The women in my family have always struck me as being “body fortune-tellers.” They can look at anyone and guess what their body is in need of. They will joke about being a fake doctor (ga yee sung), because a reputable Chinese herbalist performs a thorough exam before making a diagnosis. But my relatives’ expertise is for keeping the body in harmony.
It takes my female relatives only a moment to observe your chapped lips, hear you complain of insomnia, or watch you cough before they decide what you need to soothe your ills. You may think your chapped lips simply need a lip balm, that the street noise is keeping you up, and that in a few days your cough will go away. But their interpretation is totally different—everything points to a body suffering from yeet hay (excessive internal heat), undoubtedly caused by a diet high in spicy foods or fatty foods such as chocolate, fast foods, fried dim sum, or rich restaurant meals. This heat must be neutralized with the proper foods to restore balance in the body.
Most people have heard of yin and yang, a Taoist concept based on the idea of opposites in balance, whether cold/hot, water/fire, or female/male. This is a reference not to the temperature of the food but to the intrinsic nature of the food. Yang foods are warming, invigorating, and powerful; many are high in fat and spicy. Typical foods with a strong yang nature include butter, organ meats, chicken, ginger, and lamb, yet these foods also have some yin qualities. Yin foods are cooling, soothing, and mild, and characteristically more vegetarian, although they too can have yang qualities. Typical foods with a strong yin nature include crab, watermelon, cucumber, bean sprouts, tofu, and watercress. Rarely are foods purely yin or yang. The yin-yang balance is created by the natural contrast of the ingredients.
It is fundamental to the Cantonese system of eating to keep yin and yang foods in balance. Every individual’s age, digestive system, absorbing power, and metabolism is different and affected by the seasons of the year.
To achieve the ultimate balance, my family, like many Cantonese families, prepares special tonic soups. The Cantonese realistically presume that no one eats a pure and fat-free diet (and no other culture probably enjoys rich food more than the Chinese, especially when it comes to delicacies for special occasions). To offset the occasional indulgence (as well as deficiencies in the diet), specific soups are taken to restore balance. In fact, even if no signs of imbalance are evident, soups, tonics, and teas with mild herbs are drunk as a preventive measure.
The recipes in this article restore balance, especially to correct yeet hay—excessive heat from too many yang foods. In my family, all of these soups are consumed in an effort to harmonize the body, not as a substitute for professional medical advice.
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