In the West, we tend to view food mechanistically through the lens of protein, fat, carbohydrate and vitamin content. In the Eastern tradition, however, people tend to focus on more holistic properties.
Among these, a food's "temperature" is one of the most important. As we describe in our book, "Ancient Wisdom, Modern Kitchen: Recipes from the East for Health, Healing, and Long Life" -- by Yuan Wang, L.Ac., Warren Sheir, L.Ac., and myself (Da Capo Lifelong Books, 2010), temperature can help guide the selection of the best foods to eat (and to avoid) for each individual according to his/her unique constitution, condition and environment.
As in the West, the Eastern concept of temperature includes the physical temperature of the food -- piping hot or ice cold. In the East, however, temperature also refers to a food's thermal effects on the body, say increasing metabolism until you break a sweat or cooling until you feel the tingle of chills.
Even for those unaccustomed to thinking in these terms, whether a food is classified as hot, warm, neutral, cool or cold can be surprisingly intuitive. Warming foods include ginger, chili peppers, cinnamon, turmeric, nutmeg, green onions and walnuts. Cooling foods and herbs encompass peppermint, citrus, tofu, milk, lettuce, celery, cucumber and tomato. Neutral foods include rice and many types of grains.
Cooking methods can also affect the dish. In Asia, blanching, steaming, pickling and boiling are understood to have a cooling influence, while grilling, frying, roasting, smoking, searing, simmering and cooking with alcohol are thought to make a dish more warming.
With this in mind, you can ask yourself how best to restore balance between yourself and your environment. Do you run hot, rarely needing a sweater and generally feeling energetic and active? Then cooling foods, like a chilled cucumber salad, would often be a good choice for you. Or do you run cold, with a propensity toward fatigue? If so, warming foods, such as a steaming bowl of ginger soup, could be called for. Is it winter on a freezing cold day? Perhaps a warming dish such as a spicy stir-fry with lamb would maximize your wellbeing. Is it a hot, sweaty day in the middle of summer? Perhaps a nice slice of watermelon would provide some welcome relief.
As the 2,000-year-old classic Chinese text "Yellow Emperor's Classic of Internal Medicine" advises, "If there's too much heat, cool it. If there's too much cold, heat it. If there's too much fullness, empty it. If there's too much emptiness, fill it ..."
Here are two simple dishes that illustrate how warming and cooling foods can be integrated into your diet to help achieve balance and wellbeing.
Warming Pumpkin Curry Soup
(Makes 2 servings)
Curry is a blend of spices, usually containing turmeric, coriander, cumin and fenugreek, and sometimes also containing ingredients such as ginger, garlic, fennel seed, cinnamon, clove, mustard seed, cardamom, mace, nutmeg and various types of pepper. Many of the ingredients in curries are considered warming in the East Asian and South Asian traditions, making them a good match for anyone who tends to run cold or for eating when the weather starts to turn chili. Here, these warming spices are enhanced in a bowl of steaming soup.
10 to 12 ounces pumpkin or winter squash, such as the Japanese kabocha (about 2 cups when cubed)
2 1/2 cups chicken or vegetable stock
2 tablespoons vegetable oil, such as canola or olive oil
1 small onion, diced
1 to 2 teaspoons curry powder
A pinch salt
A pinch pepper
1. Chop the pumpkin pieces into 1-inch cubes, seeded and peeled. (Some pumpkins are quite tough, and are most easily handled by chopping the pumpkin into two, seeding it, then cutting it into wedges before peeling. A large, sharp cleaver can be helpful with this task; if you don't object to a microwave, another trick is to put the pumpkin in the microwave for 5 minutes to soften it before cutting and peeling. The seeds can be reserved for roasting.)
2. Place the pumpkin cubes and stock in a pot. Bring to a boil, then turn down the heat to low and simmer for about 20 minutes.
3. Heat the oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onion and curry powder. Cook until the onions are translucent and soft (about 5 minutes).
4. When both the onions and pumpkin are done, combine them in a blender or food processor. Whir into a smooth puree. You can also use a hand blender or immersion blender for this task.
5. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve hot.
(Makes 2 servings)
This salad is good for eating in hot weather or serving to anyone who tends to run warm. In the language of traditional Chinese medicine, this dish helps to counteract heat and summer heat. In Korea, a similar dish takes the form of a refreshing chilled soup for the summer months.
1 medium-size cucumber (or equivalent), peeled if desired
1 clove garlic, crushed and then minced
1/4 cup white or rice vinegar
2 tablespoons dark sesame oil
1. Using a blunt instrument, such as the handle of a knife, pound the cucumber's surface to soften it slightly and increase its ability to absorb the salt and dressing. Cut the cucumber in half lengthwise. Scoop out the seeds with a spoon, if desired (less necessary for smaller cucumbers). Then cut the cucumber widthwise into thin slices or slivers.
2. Sprinkle and toss with salt, to taste.
3. Combine the cucumber, garlic, vinegar, and sesame oil in a bowl and mix well. Serve.
For more recipes, see "Ancient Wisdom, Modern Kitchen: Recipes from the East for Health, Healing, and Long Life.".