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Yilan, Taiwan
I'm a Social Studies teacher and single mom from Colorado and have lived here for 9 years. Taiwan is an excellent base for us explore Asia, while living in relative (gun free) safety, while benefiting from a cheap and efficient national health care system. The people are amazing too. I have friendships that are 14 years old and I'm always making new ones.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Traditional Chinese Medicine Part 1: Food as Medicine

Taoist principles are apart of ever day Chinese cuisine and health. The Taiwanese look at food as medicine (or poison). Depending on the season, weather, time of day, a woman's menstrual cycle, etc, the Taiwanese can adjust their food/cooking to balance their body harmony and keep in health. All food can be divided into hot or cold (yin or yang), Typically, the Taiwanese try to avoid cold food for optimum health. Cold food doesn't mean just the temperature, but also its yin energy, like watermelon or citrus fruits. When a Taiwanese person is sick, they avoid all yin food, which is the opposite of Americans, when we are sick we eat oranges. All food is also composed of 5 flavors(sweet, sour, spicy, bitter, pungent) which correspond with the 5 elements (water, fire, earth, wood,metal) found in food, the body and all of nature; these in turn stimulate specific organs in the body. It can get very specific depending how deep you want to go, but the masters of this are the traditional Chinese medicine doctors and Taoist shifus. Really every plant, mushroom, meat has some kind of medicinal value and a specific combination can of course have stronger effects on the body. There is still the thinking that if you eat a specific organ you will gain that organ's strength, for example eating pig brain makes you smarter.

For the lay person or the average mom like me, this is what you cook, certain soups to heat the body. You can buy these soups in the local grocery store or the local traditional Chinese pharmacy where they have jars of herbs, fungi, dried endangered animal parts (like whole seahorses), etc and you buy by the weight. The following soups are the most common and based on plants although they are supposed to be cooked with meat, most likely pork or chicken. Thanks to my Taiwanese friend Doreen who is a "foodie" and wonderful cook. This is her advice: You just boil water, and put the herbs which are probably in muslin inside your pot like a tea and infuse. When the water is very dark add your chicken and simmer all. Add salt to taste, maybe a little rice wine and black sesame  oil for further heating properties. You can leave your herb muslin pouch in your pot as long as you want, it all depends how strong you want the flavor and the medicinal value. Typically you do not add vegetables in these. (I have to restrain myself from adding carrots, celery, etc, western style). If you want veggies make them in a side dish. Chinese cabbage is probably the only veg that will do in these.

Four things soup (si wu tang): This soup is composed of 4 main ingredients and used for women's health as a tonic for the uterus and productive hormones after her period (not to be eaten during!). It is also given to women after they give birth. It stimulates the balance of hormones, and the circulation. It has angelica root and lotus root. It is supposed to be cooked with chicken or pork in a soup. It can also be cooked with milk fish.

Eight Treasure Soup (ba zhen tang ): This soup is like they one above but only stronger, its has 8 key ingredients rather than four. It very much stimulates heat in the body and should be avoided if a person already has a lot of yang energy anyway. So if you are always thirsty and breaking out, do not drink this one.

Ten Gentlemen Soup 十  (shi junzi tang): Since men are more important (joke) they get 10 key ingredients. Most Chinese medicine for men has only specific goal in mind and thats to get the blood flowing to one area, take your guess where. Men no matter the culture share one common trait, that singleness of mind. Before there was Viagra there was this soup which is probably thousands of years old. Most of the terrible consequences of TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine), like the almost extinction of seahorses and other endangered animals come from men seeking to prolong erections. Having said that, women can drink this soup too if they want, it wont increase their testosterone or anything, just increase their blood pressure and circulation.

Four Spirits Soup (si shen tang ): This soup is traditionally drunk by children to increase their appetite and promote good digestion. Children like it because it does not have that dark color like the above soups, nor does it have the 'mediciny' flavor like the above. It is white in color and should be cooked with chicken or pork. You can add some carrots. Of course adults can drink this soup too to promote healthy digestion.

This is just a sample of how food is medicine and these 4 soups are probably the most commonly used in a typical Taiwanese household. I try to eat Four things soup 湯 once a month and it is safe for my daughter to eat too (although she will just eat the chicken).

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