Chinese Medicinal Cuisine

Through 5,000 years of recorded history, the Chinese have developed an unequaled pharmacopoeia of food remedies and have turned this knowledge into a delicious cuisine that is simple to prepare. In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), food is viewed as medicine and is used to nourish and harmonize the body, mind, and spirit. All foods have a distinct energy and characteristic properties that either help to balance our bodies and make us healthy, or that create imbalances which ultimately result in sickness.

History of Chinese Medicinal Cuisine

In ancient China, when people were looking for food sources, they found many things that could be eaten or not, but had medical effects through practice. Medicine and diet had been linked for a long time. Before the Xia dynasty, wine making began and was used in medicine. The condiment after this, also be medicaments like the genus of ginger, cassia.

Originating from ‘Medicine and food being of the same origin’, Chinese medical cuisine formed after the Qin (221 BC-206 BC) and Han (206 BC-220 AD) dynasties and flourished in the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties. 

The earliest extant Chinese dietary text is a chapter of Sun Simiao’s Prescriptions Worth a Thousand Gold (千金方), which was completed in the 650s during the Tang dynasty. Sun’s work contains the earliest known use of the term “food (or dietary) therapy” (shiliao). Sun stated that he wanted to present current knowledge about food so that people would first turn to food rather than drugs when suffering from an ailment. 

His chapter contains 154 entries divided into four sections – on fruits, vegetables, cereals, and meat – in which Sun explains the properties of individual foodstuffs with concepts borrowed from the Yellow Emperor’s Inner Canon: qi, the viscera, and vital essence, as well as correspondences between the Five Phases, the “five flavors” (sour, bitter, sweet, pungent, and salty), and the five grains. He also set a large number of “dietary interdictions”, some based on calendrical notions (no water chestnuts in the 7th month), others on purported interactions between foods (no clear wine with horse meat) or between different flavors.

Chinese understandings of the therapeutic effects of food were influential in East Asia. 

Main Tenets of Chinese Medicinal Cuisine

One of the basic concepts of Chinese Medicinal Cuisine is “medicine and food share a common origin”, so that food materials can therefore be used to prevent or treat medical disorders. 


Like medicinal drugs, food items are classified as “heating” or “cooling”. In popular understanding, “heating” or “hot” food is typically “high-calorie, subjected to high heat in cooking, spicy or bitter, or ‘hot’ in color (red, orange)”, and includes red meat, innards, baked and deep-fried goods, and alcohol. They are to be avoided in the summer and can be used to treat “cold” illnesses like excessive pallor, watery feces, fatigue, chills, and low body temperature caused by a number of possible causes, including anemia. Green vegetables are the most typical “cooling” or “cold” food, which is “low-calorie, watery, soothing or sour in taste, or ‘cool’ in color (whitish, green)”. They are recommended for “hot” conditions: rashes, dryness or redness of skin, heartburns, and other “symptoms similar to those of a burn”, but also sore throat, swollen gums, and constipation.

Five Flavors

Each medicine or food item has one of five flavors: sour, sweet, bitter, pungent (or “acrid”), and salty. Besides describing the taste of food, each of these “flavors” purportedly has specific effects on particular viscera. The sour flavor, for instance, has “constriction and emollient effects” and “can emolliate the liver and control diarrhea and perspiration”, whereas “bitter” food can “purge the heart ‘fire’, reduce excessive fluids, induce diarrhea, and reinforce the heart ‘Yin'”.

Five Classification

According to the perceived nature of food, there are five classifications: han寒 (cold/yin), liang 凉(cool/yin), ping 平(neutral), wen温 (slightly warm/yang), and re热 (hot/yang).

  • Han Food: Watermelon, persimmon, melon (cantaloupe), bitter lotus, crab and most seafood
  • Liang Food: Mung bean, bean curd, mushroom, eggplant, wax gourd, towel gourd, cucumber, duck, duck egg, etc
  • Ping Food: Rice, corn, red beans, black beans, peanuts, tomatoes, carrots, pork, beef, etc
  • Wen Food: Garlic, ginger, pumpkin, Chinese prickly ash, chicken, mutton, wine, beer, jujube, ginseng, etc
  • Re Food: Chili, pepper, cinnamon, white flour, soybean oil, white wine, etc

Functions of Chinese Medicinal Cuisine

According to its respective functions, medicinal cuisine is classified under four categories: health-protection cuisine, prevention cuisine, healing cuisine and therapeutic cuisine.

  • Health-protection Cuisine: Health-protection refers to the corresponding enhancement of the required nutritious food to maintain organic health. Pumpkin and almond soup can help you lose weight; angelica and carp soup can add beauty; porridge and ginseng can provide more power.
  • Prevention Cuisine: Preventive dishes can ward off potential diseases. Mung bean soup is thought to help prevent heat stroke in summer. Lotus seed, lily, yam, chestnut and pear can help prevent autumn drying and  add a strengthening of resistance to cold in winter.
  • Healing Cuisine: Healing Cuisine is the officinal food that recovers after serious disease. Grilled lamb hearts with rose or braised lamb with angelica will help rebuild a healthy body.
  • Therapeutic Cuisine: Therapeutic Cuisine is tailored to specific pathology. Fried potatoes with vinegar can regulate organs, inhibit hypertension and poria cocos soup can increse the strength of blood plasma albumen to help reduce swelling.

Seasonal Recipes of Chinese Medicinal Cuisine

Chinese believe it’s best to eat seasonal food. In Spring, eat some food that can supply the necessary yang and help to nourish the liver; in Summer, have some food that can cool down the heat a bit such as Tomato and cucumber; in Autumn, take some vegetables and fruits to help your body to transition and stay healthy such as butternut squash soup; in Winter, drink more hot meat soup to with high yang vegetables and herbs to balance the dish. 

Food Culture Travel

Food is an integral part of Chinese culture and it should be an integral part of your trip too if you are a foodie who loves Chinese food. Don’t miss the famous local cuisine at the destination you stay. Most often, delicious food is with beautiful sceneryBeijingXianChengdu and Shanghai are famous food centers of China. Peking Roast Duck, Sichuan Hot Pot, Mapo Tofu, Kung Pao Chicken… Different cities have different local flavors and different food culture. Choose places to visit according to your preference. We have designed a series of China food tours for you. If you have enough time, you can visit several places to taste the great regional cuisine. Also, if you are interested enough, you can also have chances to make Chinese food.

Recommended Food Culture Tours:
Xian Evening Tour with Dumpling Dinner, Xian Tang Dynasty Show and City Night View
2 Days Beijing Highlights Tour with Beijing Roast Duck and Kong Fu Show
9 Days Beijing-Xian-Chengdu Small Group Tour
12 Days China Paradise Culture Tour by Train

Read more about China Food Culture Tours.