Wisdom of Chinese Medicine Masters
Dining Your Way to Health
Taiwan's most venerable Chinese medicine practitioners reveal the dishes they depend on personally to keep themselves in good health and their bodies free of toxins.
Dining Your Way to HealthBy Chen-tsen Lin
"Medicine and food arise from the same source" and "A good diet leads to good health": these are the cornerstones of traditional Chinese wisdom when it comes to health cultivation. During the ancient Zhou Dynasty, which lasted for almost a millennium (from the 10th to the 2nd century B.C.), there existed "food doctors" who used food to help people stay healthy or cure illnesses.
To shed some light on the age-old pursuit of well-being, CommonHealth Magazine sought wisdom from five veteran doctors of TCM – Chiang Ton (age 101), Ma Kuang-ya (92), Yi Chuan-heng (88), Yen-ling Tong (76), Wu Shui Sheng (76) – each of whom brings rich clinical experience from nearly half a century of practice in Taiwan.
CommonHealth Magazine asked these five legendary practitioners what they normally ate to maintain their health.
The answers were surprising.
Oats, white rice, white radish, lotus root, and water spinach are among the most basic staples of Taiwanese cuisine, yet they all have significant health benefits. The five masters not only eat them frequently, they also use them to treat their patients and relieve them of their symptoms.
To 101-year-old Dr. Chiang Ton, lotus root is the most healthful food one can eat. During the summer, Chiang drinks a glass of fresh lotus root juice every day, because it effectively cools the body and helps dissipate heat. It is also helpful to people who suffer from frequent nose bleeds.
Chinese medicine generally defines the nature of a food as hot, warm, neutral, cool or cold, similar to body constitutions. Food that is hot by nature may be used to stimulate the body, while food that is cold by nature may sedate the organs. Many of the therapeutic uses of the foods below are evaluated based on this concept.
The top nine foods chosen by the Chinese medicine masters are as follows.
1. Lotus Root
Lotus root was the food most often cited by the panel of doctors, and it has long been highly praised as a healthful food by medical practitioners throughout the ages.
Ninety-year-old professor Ma Guang-ya likes nothing more than a bowl of lotus root sparerib soup in the fall and winter to soothe his lungs and quiet his spirit.
Lotus root is considered to have many curative powers. According to modern-day science, the plant is rich in iron that fortifies the blood and has plenty of vitamin C, anti-oxidants, polysaccharides, and polyphenols that are believed to be effective in fighting cancer.
Chinese medicine practitioners believe that raw and cooked lotus root have different benefits. Raw lotus root, considered "sweet in flavor" and "cold in nature," helps cool down the body, while cooked lotus root, considered to be a "warm" food, helps with the stomach and spleen.
Raw lotus root can clear away "heat," stop bleeding and dissipate blood stasis, and is suitable for people whose mouths are often dry or have high "internal heat." It also is considered effective in clearing the lungs and in early times was employed to treat tuberculosis. It can also prevent bleeding among those who frequently suffer from nose bleeds.
For people who are emotionally unstable, anxious, nervous, or unable to sleep, raw lotus root juice has been known to help, because it eases the nerves.
But because uncooked lotus root in effect narrows the arteries, it is not recommended for women suffering from dysmenorrhea (severe pain during menstruation) or irregular menstrual cycles or people whose hands and feet are often cold. Women who have just given birth should wait until post-partum vaginal discharge is complete (usually 4-6 weeks after childbirth) before consuming raw lotus root.
Cooked lotus root can benefit the spleen and stomach and is especially suitable for the elderly and young children.
Lotus root is a starch, so diabetes patients should not eat too much of it.
Lotus root is rich in fiber and prompts peristalsis (digestive tract contractions), so people suffering from ulcers, flatulence or irritable bowel syndrome are advised against eating it often.
Oats, which have become a trendy health food recently, can lower blood pressure and cholesterol. Famed Chinese medicine doctor Wu Shui-sheng, who comes from a family with a history of high blood pressure, has oats for lunch every day.
The 100-year-old Chen Li-fu, known as the "godfather of Chinese medicine practitioners," also must have a meal of oats mixed with black fungus, mushrooms, and celery every day to keep his blood pressure and blood glucose levels stable.
