Friday, April 12, 2013

Spring Food & Cooking Tips from Traditional Chinese Medicine

Spring is the time when the Yang energy of the year begins its ascent after the dormant Yin of winter. In the traditional Chinese calendar, Spring begins in early February. Early Spring is a time of quickening. The first pulses of life are felt as the ground thaws and signs of new green life appear. Spring peaks at the equinox (March 21), with an abundance of blossoming trees, and finally ushers in Summer, the apex of Yang energy, in June.

In classical Chinese philosophy, Spring is associated with the element wood, meaning growing plants. The nature of plants is to grow, expand and ascend in a quest for sunlight. All plant life, though, begins with the sprouting of tender seeds in dark soil.

We humans tend to experience feelings of restlessness and heightened energy in the springtime. Our activity levels increase with the growing daylight hours. However, it's important to realize that our energy, like that of the new sprout, is still tender and delicate. For optimal health, the transition from Yin to Yang should be made gradually. Activity levels should be increased gradually; dietary changes made gradually. We should continue to keep ourselves warm and get adequate rest, especially in early spring.

Here are some food and cooking tips from Traditional Chinese Medicine to help our bodies transition healthfully from the dormancy of Winter, through the expansive energy of Springtime, and into Summer.

1. Lighter Appetite:

Most popular Spring dietary advice centers on cleansing. Cleansing certainly has its place. Springtime rituals of fasting, self-abnegation, purgation exist in some form in most, if not all, traditional cultures and religions. Fasting or cleansing can certainly have health benefits, i.e. giving the digestive system (Liver, pancreas, etc.) a break. Perhaps I'll write more about cleansing regimens in future blogposts. But I'm also concerned that spring cleansing can be faddish and must, at best, be approached with thoughtfulness and caution.

What I can say for sure is that our appetites naturally decrease as the spring season progresses. It is good to follow these instincts when you experience them. Spring is a great time to eat less in order to cleanse the body of the heavier, richer and fattier foods of winter. In my experience, it may take some time for our dietary instincts to lighten up. We are still naturally sluggish in early spring. As the weather warms, it becomes easier and more natural to lighten our diets.

East Bay acupuncturist & food writer, Nishanga Bliss, L.Ac. adds these helpful thoughts: "Rather than embarking on a formal spring cleanse, simply incorporating spring foods into the diet cleanses gently and gets us in the mood for the rapid growth and movement of the warmer seasons."

As you incorporate more spring foods, also decrease the proportion of heavy foods in your meals. Don't abandon fat, by any means, but you can eat less meat, fewer heavy sauces. Spring is a good time to avoid fried foods and alcohol as these are particularly warming. Also, eat less salty foods (that includes miso, soy sauce, tamari), as the salty flavor has a descending energetic quality.

2. Spring Foods:

So, what are "spring foods"? The energy of Spring is light, ascending, and expansive, like young plants. At least some of the foods we eat in Spring should embody these qualities. Here are some examples:

Begin including lots of tender fresh greens into your diet. These include arugula, beet, daikon and turnip greens; dandelion greens; kale and collard greens; mustard greens; Swiss chard; spinach and lettuce of all types. By April, Bay Area farmers' markets are bursting with leafy greens.

Early spring is a great time to begin incorporating sprouts into your diet. Sprouting seeds or legumes in your kitchen is pretty easy. Here's a link to basic sprouting instructions on Nishanga Bliss' gastronicity blog. Helpful sprouting starter kits can be found in health food stores.

If you're especially hardy and adventurous, consider incorporating wild green edibles like chickweed, dandelion, miner's lettuce, plantain and nettles that are growing in the East Bay hills and on the margins of our gardens right now.  Here's a recipe for nettle soup.

Look out for fresh green garlic, spring onions, scallions and young leeks as these shoots are are full of spring energy. These make great garnishes for any dish, either sprinkled on raw or sauteed in butter or olive oil. Speaking of delicious garnishes, don't forget to sprinkle lots of fresh green herbs over your meals and into your sautes: rosemary, thyme, marjoram, peppermint, dill, fennel, etc. Not only do the fresh, spicy, green shoots and herbs match the energy of the season; they are anti-microbial and cleansing to the body as well.

