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Sweet ‘n’ Sour: The importance of taste and food energetics in Traditional Chinese medicine

Written by Charles Buck

Food plays a critical role for maintaining balance and harmony in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Taste is a signifier of the “energetics” of a food, and therefore what role it will play in the body. In this article, Charles Buck explains the philosophy behind this, and how tastes are used to enhance wellbeing.

Introduction

Eating lunch in our clinic reception Dr Liu winced.
What’s the matter? we asked.
Oh, my food today is very bitter – it tastes horrible!
Why are you eating that if it tastes so bad? Are we not paying you enough?
No, I need to balance the tastes my diet, and so I sometimes eat bitter things.
Dr Liu had put a massively bitter vegetable in her lunch, and she had done it on purpose!

It’s not just traditional-style doctors that balance their food intake like this, most people brought up in Chinese culture have at least a basic understanding of the ancient principles of a healthy diet. People know that diet is an important key to staying healthy and that this is partly about including all of the five main flavours: sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter. Actually, there’s a sixth one – blandness, plus the Japanese have added yet another – umami-savoury – but let’s not get too distracted.

TasteHerb
pungentonion, garlic, ginger, radish, mint, mustard, chilies
sweethoney, cherry, chestnut, banana, parsnip
sourlemon, grapefruit, vinegar, plum, mango,
bitterbitter gourd, hops, lettuce, andive, coffee, chicory
saltysalt, meat, fish, seafood, seaweed

Bitterness is not found in many foods probably because it the most unpalatable flavour. In the far east the best known vegetable with this taste is bitter gourd – a knobbly cucumber-like vegetable that is so extremely bitter even most Chinese struggle to get it down. Apart from beer, the nearest we get to consuming bitter substances here in the west is chicory – which is only mildly bitter. Dr Liu was eating it to make up for its lack in her routine diet and for its reputation as a de-tox food that helps the body to remove heat and dampness from the body. Most Chinese herbal medicines that have this de-tox effect also taste very bitter.

The roots of China’s traditional view on diet go way back to the dawn of high-civilisation in China at the start of the Han dynasty around 220BC. The qualities of foods were detailed in a key founding textbook of Chinese medicine and acupuncture the Huangdi Neijing ­(the Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine), a textbook that is still considered important reading today in Chinese medicine universities.  

Chinese people have always had a strong cultural pressure to take care of themselves, to do everything possible to maintain good health. This is the result of a cultural belief that your ancestors were taking note of your behaviour and any lack of care would bring bad luck. Your body was not entirely yours but was gifted to you from your ancestors and had to be treated respectfully to avoid ill fate raining down on you. With especially bad misbehaviour ill fortune could fall not just on you but on your whole family and, worse still, on your whole town – bad stuff happening would be your fault! To this day many older people raised in the traditional ways ask to keep any body parts removed during surgery so later they can go to their grave whole, with no parts lost in life’s journey and with less risk of ancestor displeasure.  

So, for over 2000 years body care – yangsheng – has been an obsession for both the general population and the educated classes. It is not only good for your health but is a good thing for everyone that you take good care of yourself and a crucial way to do this is through good diet.

Here in the west dieticians have emphasised the nutritional properties of foodstuffs; measuring calories, fats, vitamins, trace elements and so on. Sometimes the simplifications can seem absurd; oranges are vitamin C, potatoes are carbohydrates, whole grains are fibre… and so on.  The assumption is that there is a universal good diet that supplies the nutritional components we need for health. For sure such insights are valuable in many ways but, from the perspective of Chinese medicine something important is missed out.

Charles Buck is an internationally respected clinician, educator, author and scholar who pioneered Chinese herbal medicine teaching and practice in Britain. He has been immersed in his field for around 40 years and has been honoured with Fellowships of all three UK professional registers. He is respected internationally for his insightful understanding of acupuncture and Chinese medicine and for his engaging style of teaching. Charlie’s interests include classical TCM, medical sciences, communication and the advocacy of his profession. He has published extensively and presented at conferences and colleges across the world and, as past chairman of the British Acupuncture Council, Charlie has worked for TCM advocacy, PR and branding. His textbook Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine – Roots of Modern Practice is an essential read.
www.acudox, www.charles-buck.com

Charles Buck

Charles Buck is an internationally respected clinician, educator, author and scholar who pioneered Chinese herbal medicine teaching and practice in Britain. He has been immersed in his field for around 40 years and has been honoured with Fellowships of all three UK professional registers. He is respected internationally for his insightful understanding of acupuncture and Chinese medicine and for his engaging style of teaching. Charlie’s interests include classical TCM, medical sciences, communication and the advocacy of his profession. He has published extensively and presented at conferences and colleges across the world and, as past chairman of the British Acupuncture Council, Charlie has worked for TCM advocacy, PR and branding. His textbook Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine – Roots of Modern Practice is an essential read.
www.acudox, www.charles-buck.com

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