Oats contain a soluble fiber known as beta glucan (a polysaccharide that's sticky when eaten) that is thought to be particularly beneficial to people with high blood fat levels because it can lower bad cholesterol levels.
Most of the oat's nutritional value is in its bran, the grain's hard outer covering. Rich in the B-family of vitamins, oat bran is highly recommended for pregnant women because it can help the development of their fetuses. Oats also have an abundance of vitamin E, which helps improve memory, and their folic acid, minerals and iron can ward off cancer, prevent anemia, and help wounds to heal.
Because oats are high in fiber, they can ease people's hunger and help them with bowel movements. They not only slow the pace of increases in blood sugar and reduce the build-up of blood fat, they have fewer calories than rice or noodles and are suitable as a weight-reducing food.
Oats are high in fiber and should not be consumed by people who suffer from flatulence or who are allergic to gluten.
3. Black Sesame Seeds
Dr. Yen-Ling Tong, a Chinese medicine doctor who loves to exercise, has a bowl of black sesame seed oatmeal every morning.
In traditional Chinese medicine, black sesame seeds can effectively nourish the brain and darken the hair and are highly recommended for people who are very active physically.
Modern science has proved that unsaturated fatty acids and linoleic acid, both excellent at protecting the heart, account for 90 percent of the composition of black sesame seeds.
Black sesame also contains sesamin, which can prevent melanoma, lower cholesterol and protect the liver and cranial nerves.
But experts recommend that the seeds should be bit through or ground, or else the sesamin will not be digested and absorbed by the body.
Although black sesame seeds have health benefits, their fat content cannot be ignored. Two tablespoons of black sesame seeds equal one portion of fat. Dietician Hsu Yun-ching advises that aside from being used to brew sesame paste, black sesame seeds can also be added to milk and yogurt or scattered on green vegetables or on top of rice as a substitute for an oily dressing or sauce.
In traditional Chinese medicine, black sesame seeds are believed to trigger the symptoms of some diseases. People with sensitive constitutions who have the tendency to develop rashes or have old ailments recur should avoid them.
4. White Fungus, Lotus Seeds
White fungus soup with lotus seeds, full of collagen and able to calm the nerves, can whiten and rejuvenate the skin, as Chiang Ton proves.
Friends and students invited to dine with the Chinese medicine master are often envious of his healthy complexion. The secret is the white fungus soup with lotus seeds his daughter takes three to four hours to prepare.
White fungus, also known as tremella, contains collagen, polysaccharides and pectin, a mixture that can moisten the intestines and free the stool, and lower cholesterol.
To Chinese medicine doctors, the fungus is helpful in nourishing the lungs and engendering liquids, and has been used to treat coughs, which is why it has been dubbed the "poor man's bird's nest."
Liver disease expert Ma Kuang-ya says frequent consumption of "four spirits soup" – made with pig intestines and fortifying Chinese medicinal herbs – can protect the stomach and spleen and safeguard the liver's energy.
"Four spirits soup," which contains lotus seeds, gorgon fruit, tuckahoe, and mountain yam (dioscorea opposita), is ideal for protecting the liver and keeping the stomach healthy. It also helps remove excess moisture from the body.
Lotus seeds are a form of starch, so people with diabetes must eat them in moderation. Also, people with dry stool or flatulence should also avoid eating too much of it.
5. Water Spinach
Water spinach (Ipomoea aquatica), also known as water convolvulus, or water morning glory, belongs to a family of climbing swamp plants that are full of life and can grow whether planted in soil or water or in any season. But this green vegetable is at its best when grown in the summer.
Chinese medicine practitioners rely on water spinach to clear "heat," flush the system of toxins, smooth the digestive system and improve bowel movements. It's like a natural protective shield that protects the body from intruding bacteria and viruses in the summertime.
Modern nutritionists believe that the green vegetable can regulate the stomach and intestines. Its alkalinity can lower acid levels in the digestive system and help good bacteria grow. Its high fiber content (0.8 grams per 100 grams) can reduce cholesterol, and it contains more iron than cabbage, which is renowned for being rich in iron.
Water spinach is by definition a "cool" food and not suitable for frequent consumption by people with weak constitutions.
Because it has a high-fiber content, the green vegetable should not be eaten by people who have just had surgery.
Water spinach is not compatible with certain Chinese herbal medicines such as astragalus, ginseng, angelica root, rhizoma chuanxiong, and Chinese knotweed (polygonum multiflorum), and should be eaten only 2-3 hours after any of those medicines have been ingested.
