A basic principle of treatment, whether with acupuncture, herbal medicine, or food therapy, is balancing of extremes. Strengthen what is deficient, reduce what is excess. We use food to balance the extremes of summer by eating more cooling, moistening, and fluid-generating foods. Turns out many summer foods naturally embody these attributes.
But care must be taken to not over-cool the body, as this can cause internal damage, which creates even more problems. So the cooling foods must be balanced with warming ones, ones that will protect internal organ function and, particularly, foods that will protect digestive function.
In this post we’re going to continue to look at contemporary recipes from the perspective of the Chinese traditional healing arts. It’s a warm eggplant salad recipe from Bon Appetit. You can find the original recipe here.
As a chef, one of the biggest challenges I faced was creating fresh, new, appetizing ideas without over-complicating them. Keeping things simple is much more difficult than it seems. Many chefs fall into the trap of thinking more-is-better. This recipe gets straight to the point with just a few ingredients. Cooling and nourishing eggplant, combined with warming and circulating red onion, are accented with roasted walnuts and fresh mint.
A member of the nightshade family, eggplant is technically a berry. The skin and seeds are edible. Though it’s technically a fruit, it’s best not eaten raw. It should always be cooked. Believed to have originated in India, it has been grown and consumed in southern and eastern Asia since prehistory.
Though used in countless cuisines, and capable of taking-on any number of flavorings, by Western nutritional standards eggplant is considered quite low on the scale of essential nutrients. The only exception is manganese. Not fully understood at this time, manganese is believed to be involved in numerous chemical processes, including the metabolism of cholesterol, carbohydrates, and protein. It may also be involved in bone formation.
The Chinese traditional healing arts see eggplant as having a cool energetic nature, and sweet taste. It influences the Spleen/Pancreas and Liver, and relieves pain by encouraging the movement of blood. Eggplant also promotes urination, and reduces swelling. Because eggplant is cooling, even when cooked, those who are overweight, or who tend toward a slow metabolism, should avoid over-consumption as it can damage digestive function and aggravate these issues. It should also be eaten sparingly by pregnant women, as it is believed to influence the uterus, and have the potential to cause miscarriage.
Onions, including the red variety in this recipe, are warm and spicy/pungent. They influence the Lungs. High in sulfur, onions generate warmth, expel coldness, and encourage the movement of both energy – called qi (pronounced chee) in the Chinese traditional healing arts – and blood. By encouraging the flow of qi and blood, they keep things within our physical and mental/emotional lives moving smoothly.
Onions facilitate digestion, particularly amino acid digestion, so they’re helpful for people who consume a lot of protein. They also promote the growth of healthy intestinal flora, and retard the growth of various pathogens such as viruses, yeasts, and ferments. However, excessive consumption of onions can exacerbate “hot” conditions. Symptoms of heat include red face and eyes, aversion to heat or sensation of feeling too hot, or a desire for large quantities of cold drinks. Best to eat sparingly if you tend to the “hot” side.
Two types of walnuts are grown for their seeds – the black walnut, and the Persian or English walnut. Black walnuts come from the eastern United States, have a particularly hard shell, and are generally not cultivated to be eaten. Persian walnuts, also known as English walnuts, originated in Central Asia and are the species cultivated primarily as a food.
Walnuts are about 65% fat by weight. They’re higher than most other nut species in polyunsaturated fats, and include an omega-6 fatty acid called linoleic acid. They also contain approximately 12% alpha-linoleic acid (ALA), which is an omega-3 fat. Walnuts are the only nut to contain a significant amount of ALA.
Walnuts are part of the Chinese herbal materia medica. They’re used as herbal medicine. Sweet and warm, they influence the Kidneys, Lungs and Large Intestines. Walnuts warm and tonify – strengthen – the Kidneys, to relieve both back pain and excessive urination. They resolve chronic cough, and breathing difficulties that worsen with exertion. Walnuts also moisten and lubricate the bowels, and help promote bowel movements.
Also used in Chinese herbal medicine, mint has a cool energetic profile, and a pungent/spicy and aromatic flavor. It influences the Lungs and Liver. Mint clears heat from the upper body, and is useful for issues such as red, blood-shot eyes, sore throat or headache. It also gently cools the Liver, and relieves symptoms of stagnation such as chest or flank tension and pain, tension in the digestive system, and emotional instability.
Olive oil, lemon juice, date syrup, molasses, or honey, cinnamon, and of course salt and pepper, make up what is essentially a vinaigrette. Light and refreshing, vinaigrette is usually reserved for salads. But it’s also a great option for cooked summer foods, including cooked meats, because that same lightness brings out flavor without being overwhelming.
Oils, and fats in general, are digested more slowly than protein or carbohydrates, and create a greater sense of satiation. In other words, they make us feel full more quickly, for a longer period of time. As a result, when we consume a small amount of fat with other foods, we actually eat less overall. They’re also necessary for the assimilation of vitamins A, D, E, and K, all of which are fat-soluble.
Fats can be composed of saturated fatty acids, or unsaturated fatty acids. Fats that are solid at room temperature, like animal fat, are composed of primarily saturated acids. Oils, which are liquid at room temperature, are mostly unsaturated. Because olive oil is liquid at room temperature, it’s considered an unsaturated fat. And if it’s an extra virgin olive oil, it has been mechanically extracted from the olive fruit, as opposed to chemically extracted, and is considerably more nutritious. Olives have been processed for their oil for over 8,000 years.
From the perspective of the East Asian traditional healing arts, fats, including vegetable-based oils such as olive oil, strongly nourish the yin aspect of being. They create a sense of comfort, security, even heaviness. They help us feel grounded and safe. Many “comfort foods” are high-fat foods. And because a high percentage of our entire nervous system, including brain and spinal cord, are compose of fat, their consumption is essential to our existence. They’re also an extremely dense source of energy.
Indigenous to North eastern India, lemons have been propagated throughout southern Europe, the Middle East, and into East Asia for thousands of years. They’re available year-round, but summer is their peak season. Good sources of vitamin C and folate, they also contain flavonoids – plant pigments thought to reduce the risk of heart disease, cancer, asthma, and stroke – as well as compounds called limonins, which are not yet well understood.
Lemons have a cooling energetic nature, and a very sour, astringent flavor. They enter the Stomach and Liver. Lemons quench thirst and generate body fluids. They harmonize the Stomach, regulate qi to aid digestion, and relieve bloating and gas. Lemon also facilitates the metabolism of mucus, and encourages the formation of bile. This last property is very helpful for individuals who consume excessive fat, protein, or both. However, those who have excess stomach acidity, or ulcers, should consume with caution.
Used primarily as an aromatic condiment and flavoring additive in the West, cinnamon is obtained from the inner bark of several species of the plant genus Cinnamomum. Only a few species are grown for the spice, with only Cinnamomum Verum considered true cinnamon. However most of the cinnamon produced for commercial use is from a related species referred to as cassia. Nearly 75% of the world’s production of cinnamon originates in either China, or Indonesia.
Cinnamon has been used in Chinese herbal medicine for several millennia. Used to warm and strengthen the Kidneys, Spleen/Pancreas, and Heart, to disperse deep cold and alleviate pain, and strengthen digestion, cinnamon is energetically hot with sweet and spicy/pungent flavors. It can be helpful for individuals who are overweight or otherwise have slow metabolic function. But consumption is cautioned by those who are thin, who have hyperactive metabolic function, who tend to feel overheated, or have problems sleeping.
All sweet, though with slightly different energetic temperatures and specific functions/actions, the common action of each of these ingredients, when used in moderation, is that they strengthen digestive function.