Keep the Home Fires Burning
Stoke your energy with warming foods from Traditional Chinese Medicine.
By Janet Webb Lee
You’ve taken the winter clothes out of storage, shoveled the snow, lit a fire, and settled in for a comforting bowl of…salad? Cooked warm foods just seem natural in colder weather as they complement both our bodies and the season. According to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), they are beneficial year-round, supporting the digestive processes that fuel everything we do.
Similar to ayurveda’s concept of agni or digestive fire, TCM views food as fuel and the body as a stove. Just as a stove maintains an ever-burning pilot light that sparks the fire, the kidneys are the body’s pilot light, a force that is the root of all life for every organ, encompassing both yin and yang. The stomach acts as a cooking vessel, while the spleen provides the fire that transforms food into energy.
The spleen, in TCM terms, transforms the pure part of food, the nutrients, into blood and chi, or energy, while sending waste to the intestines for elimination. Eating cold and raw fare dilutes this inherently warm process and slows digestion: the body retains fluid, metabolism decreases, your fire and energy fade. Manifestations can include bloating, weight gain, fatigue, and cold hands and feet.
During the winter when you need more energy to resist cold, it’s even more important to eat warming foods. You can keep the home fires burning with readily available foods and spices. Aromatic herbs like ginger, cinnamon, and cardamom help the body dispose of unwanted fluids, while warming the body and strengthening digestion. Traditional congee or rice porridges incorporate medicinal food or herbs into easily digestible dishes. Rice strengthens the spleen, and walnuts and chestnuts stoke the body’s yang, or warming energy.
Ginger is a powerful digestive regulator. Combine it with pumpkin, another digestive strengthener, and you’ll have a warming bowl of soup. According to Ancient Wisdom, Modern Kitchen by Yuan Wang, Warren Sheir, and Mika Ono, ginger also beautifies the skin, relieves constipation, and lowers blood sugar.
Cinnamon, used in this traditional Korean tea, assists circulation and helps maintain that pilot light in the kidneys—the foundation of life.
Learning which foods benefit your body’s unique needs can turn every meal into a delicious opportunity to strengthen your health and keep warm all winter long—from the inside out.
Discover Traditional Chinese Medicine inspired recipes in the print edition of our winter issue.
Janet Webb Lee is a graduate of the Pacific College of Oriental Medicine.
Photo: Andrea Killam