The Five Flavors, Seasonal Eating, and Recipes
There are five 'seasons' recognized in TCM; autumn, winter, spring, summer, and late summer. Each season has energetic qualities, organs, emotions and other factors attributed to it. What we experience and do in one season is thought to have an effect on our health in later seasons, with certain organ/meridian systems being more effected in particular seasons. For a deeper dive into these theories see the links below.
Note that when organ names are referred to in Chinese medicine, it is referring to the 'meridian' complex. For instance, a "liver imbalance" does not neccesarily mean there is something wrong with the biological liver organ, likewise with the other commonly referred to organs, spleen, heart, kidney, lungs, etc.
The seasons and dietary tips
Springtime health in TCM
Bay Area Seasonal Food Chart
Real Food All Year
Spring time and Liver Wellness
Spring is the time to eat "lighter" and easier to digest foods as well as foods that build qi and blood and support the spleen and stomach. It also a good time to avoid greasy or excessively heavy foods. Spring is associated with the wood element, color green, the liver, and the emotional qualities are anger and kindness/compassion.
Asparagus, spinach and all seasonal greens, nettles, cherries, strawberries, nopales, artichokes, cardoons (pictured right). If you're a caffeine drinker consider switching from coffee and black tea to green or oolong teas during this time.
A perfect qi and blood building spring time recipe is this
artichoke and asparagus frittata. For desert enjoy a cherry jook (see "Jook" recipe). Simply prepare the rice as described in the link and add cherries! Cinnamon or a little ginger makes a nice addition to this tasty treat.
The most common liver imbalance in TCM is liver qi stagnation. Liver qi stagnation can show up as a sense of excessive stress, dull headaches, PMS, mild irritability, and depression. The liver can also upset the digestive system causing gas, bloating, acid regurgitation, and nausea. When liver qi stagnation is prolonged it may develop patterns called liver yang rising and liver heat . These can cause more severe headaches or migraines, burning or bloodshot eyes, excessive irritability & rage, and dizziness or vertigo.
Foods to relax liver qi stagnation...
Chamomile, mint, chrysanthemum, and nettle teas, burdock root (aka gobo), greens (especially dandelion & mustard), asparagus, springtime onions, cabbage, and broccoli.
Foods to sooth liver yang rising and liver heat...
All the foods listed above plus more gently cooling foods such as citrus, watercress, and celery. Additionally, moderate intake of sour foods such as plums and cherries are said to "soften" tense liver qi. In situations of livery yang rising and liver heat it is especially helpful to avoid spicy, greasy foods, and alcohol when possible.
Summertime and Heart Health
Summer Flavors and Foods
Summer is considered the most Yang time of year. The days are long and it is a great time to work and play hard. The primary flavors of summer and the heart are bitter and sour. Summer is associated with the fire element, the color red, and the emotional qualities of joy, peace and order.
Summer foods include berries, stone fruits, greens, greens, and more greens! Berries of the Bay Area include strawberries, blackberries, blueberries, mulberries, raspberries, and tayberries. Try a berry congee! (Follow the instructions for jook and add your berries in the last 20-30 minutes). Kale, chard, dandelion, and broccoli rabe are all great heart-qi loving greens.
Chinese dietary practices also advise us to continue to eat "lighter" and easier to digest foods during this time and to avoid greasy or excessively heavy foods.
While summer is the time for being "in love with the world" let's be real - we are in a particularly challenging time to accomplish that. Have you found yourself enjoying/appreciating some aspect of our current situation (better air quality, being able to sleep a little later, seeing the videos of wildlife returning to cities) and then become immediately overcome with guilt or anxiety? Are you glued to the news - frozen in fear or boiling over in rage? We need to take it easy on ourselves and know that all our emotions are natural. We're all going through complex and normal emotions.
In Chinese medicine, all emotions are acknowledged as natural - but so is their potential for negative effects on our health when not kept in balance. All excess emotions, but especially anger, have the potential to overly tax heart qi. So, with all this in mind - find some pleasure, gratitude, or appreciation for the little things and try not to feed the angry thoughts too much when they arise. Appreciation is a great modulator for anger.
Signs your heart qi is asking for attention...
There are many imbalances of heart qi in Chinese medicine. While it's a little too nuanced and detailed for this forum - suffice it to say anxiety and insomnia are very common among the signs of these imbalances. Heart palpitations (when you feel your heart beating inside your chest) and a red tipped tongue are other common signs. Dream-disturbed sleep is another common sign of our heart qi needing a little extra care.
Foods to nourish the heart...
Any calming tea such as chamomile, mint, catnip, poppy, or valerian can be soothing to heart qi. Hawthorn is a very common herb used in both Chinese and western herbal medicine for heart balance. If you're able to venture out for some more interesting grocery shopping, try lily bulb, longan or lotus fruit, or adzuki beans, as they are used to nourish and calm heart qi.
