A large part of Chinese culture revolves around food. This holds true for daily greetings ("Have you eaten?"), ritual banquets at festivals, large or small, and special dishes for any occasion, happy or sad.
Chinese culinary practices were elevated to an art form long before some other civilizations even started using fire. Food for the Chinese is both maintenance and celebration.
It's not just food. Every bite and every sip is beneficial to the body, maintaining a delicate yin-and-yang balance.
When the body is heating up from too much spice, too much red meat or too much fried stuff, "cooling" food is consumed to neutralize the build-up of "yang" energy. The concerned maternal presence in the kitchen will quickly concoct savory soups, sweet tonics and cooling teas to keep tempers even and humors humored.
When the qi (energy) is weak, tonics are drunk to boost energy. When the qi is overly strong, gentle infusions will quickly soothe.
Yin and yang govern not only Chinese philosophy but also an entire way of life, with the best balance manifested in the Middle Path, a concept preached by both Buddhism in its Zen and non-Zen forms.
It's applied to all aspects of life, but nowhere else is it more apparent than in daily Chinese gastronomic practice.
For the average Chinese family, every meal must have "three dishes one soup", with a meat dish, a fish dish, a vegetable dish and a soup being the most common combination. It must also have a balance of steamed, stir-fried and deep-fried foods. And depending on the season, the soup will be either a light summer vegetable concoction with a few slivers of meat to sweeten the stock or a heavier soup to warm against winter chills.
And, in the equation, the yin-and-yang balance is always in play.
To illustrate how much traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is connected to eating and drinking, let's take a look at "zangfu" - the term used to describe various yin and yang organs in the body.
A yin organ is called zang, while a yang organ is called fu.
TCM practitioners believe that the individual organs do not function alone but are all related to the flow of "qi", or energy, in the body. They are the anchors to major channels or meridians - a term also used in acupuncture.
Zang (yin) includes the heart, pericardium (the sac surrounding the heart), lungs, spleen, liver and kidney.
Fu (yang) comprises the small intestine, triple warmer (an organ function), stomach, large intestine, gall bladder and bladder.
The best way to understand how it works is showcasing some recipes, and explaining how the ingredients and cooking methods fit into the "food as medicine" philosophy.
Chinese salads? Does that sound strange? It depends where you are in the country. Southerners like their vegetables hot off the wok, and limit cold dishes to little plates of appetizers served before the main courses. Cold salads feature prominently as we travel northward, and the variety in northern Chinese liangban cai (cold, tossed dishes) is truly impressive.
My Beijing sister-in-law blanches, pickles and dresses a vast variety of leafy vegetables and roots to make a staggering selection of cold dishes.