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Time to spring into a healthy diet
By Zhang Qian

TRADITIONAL Chinese medicine holds that after storing energy in winter, spring is the time when excessive “fire” rises inside the body.

While reinforcing yang (“warm”) energy keeps you fit in the cold and dry winter, you’ll also need to detoxify and nourish the body to reach an internal balance. As the old saying goes, food cures better than medicine (yao bu bu ru shi bu 药补不如食补).

According to TCM, yang energy in the liver grows more vigorously than in other organs in the spring. If it grows too quickly and upsets the balance, the excessive yang energy in the liver will disrupt the normal circulation of energy and blood, and hurt other organs, especially the spleen.

“In that case, reinforcement with food is still recommended in the spring, but a different strategy should be adopted — a mild diet that nourishes the liver while controlling the yang energy in it and reinforces the spleen,” says Dr Zhang Zhenxian, director of the Special Medical Care Department of Yueyang Hospital attached to the Shanghai University of TCM.

Yang energy foods such as mutton and hot pot are too strong for spring. Milder foods such as pork, carp and weever fish are more suitable.

Too much yang energy without sufficient nutrition will burden the liver and cause it to weaken. People often may feel thirsty and find they have dry lips and throat, and sometimes have high blood pressure.

To restrict the overactive yang energy in the liver, certain pathogenic heat-repelling foods are recommended as part of the diet during spring. These include pear, pearl barley, eggplant, loquat, chufa, shepherd’s purse, spinach and celery.

“Eating less sour foods and more sweet foods is appropriate in spring, as it can help reinforce spleen energy,” said Sun Simiao, a famous TCM doctor during the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) in his masterpiece “Qian Jin Yaofang” (“Invaluable Prescriptions for Ready Reference”).

“Sweet food” in TCM does not refer to cuisine with a lot of added sugar, but natural foods that taste a bit sweet and can help benefit the spleen and stomach. Yam, jujube and honey are at the top of the list.

Though most people feel invigorated by warmer spring weather, there are people who feel tired and listless. It is a common symptom in spring when the body fails to adjust to the warmer weather, and it happens more often to the elderly, those somewhat sickly and those who have chronic ailments.

Fresh vegetables, especially red and dark green ones, can help accelerate metabolism and relieve fatigue. These include spinach, cleome (spider flower), pumpkin, tomatoes and carrots.

Seasonal vegetables are often recommended, as they are believed to contain the “right” energy for the time. Xiangchun (Chinese toon), bean sprouts, pea sprouts and lettuce are all good seasonal foods that can help the body adjust to spring.

Garlic chives 韭菜

In TCM, garlic chives are considered a yang-strengthening grass, meaning they reinforce interior male and warm elements. Yang-strengthening food helps balance deficient and excessive energy, especially for those who suffer yang weakness.

Chinese people hold that garlic chives harvested in the second month of the Chinese lunar calendar taste the best. As a result, garlic chives play an important role in the Chinese spring menu. For example, garlic chives fried with egg, a typical home-cooked dish, is especially popular in spring because of the superior taste of spring garlic chives.

Owing to the warming and nourishing function of garlic chives, they are also used as ingredients complementary to “cold” food, such as shrimp and crabs. That’s why seafood is usually fried together with garlic chives in Chinese cuisine.

Leeks 蒜苗

Leeks have a mild, onion-like flavor. They are typically chopped into pieces, and are either sautéed or braised in Chinese cuisine, like sautéed leeks with pork and braised leeks with tofu.

It is believed in traditional Chinese medicine that leeks dispel interior cold and strengthen the spleen and stomach. Because of its warming and antibacterial effect, leeks are used to prevent the invasion of cold.

Leeks are also beneficial for the elderly, since they contain a considerable amount of sulfur compounds, which may play an important role in supporting the body’s antioxidant and detoxification systems as well as the formation of connective tissue.

They are an excellent source of bone-building manganese as well as heart-healthy vitamin C, folate and vitamin B6. Leeks are also a good source of digestion-supporting dietary fiber, bone-healthy magnesium, calcium, copper, enzyme-generating molybdenum and heart-healthy potassium.

Spinach 菠菜

Every time Popeye the cartoon sailor eats a can of spinach, he is transformed into a muscular dynamo who saves the day. Spinach does work to rejuvenate the human body and slow aging.

There are other reasons, however, for why TCM includes spinach as a spring food.

According to the health-preservation philosophy, we should eat seasonal vegetables and fruits because the human body is in tune with the universe. Spinach is sown in winter and harvested in spring, making it a natural vegetable for spring diets. It is loaded with iron and folate, which help replenish blood and strengthen the immune system. Classic dishes like braised spinach in broth, spinach tower with ginger juice and spinach and egg soup are as wholesome as they are agreeable to eat.

