In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), aligning your diet with seasons and the body’s needs is crucial to achieving the balance of yin and yang energy for better health
The Covid-19 pandemic has more than changed the way we live our lives—it has also affected the way we eat. As most of us are spending more time at home, we’ve all been cooking more, craving comfort foods and even becoming more aware of the impact of healthy eating on the immune system.
According to TCM philosophies, what you eat and drink is one of the keys to staying healthy. It’s believed that if we consume foods that are similar in nature to the external environment, our bodies will be able to adapt to seasonal changes better, thus maintaining a harmonious Qi energy (aka the vital energy of your body; when the flow of Qi is deficient or disrupted, illness likely occurs) and improving your overall wellbeing.
To master the technique of using seasonal food as medicines to boost immunity, it’s important to understand the 24 solar terms. It's an ancient Chinese lunar calendar that indicates seasonal changes, best agricultural practices as well as wellness tips based on the sun’s position in the ecliptic throughout the year. We speak to Dr Ruth Lee, a registered Chinese medicine practitioner at Balance Health, to discover the characteristics of each season and how to eat well to feel well under different weather conditions.
Li Chun: The Beginning of Spring (February 4)
Known as the first solar term of the Chinese lunar calendar, Li Chun represents the beginning of spring—a time of rebirth and revival. Springtime is associated with "wood" in the Chinese Five Elements theory, which suggests that human bodies, just like crops, will experience a new phase of "growth" that we should nourish our yang energy more for better health.
The wood element also corresponds to our liver—an organ which governs the overall Qi energy and our emotions. During spring, we should intake more dates, spinach, onion, soybean products, radishes, pickles, sour citrus fruits, and avoid eating fats and highly-seasoned foods to detoxify the liver for a smooth flow of Qi and better emotional health.
Yu Shui: Rainwater (February 19)
Yu Shui indicates the arrival of rainy, warmer weather. There’s an old Chinese proverb that goes “the rainfall in spring is as precious as oil”, so Yu Shui is often valued as a key period for irrigation to make crops grow, especially in dry areas.
Jing Zhe: Awakening of Insects (March 5)
Jing Zhe signals the insect world is awakened from its winter slumber. Everything is growing and bursting into life as the warmer weather approaches. With rising temperatures and an increase in rainfall, it's ideal timing for agricultural activities.
Chun Fen: The Spring Equinox (March 20)
After the first day of Chun Fen, which means, the sun is moving northwards, days and nights have become equally long. It's the time when the plants start growing their precious flowers.
Qing Ming: Clear and Bright (April 4)
Qing Ming, sometimes called Pure Brightness, is the only solar term which has its first day marked as a traditional Chinese festival: Qingming Festival (aka Tomb Sweeping Day), in which Chinese families will visit the tombs of their ancestors and prepare offerings to honour them. During Qing Ming, a significant increase in both temperature and rainfall is expected, where farmers will enter a busy period of ploughing and sowing new crops.
Gu Yu: Grain Rain (April 19)
The last solar term of spring reminds us that the seasonal downpours are beginning. Besides highlighting the role of rainfall on crop production, Gu Yu also suggests that there’ll be no more disturbing spring cold snaps as summer is approaching fast.
Food recipe to try during spring: Spring Tea
Best for: Quick relief for indigestion
Ingredients: 15g Hawthorn berry, 10g tangerine peel
1. Rince all the ingredients thoroughly.
2. Put them in a pot with one litre of water and cook until the liquid boils.
Li Xia: The Beginning of Summer (May 5)
Signifying the end of spring and the arrival of summer, Lixia is the peak time to harvest crops. The weather is becoming warmer, and thunderstorms will occur more frequently too. Summer belongs to “fire” in the Chinese Five Elements Theory, which symbolises humans’ abundant energy in hot summer days. It tells the importance of nourishing your body (especially your heart) with foods that carry yin (cold) energy to keep yourself cool and ease heat exhaustion symptoms, such as heavy sweating, heart palpitations, insomnia and anxiety.
Fresh vegetables, including lotus root, wax gourd, cucumber, celery, and fruits such as strawberry, watermelon, banana are top food recommendations for summer. It's also good to have more bitter greens such as bitter melon, escarole, kale and Swiss chard.
