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Chinese Food Philosophy: A recipe for life


19th January 2019



A sell-out audience gathered at Asia House on 16th January 2019 for the latest event in the Lee Kum Kee Culinary Culture Series from the Oxford Cultural Collective. Donald Sloan was joined by acclaimed writer and columnist Bee Wilson, Emmy-nominated TV chef and cookery book writer Ching-He Huang, and academic and author Dr Vivienne Lee, to explore Chinese Food Philosophy: A Recipe for Life.

The panel explored the ancient tenets of Chinese culinary culture and considered how they are adapting to contemporary influences.


On her experience of joining the panel, Bee Wilson commented: “I learned so much from listening to Vivienne and Ching speak about the astonishingly enduring appeal of Chinese food philosophy.  One of the themes of the evening was how a cuisine that has given both pleasure and health for more than 2000 years is now coming under attack from a modern globalised economy.  A land of bok choy and ginger is now being colonised by KFC and Starbucks. But there was also a sense of hopefulness about the food values of a younger generation in China and a sense that we in the West could learn from the Chinese idea of food as medicine.  It was a wonderful evening.”


The event began with a context-setting presentation from Dr Vivienne Lo, a leading scholar of Chinese food and medicine based at University College London. Vivienne’s father was Ken Lo, the renowned restaurateur, cook book author and TV chef, who did much to popularise Chinese cuisine in the UK.

This is a transcript of Vivienne’s presentation:


The background to my presentation today is having grown up with one of the first Chinese cookery specialists to introduce Chinese food to the UK as a writer, restaurateur and TV chef. As a child I watched him write and test the recipes of upwards of 40 cookery books and present regularly on TV. This was all in the 80s long before the online recipe revolution. Sadly, his heritage is no longer really tangible in the public domain. But he is always with me, shaping my culinary styles in the kitchen and even my academic pursuits as an historian. In fact I have his drafts of a history of Chinese cooking which he never got round to finishing. I have picked up on that interest, but having trained as a teenager in Chinese medicine I am more interested in the nutritional side of cookery, but as seen through the lens of recipes and recipe cultures in China.

China is at a critical moment when global cultures are changing traditional patterns of health care, often for the worse. Despite extraordinary public health achievements in the 20th century, evident in most of the standard health indicators, the country is now facing an epidemic of obesity among its urban children and a marked increase in first world diseases such as diabetes. When I first arrived in China in the 1980s China’s railway stations were surrounded by a multitude of small vendors hawking every kind of snack — now the ultramodern and hygienic concourses are home exclusively to McDonald’s, KFC, and equivalent Chinese fast food chains.

It is a very sad testimony to the impact of American styles of nutrition on what was an extremely vibrant culinary culture. Nevertheless, at home and abroad, the older generation still keeps traditional food cultures alive and I believe that those cultures have a really positive affect on their health – more effective than any public health directive about eating 5 a day, which just generates guilt. Elderly Chinese care about their food. They eat small amounts of meat and lots of vegetables except at festivals. They know their greens. That is good for them and the environment. Many also practice forms of Buddhist vegetarianism. They pay attention to seasonal eating, eat local produce, and talk about the nutritional qualities of ingredients and their mutual interactions according to ancient precepts. They share their food, spend a lot of time shopping and eating, and show their caring through pride in, and knowledge of, their foodways.

Culinary technology in China links to a history of nutritional ideas that begins over 2500 years ago and has echoes today in everyday life for more than a billion people. People in China are still inclined to have a view about the effect on their bodies of what they eat and to have an opinion about the techniques of adjusting the individual ingredients in a dish to the individual constitution and appetites. Like the ancient Greeks Chinese designed foods that were deemed suitable for various states of imbalance according to food potencies and flavors. They assigned qualities to food such as heating, cooling, and the power to support the functions of the different organs. Where China differsfrom Europe is that so many of those ancient ideas and practices survive in popular culture.

Nutritional culture was never limited to curing illness; the potential for foodstuffs to fortify and stimulate the body was well-known in ancient China. Food and drugs were an integral part of a regimen aimed at making you feel better, at longevity and even immortality.

