antler wine at night at the start of winter for the past 30 years, based on his yang-insufficient constitution and with asthma.
He usually maintains the custom for a month when winter begins, and adds some herbs to mildly adjust its function to meet slight changes in his constitution each year.
Soup made with dang gui (当归) or angelica root, ginger and mutton is a popular recipe invented by Zhang Zhongjing, a famous TCM physician in the Han Dynasty (221 BC-AD 206). While mutton and ginger help dispel pathogenic cold and warm up the body, angelica helps activate blood circulation to fight against the cold.
It is especially recommended by TCM practitioners for those suffering from insufficient yang energy and blood. That may include patients with anemia, with chronic bronchitis, diarrhea or fatigue, and who are susceptible to cold.
Venison, walnuts, wolfberries, eel and mussels also are considered effective yang-reinforcing foods recommended for winter.
Yet Dr Jiang warns that these foods may not suit people who have pathogenic heat problems such as ulcers, sore throat and painful gums.
For yin energy
White fungus is a popular dessert ingredient in winter, as the “neutral” herb is especially effective in reinforcing yin energy and nourishing organs in the dry winter.
It has long been considered a beauty aid among Chinese due to its skin-nourishing properties. Modern research has found it rich in anti-oxidants and that it dilates coronary arteries and reduces blood fat and viscosity.
It generally is suitable for all people in winter, according to Dr Jiang, while it can be especially good for those with chronic cough, dry skin or constipation.
White fungus soup sweetened with rock sugar is the most common way to use white fungus in winter, while it can also be cooked with wolfberries, lily’s root, lotus seeds and jujubes.
Adding herbs like shi hu (dendrobium stem 石斛) or sha shen (straight ladybell root 沙参) in meat soup are also common ways to reinforce yin energy in winter.
To reinforce the blood
Many senior Chinese people cook san yuan tang (three round soup 三元汤) as a blood-reinforcing recipe in winter. It is usually made of jujubes, lotus seeds and longans.
Both jujubes and longans are “warm” foods. Jujubes can help the digestive system absorb nutrition better, while longans and lotus seeds sooth nerves and help relieve problems like sleeplessness due to palpitation, frequent dizziness and bad memory.
The soup can help with weakness, such as women who just delivered a baby.
To enhance the qi
Many Chinese often compare eating turnip in winter to “eating ginseng” because of its significant qi-reinforcing effect. Due to its “cold” nature, turnip is often cooked with mutton and beef in winter to balance the excessive pathogenic “heat” brought by the “warm” meat.
Though turnip can generally help digestion, uncooked turnip may bring damage to the digestive system for those with weak stomach.
Other blood-reinforcing food includes lychees, mulberries, fungus, beef and fish.
Chicken soup with huang qi (milk vetch root 黄芪) is a common energy-reinforcing cuisine that can be used in winter and other seasons. TCM considers chicken a “warm” food that helps reinforce energy, benefits organs and strengthens bones and tendons. Huang qi can enhance the benefits of chicken soup.
Rice, glutinous rice, peanuts, yams and soybeans are also qi-reinforcing foods recommended in the season.