Xiao Man: Grain Buds (May 20)
Xiao Man signals the time when grain seeds are thriving in a warmer condition and waiting to reach the ripening stage for harvest.
Mang Zhong: Grain in Ear (June 5)
The weather during Mang Zhong becomes significantly hotter and it’s the ideal harvest period for crops such as wheat and barley. The amount of rainfall also increases, where lots of East Asian countries such as China, Korea and Japan will enter the Plum Rain season (also known as Mei Yu in Chinese). Characterised by high temperature and continuous precipitation, this type of rain is beneficial for agricultural activities.
Xia Zhi: Summer Solstice (June 21)
Xia Zhi marks the longest day and the shortest night of the year for those living in the Northern Hemisphere, which is often celebrated as a harvest festival in China. People will worship their ancestors with food offerings made from fresh wheat, such as noodles and rice to pray for peace and good harvests for the coming summer days. Yang energy will reach its peak during Xia Zhi, and you are suggested to stay up a bit later than usual and wake up earlier to do exercise for a more balanced Qi.
Xiao Shu: Minor Heat (July 6)
Xiao Shu indicates the hottest period of summer is coming. On the days of Xiao Shu, lotus flowers are blooming all around and you'll be also seeing fireflies coming out to play.
Da Shu: Major Heat (July 22)
Da Shu is the time of year when all parts of China experience their highest temperatures and the greatest amount of rainfall. With its hot and humid climate, Da Shu is considered as a crucial season for growing staple crops, despite frequent occurrences of thunderstorms, floods and typhoons. As the weather heats up, you're reminded to intake sufficient amount of cooling foods and water to avoid dehydration and heatstroke.
Food recipe to try during summer: Chinese Winter Melon Soup
Best for: Reduce body heat, keep you hydrated and promote digestion
Ingredients: 50g raw coix seeds, 30g cooked coix seeds, 50g cooked lentils, 50g rice beans, 3 slices of ginger, 30g small dried scallops, 250g pork ribs, 750g winter melon
1. Wash and rinse all the ingredients.
2. Soak all the beans and scallops in water for an hour to soften them.
3. Then, put all the other ingredients (except the winter melon) and place them together with the beans and scallops into a pot. Fill it with two litres of water.
4. Bring the soup to boil and turn the flame to simmer for 60 minutes, then add winter melon and cook for another 15 minutes.
5. Add a spoonful of salt as you preferred before serving.
Li Qiu: The Beginning of Autumn (August 7)
Though the heat from summer still stays in the air right now, autumn has officially begun, according to the Chinese lunar calendar. Li Qiu is the first solar term of the new season, which reflects the beginning of cooler months and a transitional period into a drier climate.
Autumn is associated with “metal” in the Chinese Five Elements Theory. It correlates with our lung system and the colour white, where Chinese people often consume foods in white colour such as snow fungus (tremella fuciformis), lotus seed, lily bulb to nourish the lungs. Keeping our lungs healthy to fend off respiratory viruses has become particularly important at times like this, so it’s advisable to consume not only more white foods, but also foods that can help hydrate the body and boost your metabolism, such as honey, glutinous rice, pineapple, loquat, and pear.
Chu Shu: End of Heat (August 22)
As we’re moving further into autumn, Chu Shu implies that most parts in China are getting rid of the summer heat. During this period, you will not feel the autumn chill yet, but tend to get tired more often due to the changes in your yin and yang energies during seasonal transitions. It’s important to have a regular sleeping schedule during Chushu, that you should go to bed early and be an early riser.
Bai Lu: White Dew (September 7)
Starting from the first day of Bai Lu, white dews will be spotted everywhere from flowers to grasses and trees. As the temperature continues to drop after the golden hour, water vapour in the air will turn into tiny droplets of water at night. These droplets shine like crystals in the morning time, which also symbolises the arrival of cooler weather.
Qiu Fen: The Autumn Equinox (September 22)
Similar to the Spring Equinox, Qiu Fen is the time when the sun is moving to the south that shines almost directly on the equator. This implies that days and nights will be in equal lengths.