The most fundamental of nutritional categories was that of Yin and Yang which ordered the world in terms of complementary opposition. In foodstuffs, the oppositions of heating and cooling or upward and downward (purgatives and emetics) are most often encountered. Ginger was heating, sweet foods warming, bitter foods cooling

Each substance not only had Yin or Yang qualities, but it also had a wei, a flavor or a medical sapor (pungent, sweet, salt, sour, and bitter),. The five flavors refer generally to the range of sensual pleasures that one might dream of consuming; but in a medical context, they were also specific flavors that could stimulate certain movements of Qi, the essential “stuff of life” that animated and invigorated the body inducing movements throughtout the body, they could affect the organ and channel system and treat specific symptoms of illness. In this way the right foods would make a person astute, healthy, and effective.

Sweet, for example, was thought slightly yang in nature and promoted an upward and outward movement. It entered the stomach and spleen channels. Mildly sweet foods, such as grains, nuts, fruits, and many vegetables, should form the main bulk of any diet. Stronger sweet flavors have a very warming and nourishing effect but should be avoided by people with signs of damp.

Salt moistened the body, while sour gathered and contracted, cleansing the body and moving the blood. Salt entered the kidneys and sour, the liver. Bitter was the most yin of flavors. It caused contraction and made Qi descend and move inward reducing fever and calming agitation. It was also drying and therefore good for dampness. Bitter entered the heart clearing heat and calming the spirit.

In practice, medical advice from the medieval period advised beginning with the gentler dietary therapy: Sun Simiao/mo (581–682 CE) famously likened drugs to the violent effects of soldiers. The best doctors diagnosed and treated the body with dietary advice before illness manifested and paid careful attention to the tradition of food combinations and prohibitions.

Traditional food prohibitions embrace empirical knowledge about food hygiene and seasonal eating, Buddhist precepts that strive for purification through dietary means, the traditional nutritional science of the correct flavor/sapor combinations and their influence on inner organ function, not to speak of regional culinary wisdom about what combinations are unpalatable.

Middleaged Chinese are generally able to tell you that crab must be eaten with ginger to counteract its “cold” qualities. Walnuts are a tonic for the brain and the kidneys and increase your sexual potency, jujube enriches the blood, chrysanthemum tea and steamed fish are cooling, mandarins are heating and bean curd should not be eaten with vinegar.

Many recommendations concern pregnancy: If you eat fish soup, the child will blow bubbles; if you look at a hare, the child will be born with a split lip; and steamed carp increases the flow of breast milk.

In general, religious precepts demanded restraint – with a distinct moral overtone aimed at the leisure classes. Too much strong meat, spice, oil, and fat would create excess heat, and garlic or ginger on the breath will attract the ghosts who will want to lick your lips.

Nowadays one can pick up shrink-wrapped packs of goujizi (Chinese wolfberry) to strengthen blood and yin, hongzao (jujube), and chrysanthemum tea in every cosmopolitan city of the world, and whether or not it is legal to print the traditional belief about their potencies on the packaging, we buy these products amid a growing, and often baffling network of nutritional advice from family, friends, advertising, and multimedia.

Exacerbating the problem is the current fashion for super – or power foods that come with the promise of increased vitality, sexual vigor, youth, and longevity. Many of these claim an evidence base in modern nutritional science. Chinese green tea is advertised as rich in antioxidants good for combating cancer, garlic prevents bacterial infections, and epimedium (yinyang huo, aka horny goat weed) has the same active ingredient as Viagra. There are certainly grains of truth, but many of the power foods, like gouji berry, enjoyed a very short celebrity status, but the global market for superfoods is nothing if not faddish. and the aphrodisiac market for aging Asian men is reprehensible. Rhinoceros and deer horns, tiger bone, and bear gall are all animal products that carry with them the symbolism associated with the power of the animals themselves.

These kinds of links to sympathetic magic persist in the popular imagination but are clearly outdated and inappropriate today. Are the myriad dietary prohibitions and recommendations the stuff of old wives tales, the vestiges of a vanishing and irrational past? To the modern eye, Chinese dietary traditions might seem over-burdened with a history of ritual, religion, sexual lore, and magic. To me, Chinese dietary lore is not so much a set of beliefs but a set of shared social practices within which ordinary people can claim a certain expertise.….


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