Chinese Food Sense and Nonsense: the Yin Yang of Food








         &   NONSENSE











































Originally published under the title “The Yin Yang of Food”

in The Georgia Straight, April 11-18, 1974.

This reprint October 1982.









Were it of hoot, or cold,

Or moyste, or drye.


“I am leaving for Canada soon, would you, sir, kindly teach me some basic knowledge in food medicine, so that I can better take care of myself while away?” I asked my teacher early in 1973.

We were crossing the harbour together from Hong Kong Island to Kowloon. My teacher practises on the city island in the morning, and the Kowloon peninsula in the afternoon. It was a pleasant 20-minute terry trip, and the route we had chosen was a peaceful one, like a section of our Vancouver-Victoria ferry trip here.

There were about twenty small-size visiting seagulls on our right flying around in the air or floating up and down on the small waves. Classical painting being one of his hobbies, he was attracted by the form of the birds in flight. “I can tell you simply in an hour’s time,” he said. We landed, took a taxi, and arrived at his herbal shop. He left word to the foki where he would be having tea, so that they could fetch him when his waiting patients had come to a number of three or five, or if there was something urgent.

“Come, Li-Huen. Let’s go for tea.” And we went.

We chose, on that occasion, a cafe five or ten shop-spaces away from the herbal shop. We sat down. I cannot remember what drinks or desserts we ordered on that occasion. I took out my notebook and we started.









KWAN: The Ying Yang of food, please, sir.

PANG: Food can be simply classified as medically hot or cold, dry or moist, and easy or difficult to digest. KWAN: I’ve heard you mention, on diverse occasions, the hot and the cold; so I would rather you start with that which I’m less familiar with, namely, the dry and the moist.


Dry or Moist:

PANG: The medically-dry food is that which, after being taken, makes one feel drier in the mouth, with saliva and snivel also slightly reduced.

The medically-dry food is often medically-hot as well, while the medically-cold food is often also medically-moist. KWAN: I see we should start properly with the hot and the cold. Please, sir.

PANG: The hot and the cold are more basic concepts of food than the medically dry or moist.

You know raw and physically-cold food, particularly fruit and drinks, is usually medically-cold and comparatively difficult to digest.

KWAN: Yes, patients with coughing or asthma, for example, particularly children or the old and weak, should be spared of it.


Ying and Yang

PANG: The medically hot or dry, and the easy to digest, are Yang; the cold, moist and difficult to digest are Yin. The youthful and strong are Yang; the old and weak are Yin.









Tender or Old

So, we provide for our elders generally with Yang food, for this is often their need. Their organs may have weakened due to old age. The strong husbandman, on the other hand, can chew the tough and digest the hard.

As for your children in their tender ages, their life force and organs are still tender; so, feed them with nutritious tender food to build up their strength, and spare them, on the whole and more so when they are ill, with the raw and cold, the greasy and the difficult to digest. Don’t over-feed your children. Truly the saying goes, “For the peace of the child, keep him a little hungry and (physically) cold.”


Food Art

As for yourself, the art is to eat delicious and healthy. True ‘taste is natural, simple and enjoyable.

Know the science of food.


Food Medicine

Strictly speaking, anything we put into our mouths h medicine, from the Chinese medical point of view. KWAN: Indeed, sir. The proverb says, “Maladies enter by the mouth; calamities out of the mouth.” The I Ching says, “Thunder below mountain: Nourishment. Thus the superior man is careful of his speech and conversation, and regulates what he drinks and eats.”

Please explain the science of food.









PANG: Let’s have some simple and common examples.



Beef, mutton, thicken, pigeon, and chow-chow dog are medically-hot.



Pork is medically-cold-by nature, but barbecue pork and fried pork-chop becomes medically-hot on account of the cooking process.

KWAN: Can we think of a reason for it, and why “by nature”?

PANG: Steamed pork, for example is a little medically cold; long-boiled pork consommé is medically cold, particularly if boiled together with watercress making a favourite soup but malignant to asthma in children. The liver, the tongue, or any other part of the pig boiled long yields invariably a medically-cold consommé. On the other hand, beef consommé, ox-tail soup, or chicken broth, for example, are medically warming and delicious tonics for the old or weak. However, beef extract, though medically warming, is also undesirably medically drying as well.



Pork, however, becomes medically-hot once fried, on a pan or deep-fried. The frying, probably, removes its moist constituency, and there is also the medically-hot burnt part of the meat in the frying.

Cooking method often changes the medical significance of food.











Tong-ho  , and gull-choy   are medically hot.

Choy-sum   and guy-choy  are medically warm. But guy-choy is also medically dissipating, which cancels its medical warmth.

Heung-far choy is medically warm. People

with chronic cold stomachs like frying it with egg to make a favorite dish.



Bark-choy   , wong-a-bark , and

yeh-choy   are medically-cold.

Zee-gua                 , don’t-gua  and all the

rest of the gua family are a little cold medically if fried or simply cooked. However, if they are long boiled, the soup is medically-cold.

Spinach is medically balanced, tilting slightly-towards the cold side.