3. Don't abandon the root veggies just yet!

Remember that in traditional agrarian societies, until quite recently, in fact, fresh fruits and vegetables were in short supply (usually unattainable) in winter. Households depended on root vegetables from last fall's harvest, along with pickles and preserves and a few fresh sprouts, to get them through early spring. Root veggies are abundant in our early spring farmers' markets: turnips, rutabagas, beets, carrots, parsnips, celery root, kohlrabi. They are high in minerals and tend to alkalinize the body and have a lower glycemic index than starches. Eat root vegetables, boiled and pureed with butter, or lightly roasted, in place of grains. Grate raw root veggies over salad greens and season with apple cider vinegar or lemon juice.

4. Fermented Foods

Along with stored root vegetables, traditional agrarian households also depended, during the early Spring months, on vegetables that had been preserved for storage through fermentation processes.

Fermented foods like raw sauerkraut or lacto-fermented pickles are full of health benefits and a traditional part of spring diets. It's great to eat a bit of fermented food at every meal. Because they're so beneficial to digestion--they're full of enzymes and beneficial bactera-- they'll lighten the load on your digestive organs, facilitating your body's natural spring cleaning process.

If you'd like to start making your own fermented food at home, raw sauerkraut is a great way to start experimenting. Here's an easy sauerkraut recipe.

5. The Flavors of Spring

Classical Chinese philosophy associates the flavor sour with the Spring season and the Liver organ. Indeed, sourness is said to guide food to the Liver where it counteracts the effects of rich, greasy food, functioning as a solvent and breaking down fats and protein. Sourness helps in digestion to dissolve minerals for improved assimilation. At the same time, an excess of sour foods is said to weaken the Liver. Some great ways to incorporate a helpful (small) amount of sour food into your springtime diet is to garnish your greens with a bit of unpasteurized apple cider vinegar or lemon juice.

Revered sixteenth-century Chinese herbalist Li Shi Zhen (best known for his writings on digestion and assimilation in relation to health and healing) recommended using sweet and pungent (mildly spicy) foods and medicinals to attune one's body to the spring season. Indeed, mildly sweet and pungent food possess those yang-natured light, ascending and expansive qualities. And indeed, all those spring garnish foods --- sprouts, root vegies, garlic shoots, fresh herbs possess combine sweetness and pungency. A perfect spring drink is peppermint tea with a bit honey. Or mix a bit of honey and fresh green herbs into your cider vinegar or lemon juice-based salad garnish.

6. Shorter Cooking Times

Traditional Chinese Medicine recommends less intensively-warming cooking methods during the warmer seasons. Try light steaming, minimal simmering and minimal sauteeing, as opposed to baking, roasting, and frying --- cooking techniques advised for the winter months. Nutritionist Paul Pitchford adds, "In the Spring, food is best cooked for a shorter time but at higher temperatures; in this way the food is not as thoroughly cooked, especially the inner part."

Some folks begin incorporating more raw food into their springtime diets. Chinese medicine cautions against eating a lot of raw food because it taxes the digestive system. Small amounts of raw food can be light and cooling, especially beneficial if your constitution is hot. I recommend incorporating raw food only as the weather warms significantly, in late spring and summer, but not if you're sick or weak; only in small amounts; and always balanced with something warming -- i.e. warm bone broth; a garnish of grated raw ginger, sauteed garlic or onions; and/or some fermented food to aid digestion.

May all your springtime meals match the delicate sweetness of these spring months!

Links to more articles by Stephanie on Spring Health:

Ten Lifestyles Tips for Spring Wellness

Eight Easy Herbal Teas for Spring

The Liver in Traditional Chinese Medicine

Spring Recipe: Nettle Soup


Nishanga Bliss, L.Ac. website:

Paul Pitchford. Healing with Whole Foods: Asian Traditions & Modern Nutrition.

Penelope Ody. The Chinese Herbal Cookbook: Healing Foods from East & West.

Elson M. Haas, M.D. Staying Healthy with the Seasons.

Lectures by Liu Ming, Oakland, CA.