TCM and Tiger Food

Visiting a traditional Chinese doctor can go one of two ways. You will either have your tongue inspected, your pulse taken in six different ways and leave with a bundle of herbs to decoct at home, or you’ll find yourself gazing at the ceiling as acupuncture needles connected by a large battery twitch away in your forehead like crazed antennae.

Herbs, Cheung Chau

Herbs, Cheung Chau © Jo James

I jest – there are definitely more treatment options than that – but I’ve personally experienced both situations. Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) certainly subscribes to the view that the more bitter the medicine (or painful the treatment), the better it works. You will have heard of TCM’s herbal medicines (草药, cǎoyào) and acupuncture (针灸, zhēnjiǔ), but how about moxibustion (艾灸, aijiǔ), where smouldering mugwort leaves are pressed up against acupuncture points? Or gua sha (刮痧, guāshā), where the patient’s skin is scraped until it bruises or bleeds? Clearly not for the faint-hearted – even the innocuous-sounding herbal medicine is often incredibly bitter.

Happily, Chinese food therapy – using food to improve health and prevent disease – is far more palatable. At its most basic, all foods are considered either yin (cooling) or yang (heating). The ideal for good health is to balance heating and cooling foods – when yin and yang slip out of balance, the result is illness or infection. Sometimes it’s easy to guess whether a food will be cooling or heating: Chilli pepper? Heating. Cucumber? Cooling, of course. But the designation is also frequently less intuitive – a steaming mug of green tea is cooling, while a slice of mango or a lychee is heating.

Sun-dried herbs, Hong Kong © Jo James

Sun-dried herbs, Hong Kong

Overall, however, TCM’s principles of food therapy recommend eating and drinking warm things to keep one’s digestive fires stoked, which is one reason why tea or hot water is often served with Chinese meals, and why the raw food movement will have a challenge on its hands if it ever tries to make it big in China.*

Tiger Food Salad
I get terrible salad cravings in China, raw vegetables being a rarity in Chinese cuisine for the reasons outlined above. Luckily for me, there are a few exceptions; cucumbers smashed up with garlic or dipped whole into plum sauce, and the wonderfully-named, ‘Tiger Food’ (老虎菜, lǎohǔ cài); coriander, peppers and chillies tossed in sesame oil to make a fragrant, crunchy salad.

Tiger Food Salad originated in northeastern China, with the heat of the chilli pepper alleviating the coolness of the vegetables, to make it TCM-friendly. There are various stories as to where the dish’s name came from, but I prefer my own version, where the spicy red chillies are the tigers, lurking in a cool, leafy jungle of greens…

Tiger Food

Tiger Food © Jo James

Preparation time: 10 minutes
Quantity: 1 plateful – it doesn’t keep well, so prepare to eat it all

1 bunch coriander (cilantro)
3 spring onions
1 medium cucumber or green pepper (capsicum)
1 large red chilli pepper
1/2 tsp salt, plus more to taste
1/2 tsp sugar
1 tbsp sesame oil
1 tsp Chinese black vinegar (optional)

1) Wash and chop all the vegetables; julienne the cucumber and chilli pepper, roughly chop the coriander and spring onions into 1-inch long sections.
2) Toss the vegetables together in a serving bowl. Just before serving, add the salt, sugar and oil, plus the vinegar if you’re using it – if you add these ahead of time the vegetables and herbs will lose their bounce. Taste, and add more salt and sugar if necessary. 慢用! (Enjoy!)

* For a good explanation of TCM’s views on raw vs. cooked food, visit Straight Bamboo’s excellent site.

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