While spinach is relatively cool, making it possible to moderately balance the body’s excessive “fire,” it can be harmful to those with kidney stones and pathogenic cold problems of the spleen and stomach.

Lily’s root 百合

Some species of lilies are grown or harvested for edible roots, which abound in protein, vitamins and starch. According to traditional Chinese medicine, lily’s roots have tonic properties such as moistening the lungs and relieving cough, thus helping remove excessive “fire.” They are also used to cure insomnia for their perceived tranquilizing effect.

Chinese people choose both dried and fresh lily’s roots for culinary uses. Fresh roots usually appear with other vegetables like celery and pumpkins. While dried lily bulbs are suitable for herbal uses, they are also commonly used in south China to flavor soup and porridge, such as lily and lotus seed porridge and stewed papaya with lily bulbs. Lanzhou lily’s roots are believed to have the superior quality and taste.

Classic dishes include sautéed lily’s roots with celery; sautéed pumpkin with lily’s roots; lily and lotus porridge; and stewed papaya with lily’s roots.

Celery 芹菜

Celery is frequently used in weight-loss diets where it provides low-calorie dietary fiber bulk. In Chinese medically guided diets, celery is believed to have anti-inflammation and detoxification effects. Its cooling properties help clear away excessive “fire” and lower blood pressure. Celery is also a good choice for replenishing blood for its iron-rich quality.

The natural savory flavor of celery makes it perfect for almost all sorts of savory dishes. In Chinese cuisine, celery is often sautéed or braised. Sometimes it is also eaten raw with sauce in cold dishes. For example, sautéed shrimp with celery, sautéed celery with dried tofu, sautéed lily bulbs and celery, sautéed black fungus with celery, shredded celery dressed with sauce, etc.

Chinese toon bud 香椿

Chinese toon bud, the tender leaves of Chinese toon that sprout in spring, are used as vegetables and in traditional Chinese medicine. Purple Chinese toon buds are strongly aromatic, rich in lipids and less fibrous. Green ones are less aromatic and less nutritious.

Chinese toon buds are a nutritional, healthy gourmet vegetable and are getting increasingly popular in China. Since they are warm and detoxifying, and uniquely aromatic and appetizing, traditional Chinese medicine uses them to cure arthritis, strengthen the spleen and stomach, and restore deficiencies.

Chinese toon bud and tofu salad, Chinese toon buds dressed with sauce and fried eggs with Chinese toon buds are especially beneficial to those who have a cold body, or suffer a lack of yang energy and excessive yin energy. They are even called an aphrodisiac in China.

While they are nutritious and appetizing, Chinese toon buds that are not tender are harmful or even toxic, since they contain excessive nitrite. It is better to boil older buds in hot water before eating them.

Bamboo shoots 笋

Chinese people use “bamboo shoots after a spring rain” (yu hou chun sun 雨后春笋) as a metaphor, indicating things springing up rapidly on a large scale. Bamboo shoots in spring (generally harvested in late April) are as important in literature as in Chinese culinary culture.

Bamboo shoots are used in numerous Chinese dishes like braised bamboo shoots, braised pork with bamboo shoots in brown sauce, shredded pork in chili sauce and bamboo shoot soup with fresh and pickled streaky pork. Bamboo shoots are usually thinly sliced and braised or stewed together with meat.

Bamboo shoots are rich in crude fiber, which promotes digestion and prevents constipation. Bamboo shoots of superior quality are ivory white with close-set joints.

Jujube 红枣

Jujubes are believed to be especially beneficial to women for their blood-replenishing properties. Besides, jujubes are good for facial care with their richness in vitamin B, which accelerates blood circulation, and antioxidant vitamin C. They are also used in TCM to alleviate stress, cure insomnia and strengthen spleen and stomach deficiencies.

In Chinese culinary culture, jujubes are usually chosen as snacks, such as crispy dates, jiu zao (liquor-saturated dates 酒枣) and jujube tea. Jujube dishes like simmered dates with lotus seeds and silver fungus in thick soup, jujubes with glutinous rice and eight treasure congee are considered healthy tonic foods for women and the elderly.

Oyster 生蚝

High-protein, low-fat oysters are a good source of bone-healthy calcium, potassium and iron. In TCM, a healthy spring diet is supposed to increase sweet foods while reducing acidic foods. Oysters are thus used for gastric ulcers and excessive gastric acid. This tonic food also has a sedative effect.

A combination of oyster shells, fossil fragments, radix paeoniae alba (Chinese peony root) and the bottom shell of the tortoise may cure insomnia, anxiety and palpitations caused by excessive yang energy and a yin deficiency.

Raw oysters taste fresh, but they are too cold for those who have spleen weakness. Roast oysters, oyster and tofu soup and oyster omelet are more warming and tonic.

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