Celery is slightly cooling. Lettuce is medically cold. Tomatos and carrots are slightly cooling.

(These and the choy soups are medically cooling, favourites for youngsters, reducing their facial pimples, yellow mucus discharge of the eyes, and yellow urine.

Watercress soup, however, should be avoided by children suffering from asthma.)

Lor-bark  cuts body and functional strength, and is medically cold. Among the lor-barks, the green and the white are medically colder than the red.










lart jiew                                   chilli                           

geung                                      ginger                         

suen-tau                                  garlic                          

Chong                                      green onion                

tong ho                                    garland chrysanthemum

gull choy                                  album odorum           

choy sum                                 green hearts              

heung-far choy                        ?                                 

            guy-choy                                  mustard cabbage       

bor choy                                  spinach                       

cunn choy                                celery                         

farn keh                                   tomatoes                    

lin ngau                                   lotus roots      

ngai gua                                  egg-plant                    

don’t gua                                 winter melon             

jit gua                                      apple cucumber         

zee gua                                    sponge gourd             

bark choy                                white cabbage                       

wong-a-bark                            Tienstsin cabbage      

yeh choy                                  cabbage                     

sarng choy                               lettuce                        

hoong lor-bark                        carrots                        

sai-yeung choy                        watercress                 

lor-bark                                   white radish               

cheng lor bark                         green radish               











Hot Body

Some symptoms of the clinically hot body are as follows: feeling dry and bitter in the mouth, great increase of yellow mucus discharge of the eyes, very red lips and tongue, yellow and thick tongue fur, and constipation. Avoid medically hot foods.


DEFINITION. The medically hot food is that which, after being taken, heats up the functional system of the body, giving rise to the hot symptoms.


Cold Body


Some symptoms of the clinically cold body are as follows: feeling of dilutedness and tastelessness in the mouth, dampness of the tongue, pale lips and tongue, feeling tired and unwilling to speak, clear and pale urine, flowing muddy stool. Avoid the medically cold foods.


DEFINITION. The medically cold food is that which, after being taken, cools down the functional system of the body, giving rise to the cold symptoms.











Unlike the Yin storage organs, the alimentary canal is a ‘ Yang system for which constant flow and clearance are desirable as against obstruction and stagnation. Some symptoms of indigestion are as follows: discomfort in the intestines and stomach, feeling pressured and hard in the abdomen, constipation or diarrhea, no appetite. Egg, liver, cookies and cake, nuts, sweet potatoes and potatoes are relatively difficult to digest.


After Childbirth


  1. Avoid raw and cold food. Take warm food.
  2. If the mother finds that the favourite sweet-and-sour ginger vinegar recipe —long boiled broth with ginger stem, pig trottes, hard-boiled eggs, in processed sweet vinegar—is medically too hot for her, showing the corresponding symptoms, she must stop this tonification for the time being.
  3. Before the mother’s lochia has cleared, don’t force tonification. Long-steamed ginseng broth with or without meat, should wait. Dong- guai , however, in broth, soup, or as tea, may be freely taken any time during or after the lochia period.
  4. The misconceived belief of “thirty days” or “forty days” are over-simplified as rules and are unreliable. If tonification just doesn’t go well with the mother, we must just wait, even for a whole month after her delivery before we feed her with those tonic favourite foods. If it goes well with her, start as early as possible, non-stop and as long as possible.










My sister Amy Kwan, S.C.M., S.R.D., happens to be here in Vancouver on holiday for a month. She has come from Britain to see how our mother is settling down in Canada. Amy has just passed her British dietitian’s qualifying examinations and is due to report to duty on 1st April, 1974 in London, Britain.

Having finished our chicken congee one morning in our elder brother’s house in Richmond, I asked her to criticize what I have written in this article.




AMY: What you tend to call “digestibility” is a basic concept in your system. You say your “stomach-process” begins with the mouth and its saliva; “digestion”, in your system, then involves the stomach—’chewing’ the food by contracting and relaxing movements, the small intestines—mainly for absorption, and the large intestines for emptying the bowels.

We know oily tools delay the emptying of the stomach. Frying, deep or shallow, makes food oily. So, frying makes most food relatively difficult to digest

We often advise our fat patients to cut down fried food on account of its high caloric content. We have calculated that one single ounce of butter carries as much as 224 calories, whereas you can eat 4 oz. of potato for 100 calories, 100 calories being our customary unit.

Obesity is a big problem in the west. It is regarded as malnutrition. Malnutrition patients are either too skinny or too fat. Obesity and diabetes constitute the majority of cases of our small hospitals. This is why some graduate dietitians do not desire working in small hospitals.











Last time I saw you in Hong Kong, you mentioned that chicken gizzard as food was medically hot, whereas duck gizzard was medically cold, though duck and chicken appear so much alike to us as poultry food. You accounted for the difference by the hypothesis that the duck’s habitual environment is water, which is colder than the warm land and fields for the chicken.

