In Chinese culture, food and medicine are synonymous. The saying is yi shi tong yuan. Food heals. Medicine is food. The two are inseparable.
"There's a lot of literature about this in Asia," Charlotte Duh, yoga instructor, acupuncturist, and a professor of oriental medicine at Dongguk University in Koreatown says. "Not so much here." Duh also owns Meals4Mom, a postpartum meal service that specializes in Chinese herbal foods.
She references Huangdi Neijing (Yellow Emperor's Inner Canon), a text that is dated sometime between 40 BCE and 260 CE: over 2,000 years ago. It's one of the oldest medical documents ever and the undisputed bible of traditional Chinese medicine (or TCM).
"How did the yellow emperor get to all of his conclusions?" I ask.
"Trial and error," Duh replies. "A lot of sitting around and eating."
We're in the San Gabriel Superstore, a Chinese-Vietnamese market in the city of San Gabriel and Duh heads straight to the produce aisle. The most basic philosophy, she says, is yin and yang. "Yin is cold. Yang is hot," she says. The West has the food pyramid, the Chinese sees food from the lenses of duality. "You want a balance in your body."
Food is either yin, yang, or neutral. There are books dedicated to differentiating which foods are which. To the Chinese, most are common sense; it's integral to the culture. Tomatoes, chilies, longan fruit, dragon fruit, and cherries are hot foods. Seaweed, cabbage, and pears are cold foods. Ideally, you want a balance of both.
"That is why we always cook our vegetables with garlic, ginger, and scallions," Duh says. "Those are hot foods. They balance the leafy greens, which are cold." Yin foods cool down the body and moisten it. Yang foods warm up the body and dry it.
The key is balance, and most people have a natural type they fall under.
"Yin people feel cold a lot. They are pale and get depressed easily," Duh says. "To achieve balance, eat yang foods like lamb, allium vegetables, and root vegetables."
Yang folks are the opposite. "They have stomach issues, stress, and they get hot quickly," she says. For them, Duh recommend leafy greens, most fruits, and sprouted grains.
When one gets a fever, they become yang and must avoid spices and alliums. When one gets a cold, they become yin and must drink hot soup and warming foods.
Aside from yin and yang, people can be classified into further subsets. There's the concept of the five elements. "They are wood, water, fire, earth, and metal," Duh says. People tend to fall under one of the elements and depending on which one, there are prescriptions of what to eat and avoid.
Under this overarching philosophy, foods and herbs all have different functions. Ginseng is good for energy, greens like ong choy helps alleviate constipation, chili peppers improve circulation, tomatoes helps increase blood flow. Offal is also well-loved within the Asian community: liver replenishes blood and kidney helps with aches and pains
We head over to an aisle with prepackaged herbs on the top shelf. The contents range from goji berries to lotus nuts. They are curated based on the yin and yang theory.
Duh pulls out a purple colored bag. "This one is for virility," she says. "It's a natural Viagra." Along the shelf are bags of differing colors, all in Chinese, complete with instructions on which foods to cook them with. These packages, Duh says, are common in most Chinese grocery stores. There's one for children, another one for women. They are color-coded by function.
"Never eat these alone," Duh says. "You always cook it with food."
She adds, "Eating medicine by itself is boring."