Red foods are also thought to benefit the heart qi system, especially if they have a sour or bitter flavor. Cherries, rhubarb, pomegranates, tomatoes, red apples, red dates, whole wheat, and red beans are also foods with an affinity for the heart in Chinese medicine.
Autumn and Lung Love
Autumn is the time of the lungs. In the Bay Area it can be hot, dry, and windy. In TCM the lungs are known as "the delicate organ" and are especially vulnerable during this time of year. Keeping our lungs moist and protected is important during this time. Cutting back on bitter, spicy, and warming foods is helpful in protecting the lungs at this time.
Energetically, it is a time when plants and trees are beginning to pull their qi inwards to prepare for the winter. This is also reflected in humans. The long, carefree days of summer are shortening. The emotional qualities of the lungs (and autumn) is grief, sadness, and letting go; integrity and rightousness. The element is metal and the color is white.
Autumn Foods for Lung Health
poached pears with honey), apples, persimmon, spinach, barley, millet, mushrooms (especially white wood ear), sesame seeds and oil, dairy products, eggs, herring, oysters, mussels, crab, clams.
Chrysthanthymum (white or yellow)
Try this delicious
Asian Pear and White Woodear Mushroom dessert to lavishly love your lungs!
Winter and Kidney Care
The long nights and short days of winter are considered the most Yin time of year in TCM. It is a time to conserve energy, go to sleep early and rise a little later, and a time to switch from those Yang HIIT workouts to long, gentle walks. It is a time to rest and become more introspective. The winter season corresponds with kidney health. The flavors associated with winter and the kidneys include salty and bitter. The associated element is water, the color is blue-black, and emotional qualities are fear and wisdom.
Winter Foods that Nourish the Kidneys
Miso, soy sauce, seaweeds, oats, rice (try black wild rice), black sesame seeds, black,
kidney, and adzuki beans, collards, winter squash, cabbage, brussel sprouts, beef, chicken, and organ meats, bone broth.
Healing Black Bean & Seaweed Soup for Kidney health.
In TCM the store a special substance called "
Jing". You can think of
Jing as our energetic reserves which supplment our energy when needed. Our fast paced, high stress modern lives take a toll on our Kidney
qi and our
jing. Take time to rest and renew during the winter months. Keep your belly and neck covered in the wind and cooler weather.
Late Summer, Seasonal Transitions and Spleen Health
In TCM there are five seasons, the fifth being late summer, which is associated with the spleen. Also associated with the spleen are the transition times between each season. These periods resonate with the earth element, the color yellow, pensiveness, openness, faith, and trust.
Spleen qi is all about transformation. It doesn't get talked about much in Western wellness practices or even Western herbalism but it is very important in TCM, being one of the most important systems for transforming our food into qi and blood, nourshing the whole body and keeping us feeling energized.
Late Summer, seasonal transitions, and the Spleen are associated with the sweet and bland flavors, and yellow and orange colored foods.
Foods for a Super Spleen
All grains (rice, barley, millet, wheat); all yellow foods - yellow & red lentils, fava & garbanzo beans; pumpkin, sweet potatos & yams; parsnips; cherries & persimmons.
To support our spleen qi it is recommended that we eat cooked foods (jook, soups, and stews especially), avoid excess cold foods (literally cold, like ice water, and energetically cold like raw fruits and veggies), limit dairy products, try not to over-eat, and to enjoy our meals peacefully (not while watching the news!)
Immune-Supportive Mushroom Soup
1 cup sliced mushrooms. Use a variety if possible; Shiitake, Maitake, Hen of the Woods, Oyster, or just plain old button. If using dried, measure ~1 ounce. Place dried mushrooms in bowl and cover with hot water for 10-15 minutes and then filter any debris (a paper coffee filter works great) before adding to the recipe.
1 tablespoon olive oil, or oil of your choice
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 thumb-size piece of ginger, peeled and grated
1 whole garlic bulb, peeled and crushed
4 cups stock or water (add 1 bouillon cube to water if desired)
Optional: Juice of 1 lemon, Sea salt, black pepper, oregano, thyme
TIP: If you are able to shop or have someone helping you with shopping - Monterey Market and Berkeley Bowl are great sources for fresh mushrooms
Sauté onion and ginger in a large frying on medium to medium high heat for a few minutes. Add garlic. Sauté until soft and aromatic.
Add the mushrooms (and the filtered soaking water if using dried) to the pan and cook until the mushrooms start to soften and shrink.
Transfer to a soup pot and over medium-high heat add stock, lemon juice, and desired seasoning or herbs.
Season, then gently simmer with the lid on for at least 2 hours.
Jook (aka Congee)
Jook, also known as congee, is a simple rice soup that supports digestion, builds qi and blood, and is a wonderful foundation for a healing, medicinal meal. Jook can be made with rice only or with other foods - using the principles of the flavors listed above to harmonize the body and treat specifics issues. In fact, it is thought that the healing properties of foods added to jook become more easily assimilated.
