Chinese Medicinal Food


This is an article taken from our China Eye magazine (2009) written by Jacqueline Buksh.

Chinese traditional food restaurants are frequented by its citizens who understand the different values in Chinese food and drinks. Herbal remedies are also given to patients on a similar basis, that is of understanding the complete nature of the person, the holistic viewpoint. Apart from the individuals personal health history, the time of year is taken into account, each season produces certain common symptoms and the practitioner takes all these different elements into consideration.

Treatment is given according to the heat and cold symptoms of each patient, this is tested through the pulse and listening to each person's symptoms. Foods are divided into heat or cold types, this does not mean temperature but each food has different properties to balance the Yin and Yang of each patient, the perfect balance which stimulates good health. Many Chinese people know and understand their own symptoms and eat accordingly. They learn from early childhood the different important values of food. All food is bought daily and often live to ensure it is fresh. Many people do not own fridges and in the tropical areas it is necessary to shop daily.

Traditional Chinese medicinal restaurants cater for many different symptoms and can advise their customers on what to eat and what to avoid according to their specific symptoms!

Working Lunch
Workmen taking a break for lunch. © Sally & Richard Greenhill Photo Library


As long ago as 652 A.D. a Chinese physician called Sun Shu Mao had a book published entitled 'One Thousand Ounces of Pure Gold'. He was best known as a herbalist and acupuncturist and believed that life was more important than the title of his book. He discussed many dietary treatments of various diseases including goitre and night blindness.

For the treatment of goitre he used four ingredients, kelp, seaweed, lamb and pork. For the latter he introduced beef, pork and lamb livers. He believed that the liver is associated with the eyes and that the animals' liver contributes to improved eyesight in humans.

For the treatment of beriberi he advocated a diet which included apricot seeds, cow's milk and rice bran. Interestingly today apricot kernels are used to help cancer patients. Today we know that goitre is due to a lack of iodine in the diet and Sun Shu Mao had included seaweed etc which is full of iodine. Like wise his diet of liver which contains vitamin A is the necessary missing ingredient in those suffering from beriberi.

There are so many traditional remedies to treat thousands of diseases, some work better than others, but all TCM practitioners have the patients overall health in mind the physical, mental and spiritual ideals, the seasons, the patients whole lifestyle will be discussed in detail before any remedies or treatment is given.

Western diets are mostly concerned with weight loss while the Chinese diet treats many ailments as well as helping to lose weight. Obesity has reared its head even in China with the advent of many McDonalds and similar Western food outlets, many families also have more money than in the past with which to indulge their one child who have two sets of doting grandparents also on hand to pop choice morsels into the hungry offspring!

Simple remedies can easily be absorbed into our daily lives. For example for a cough the Chinese eat apple with honey, for the heart it is good to eat some of the following: egg yolk, crab apple, green and red peppers, grapes, watermelon, saffron, wheat and wine. For healthy kidneys chives, duck, carp, plums, pork, star anise, tangerine, chestnut, green beans, walnut and wheat. The large intestine copes well with bean curd (tofu) Chinese cabbage, black pepper, cucumber, aubergine, spinach and many other things, the above just give an idea of how the Chinese look at their diet.

To enjoy a healthy balanced diet means eating foods of different flavours, energies and organic actions, and of course tailored to the individual's health requirements. In the West many people are aware that certain foods give important balance to our diets. For example we know that bananas have potassium, in China it is known as a cold in energy and sweet in flavour. Honey is neutral in energy and sweet, acting on the lungs, spleen and large intestine.

A cup of warm water with two teaspoons of honey first thing in the morning is good for constipation. Chinese food is known by five different flavours, these are, sweet, sour, bitter, salty and acrid. Sweet foods include the banana, cherry, sugar and chestnut, sour foods the lemon, pear plum and mango. Bitter foods include vinegar, hops (beer), lettuce and radish leaf. Acrid foods include chive, onion, parsley and coriander, while salty foods include seaweed. These listed are just a few of the foods - there are many more to be learnt! Living in China for a long time is I feel the only way to really understand all the different elements connected with traditional Chinese medicinal food.

I shopped in our local market in Wuhan where I was working at a College of Traditional Chinese medicine and its affiliated hospital. I could buy vegetables, fruit, tofu, eggs, rice, and in small local shops could purchase honey, salt and flour. No milk, cheese or bread. China is a good place for those who want to keep fit and slim! The peasant market holders were lively and helpful as I shopped with my newly acquired language, Mandarin (Putonghua). My greatest find was toudou (potatoes) something to fill up the main meal which was lacking in starch apart from the daily rice.


Vegetables included beans, corn, cabbage, lotus roots, Pak Choi, bean sprouts and other indigenous vegetables. Mung beans, green beans, mushrooms of different varieties.

Spice and herbs

My spices and herbs included fennel, curry, clove, nutmeg, ginger, garlic, black pepper salt, ginseng, star anise, rosemary, saffron, thyme and Chinese parsley.


Fruit was very big, huge apples, and pomolas (like a large dry grapefruit), lychees (when in season), oranges, tiny indigenous bananas, grapes, Hawberries (sold on sticks for children coated in toffee), star fruit, coconut figs, mandarins but no lemons which I missed.

I could also buy duck eggs, hen's eggs, poultry, live! Hens slung into string bags carried upside down often from bicycle handlebars. Snakes and frogs gutted on the spot. I am glad I only eat fish, even those had to be purchased live and carried home flapping. I only had fish when eating in restaurants.

You have to remember the Chinese have lived through devastating famine in earlier times, so learnt to eat anything. The common greeting is not what the weather is like but 'Have you eaten yet'.

Chinese food and its properties is a huge subject and the Traditional Chinese medicinal food likewise. I have watched tofu or beancurd as it is known in the West being made in shacks at the side of the market, a fascinating process of beans processed into liquid stirred round and round until it solidifies and then squares marked on the quivering mass ready to be cut into squares for sale at a nearby stall. White and jelly like, white and firm, white blue veined and a toasty brown chewy type.

Little outdoor cafes sell meals all day from congee (thin porridge) for breakfast to bowls of rice and vegetables of meat or fish. There are restaurants which only serve snakes - a warming food in cold winter months. Tortoises are made into a glutinous grey looking soup said to be good for the blood.

Wherever or whatever you eat in China it is always an experience from watching expert chefs making noodles to outdoor stalls cooking flat bread with onions, or big egg pancakes in a wok. Drinks include teas of many varieties, black tea, red tea, green tea, delicate jasmine, dragon well tea and many more. Local beers are usually very good, fruit juices are thinner than Western ones but are pure juice. Milk is a rarity. Wine potent especially the ones used at banquets where young men try to out do each other and get drunk quickly, saying 'Ganbei,' the equivalent of 'Cheers. Or 'Down the hatch.' Wherever you are in China each area or Province has its own style of cuisine, in the North it tends to be bland and in the West (Sichuan province) very hot and spicy. In suggest you experiment until you find your culinary niche. It certainly will not be boring!

See also :

Traditional Chinese Medicine
Chinese Medicine

© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) 2009 : China Eye magazine Spring 2009

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