6. White Radish
Americans often say, "An apple a day keeps the doctor away." The Chinese rely on the white radish, also known as mooli or daikon, to stay healthy during the winter months, leading to the saying, "Eat white radish in the winter and ginger in the summer, and you won't need to trouble the doctor for a prescription."
White radish has an abundance of health benefits, not only because it belongs to the crucifer family of flowering plants highly efficacious in fighting cancer, but also because it packs 10 times as much vitamin C as apples or pears.
White radishes have also been found to contain a wide variety of isothiocyanates (the hotter the radish, the greater the quantity), which have anti-carcinogenic properties.
Chinese medicine doctors believe the white radish eaten raw can quench thirst and clear "heat" while also helping the digestive system and prompting bowel movements. It has been given the nickname "Little Ginseng."
According to the dietician Hsu Yun-ching, there are many examples of different cultures using the radish to help with digestion. For example, the Japanese add yellow radishes to their lunch boxes, and the Cantonese add pickled radish to their "three treasure rice" dishes.
Eaten cooked, white radish is believed to be effective in treating urinary disorders, reducing swelling and helping with bowel movements.
White radish can be eaten while taking Chinese medicine, but it should not be consumed to supplement the energizing effects of ginseng, as it will cut the ginseng's effectiveness in half.
Because white radish is a relatively "cool" food, it should be avoided by people with gastric ulcers, women with irregular periods, and pregnant women experiencing threatened miscarriage.
7. Sugar Cane
Sugar cane, considered in Chinese medicine as "neutral" and sweet in flavor, is considered to be an effective antipyretic, beneficial to the urinary tract, and full of nourishment. Drinking sugar cane juice can cool the body and improve digestion, and it is especially recommended for people who suffer from dry mouth, nausea and vomiting, a bad digestive system, or fever.
Sugar cane juice when cooked is also full of nourishment and is said to help the spleen and elevate energy levels. It is also used to treat coughing. From a nutritional perspective, its glucose and fructose are easy to absorb and can be converted directly into energy, which is why it is recommended for people with digestive problems or who need a quick energy boost.
Sugar cane is high in sugars, and Chinese medicine practitioners believe that sweet food can induce phlegm, so those suffering from an excess of phlegm should not drink sugar cane juice.
Sugar cane has a high caloric content, with 64 calories per 100 grams. Those with diabetes, irregular metabolism or high blood fat levels should limit their consumption of its juice.
In Chinese medicine, rice can "strengthen the body and give people good complexions," a belief supported by modern science. Rice has plenty of sugars and protein and is a good source of energy, and the rate of absorption of its protein is the highest of any grain.
White rice also has many other nutrients, such as vitamins, minerals and iron. "Just by eating white rice, people can satisfy their basic nutritional requirements. That's why it became China's staple food," Hsu Yun-ching stresses.
Because white rice nutritionally complements soybeans, soybean rice makes a potent dish rich in the essential amino acid lysine, and it can help heal wounds. The rice mixture is highly recommended for people recovering from an illness.
White rice is low in fiber, however, and is not terribly filling. So some doctors recommend cooking it with two or three other grains, such as oats or brown rice (which must be soaked in water first). The texture and hardness of the grains are similar to white rice, making the combination generally acceptable to most people.
Because white rice is a starch, diabetes patients should limit their intake to a bowl per meal. If other grains or roots are added, such as yams or potatoes, the portion of rice should be reduced proportionally.
Fish has a high protein utilization rate and has a 90 percent rate of digestibility, making it easy to digest and absorb. It is especially recommended for the elderly, children, or people who have just recovered from stomach or intestinal ailments.
Wu Shui-sheng, the authoritative voice on Chinese medicine, enjoys eating steamed or boiled fish. He generally opts for deep-sea fish, which are less likely to be tarnished with drug or chemical residues.
A University of Hawaii study has found that baking or boiling fish can elevate the impact of its Omega-3 fatty acids and help fight against artery disease when combined with low-sodium soy sauce and tofu.
Although fish is rich in fatty acids, Chinese medicine doctors believe that seafood can easily trigger allergies, leading them to recommend that it be eaten in moderation.
Translated from the Chinese by Luke Sabatier