To make a basic jook broth use 1 part rice and 5 - 6 parts water. Cook over low heat or in a crock pot on low for 4 - 6 hours until a thin porridge forms. Add salt to taste, if desired.
Other foods you can add are...
Ginger: warms and circulates qi.
Carrots: aids digestion.
Cabbage: aids digestion, alleviates constipation, treats irritability.
Celery: aids digestion, "purifies" the blood, cools inflammation.
Chicken: generally nourishing and strengthening.
All bones are high in minerals and can be used. Most common in Western kitchens are chicken, turkey, and beef.
Cover the leftovers from a roast chicken or turkey, or beef bones purchaed from your local butcher with cold water in a crock pot. Add a few spoonfuls of lemon juice or vinegar (to help break down and make available the minerals). Add any herbs or spices you wish (bay, salt, pepper, etc.) and simmer for 8 - 24 hours. Use immediately or freeze for use in later recipes.
Making sauerkraut at home successfully can sometimes take a few tries, but once you get going...look out! If you're new to fermenting at home, start with the tried and true fermented (pickled) cabbage, aka sauerkraut. For super-duper easy at-home kruat, that's nearly impossible to mess up, try these "Kraut Kaps" or similar product.
Shredded or finely sliced cabbage (enough to fill a half gallon Mason jar, about 1-2" from the top)
1 - 1.5 tablespoons kosher salt
Place the shredded cabbage in a large bowl and sprinkle with salt. Massage it for a minute or two then allow it to rest 15-30 minutes. This gives the salt time to start pulling the juices out of the cabbage.
Pack the cabbage and liquid into the clean Mason jar, top with a Kraut Kap and let sit, 8-14 days. You can try it after 5 days or so to see how it's doing.
It takes time to get the salt to vegetable ratio 'right' - it really is an art. But soon, you won't even be measuring!
To learn more about at-home lacto-fermentation check out, "
Wild Fermentation" by Sandor Ellix Katz.
The Five Flavors
The Five Flavors
The Natures of Food & Herbs
In Chinese Herbal and Dietary Therapies, food, herbs, and substances (minerals, animal products), are understood to have certain "natures" or properties. It is the combination of these properties in a food or herb that give it its unique healing quality.
The human body and imbalances we tend to experience also have properties. For instance, health conditions may be hot (like hypertension, migraines, inflamed skin conditions) or cold (like stiffness/pain that's better with heat, difficult or slow digestion and elimination). One approach with food therapy is to treat these imbalances with opposites. Cold conditions are warmed, hot conditions are cooled, dry conditions are moistened, damp conditions are dried, deficient conditions are nourished, and excess conditions are reduced.
Conveniently, these healing properties are often intuitive. Can you guess the nature of a jalapeño? Watermelon? Ice cream? Some examples are...
The sweet flavor is nourishing and warming. It energizes and relaxes the body, nerves and brain. Naturally sweet foods are helpful for tonifying after a debilitating condition and are said to soothe aggressive emotions. Examples of healthy sweet foods are most fruits, sweet potatoes, cabbage, squash, almonds, sunflower seeds and most grains.
The sour flavor is 'astringent' and cooling - meaning it can secure fluids, prevent leakage, and treat dryness. It is active in the liver and aids in digestion of fats and minerals and can support weakened lungs. It is also thought to astringe energetically by harmonizing a scattered mind. Examples of sour foods are sauerkraut, pickles, lemon/lime, rosehips, and vinegar.
The salty flavor is cooling and has centering qualities, supports digestion, moves the bowels, softens hardness and stiffness, as well as moisten dryness. It is also said to support the mind by improving concentration. Examples of healthy salty foods are seaweeds, barley and millet (slightly salty), and, well, salt! Soy sauce, miso, and other lacto-fermented or pickled foods also fall into this category.
Well known for its digestive support, the bitter flavor is powerfully cooling and reducing. It is helpful for inflammation and drying excess moistness. Examples of bitter foods are lettuces and greens such as romaine, watercress, and kale, vinegar (also sour), coffee and green tea.
Pungent (acrid, spicy, aromatic)
Pungent flavors are generally warming and said to harmonize circulation of qi and blood. They stimulate digestion, disperse mucus and are well-known home remedies for both digestive issues, as well as symptoms from common colds and allergies. Examples of pungent foods are scallions, garlic, mint, and chamomile.
While 'bland' is not a flavor westerners may usually think of as beneficial, in this system of dietary therapy, it is understood to help reduce excess dampness (such as water retention and edema) and can help promote urinary health. In general, foods without strong flavors are considered bland, such as oatmeal, tofu, and white potatoes. However, bland foods, like all foods, typically fall into at least one other category. For example, cucumbers are both bland, sweet, and bitter (the skin is bitter).
For a deeper dive into the flavors and natures of food, check out these articles -
"Chinese Medicine Diet Recommendations"
"Properties of Food from a TCM Perspective"
Read more on the Elements and Emotions
To go deeper in understanding the elements and emotional qualities associated with them we recommend this article.