Shouldn’t we then expect water creatures are medically-cold food; but why are shrimps, as you say, medically-hot as food? How can you explain this? Is your hot and cold classification based on the food creatures themselves and their environment, or do you make your classification according to how human beings react to them as food?

KWAN: We base on how human beings react to them as food.




AMY: But you know different people react differently to the same food. And there is the factor of adaptation.

Adaptation can sometimes be an accumulated effort through generations. Eastern Indians are mostly skinny, for, because of their poverty and religion, they eat little meat. Their stable diet contains much phytic acid from cereals, which should normally prevent the absorption of calcium in children who are growing their bones, teeth, etc. Yet they have adapted and survived.

I have a personal example. Some of my college friends were from Malaya, and they ate a lot of curry. We often took our meals together, and I often had to eat curry as well. At first, it did not go well with my stomacy: I had to go to the toilet frequently, and I often had stomach-ache. But now I have adapted myself to curry.





After Childbirth                                                                                                            11

You pay much attention to food care after childbirth. We take care of this all along as part of antenatal care, a preventive measure under the direction of the dietitian. Anaemia, for example, which is common in pregnancy, is well looked after this way, whereas your dong-guai tonification of the blood is a postnatal measure. Incidentally, puerperium lasts about six weeks on average; lochia clears in one to two weeks, usually 9 days; in any case, the doctor checks it.

KWAN: Mother, what is your folk belief about “thirty days” after childbirth? What is it all about!

MOTHER: Our old belief is that tonic specialties for the mother after childbirth should be continuous, otherwise resumption after lapses will cause hot symptoms in the body, by which time the mother has lost the advantage with further tonics.

We say tonification within the first month after childbirth is most effective, whereas after the first month, i.e., after 30 days, tonic specialties are less effective.

We believe that tonic favourites should not be started immediately after childbirth, at least not for the first few days, for fear the mother’s body may be “tonified dry”.

Steamed rice-wine broth, for example, has to wait for about 10 days after childbirth. The ginger vinegar and eggs recipe can be attempted 3 days after delivery, whereas ginger vinegar and pig trotters usually has to wait for 10 days after delivery.

Incidentally, rice fried with ginger is an appropriate favourite food after childbirth.

KWAN: (Aside.) Folk belief has to be checked.

Sweetened Black Vinegar

KWAN: How is the sweetened black vinegar processed?

MOTHER: When we still had our sun-yard for the production of bean soy and sauce, about 20 years ago, we processed the sweetened black vinegar the traditional way.

We roasted, i.e., dry-fried, red rice in a big pan, overturning the rice continuously with a spatula, until the rice turned almost charcoal-black. Still hot, the rice was poured into white vinegar and allowed to remain immersed for two weeks or more, when the vinegar itself would also turn black. Then we boiled this black rice vinegar with far-jiew (xanthoxylon), bart-gork (star anise), gwor-pay (dried tangerine peel), ginger root, black beans, and sometimes some dong-guai. Our production master used to have the right proportions for the ingredients, figures of which I can’t remember now.






Grains, meats, fishes, vegetables, spices, fruits, teas, and other forms of food are included in the Chinese materia medica, in fact mostly herbs. The latest classical edition Pen-ts’ao ch’iu-chen (Search for the truth in the

materia medica) by Huang Kung-hsiu of the Ching dynasty is an excellent digest updated to the author’s time (A.D. 1772). A translation of all the food entries in this simple book would make interesting and informative reading.

I shall give an example here.

. Latin: chrysantheumum coronarium. English: garland chrysanthemum. Mandarin: t’ung hao (tonghao). Cantonese: tog ‘hou.

“456. T’ung-hao. Acrid vegetable with a strong smell.

T’ung-hao. Enters specifically the meridians of the heart, the spleen, the intestines, the stomach, and the kidneys. Also known as p’eng-hao. It is medically acrid and sweet in taste, warm in nature, and thick in strength.

When the subsidiary fire of the body is burning hot within, with the various hot-dry symptoms, the eating of this vegetable causes one to feel pressured within, dizzy in the head, eye view confused, impatient, and tongue stiff. This evidences how the warmth of this vegetable adds vigour to the body fire.

However, for people with a chronic weak body-fire, this food helps to reduce the body phlegm and facilitates the discharge of body water; it gives peace to the spleen, harmonizes the stomach, and nourishes the heart. This is what the Thousand Gold says about its giving peace to the heart force.

In short, medically acrid and warm foods or herbs are appropriate for Yin organs with weak fire, but wrong for Yang organs with a blazing fire.


REFERENCE. “The Hot-Cold Food Concept in Chinese Culture and its Application in a Canadian-Chinese Community,” by David L. Yeung, Lilian W.Y. Cheung and Jean H. Sabry, Department of Family Studies, University of Guelph, Ontario. Journal of the Canadian Dietetic Association, vol. 34, no. 4: winter, 1973; pp. 197-203, 209.

Miss Philoria Hsia of the same university, but a former graduate of the University of British Columbia in Home Economics, is presently working on another project of V ‘Food Habits of Canadians (Hot-Cold)”, under the supervision of Professor David L. Yeung.











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