Han Lu: Cold Dew (October 8)
Han Lu means the weather has become significantly colder as winter is drawing near. At this time, cold air will be frozen into a greater number of dews, leading to damp and foggy weather.
Shuang Jiang: Frost’s Descent (October 23)
Concluding the autumn season is the solar term Shuang Jiang, where frost begins to appear. Temperature is dropping sharply, and farmers will be busy in the fields collecting the crops even if they aren’t ripe yet, in order to reduce food loss.
Food recipe to try during autumn: Five White Elements Sweet Soup
Best for: Nourish the lung, clear phlegm and relieve coughing
Ingredients: ½ stick Henan yam, 2 Tianjin pears, ½ lily bulb root, 1 piece of white fungus, 30g almonds, 20g goji berries, 20g-30g rock sugar
1. Rinse all ingredients thoroughly.
2. Peel the yam and cut it into cubes. Cut pears into cubes as well and slice the lily bulbs. Soak the white fungus into the water for 15 minutes and goji berries for 5 minutes.
3. Put yam, pear, white fungus, and almonds into a pot with one litre of water. After the water boils, turn the flame to medium and cook for 30 minutes.
4. Add the lily bulb root and rock sugar and cook for another 10 minutes. Put the goji berries into the bowl and it’s ready to serve.
Li Dong: The Beginning of Winter (November 7)
Li Dong signals the beginning of winter, in which the season is all about rest and restoring your energy. Winter belongs to “water” in the Chinese Five Elements theory, meaning we should not disturb our yang energy and nourish our yin energy more, to build strength before stepping into the warmer season, spring.
In TCM, winter corresponds to our kidneys, and it’s believed that a good Qi energy in the organ will keep the bones, brain, as well as reproductive and urinary systems healthy. During the cold season, we should consume an appropriate amount of fat and high-protein foods such as beef, eggs, dates, mushrooms, glutinous rice and black fungus to keep the body warm. It’s also necessary to eat less salt to maintain the kidney’s health and intake a certain amount of yin food for a balanced diet.
Xiao Xue: Minor Snow (November 22)
The second solar term of winter is Xiao Xue, which marks the season’s first snowfall in the northern part of China. As the temperature continues to drop during Xiao Xue, you’re reminded to have more hot soup and yang (warm) food such as chicken, mutton and ginger to keep yourself warm.
Da Xue: Major Snow (December 7)
Moving forward to December, it’s the season of Da Xue. The weather in northern China is often coupled with below-freezing temperatures and thick snow during Da Xue. It’s also a key time for nourishing your yang energy to prevent respiratory illnesses.
Dong Zhi: Winter Solstice (December 22)
When Dong Zhi arrives, places in the Northern Hemisphere will experience the shortest period of daylight and longest night of the year. Dong Zhi is the second most important Chinese festival after the Chinese New Year, which is celebrated as a time of family reunion. Apart from making and eating dumplings, it’s also a tradition for Chinese people to celebrate the arrival of cold weather with tang yuan (sweet glutinous rice balls)—a delicacy that symbolises family warmth and togetherness.
Xiao Han: Minor Cold (January 5)
Xiao Han signifies colder weather is dominating most areas in China, but it hasn’t reached the lowest temperature of winter yet. During Xiao Han, you’re recommended to consume more longan meat, lotus seeds, chestnuts, and enokitake and avoid eating cold foods such as mung beans and persimmons, as well as sticky foods like ice cream and frozen drinks to enhance your Qi energy and circulation.
Da Han: Major Cold (January 20)
Known as the last solar term of the year, Da Han marks the beginning of the coldest period in winter. It’s time to pay attention to your health more and be prepared for the seasonal changes from winter to spring. It’s better to have more easy-to-digest warm foods such as rice and sweet potatoes to help your body adjust to warmer weather.
Food recipe to try during winter: Miso Soup with Radish
Best for: Keep your Qi energy balanced and ease dryness-related symptoms
Ingredients: 500g radish, 2 tablespoons Japanese miso paste, 1 teaspoon sugar, 1 teaspoon black soy sauce
1. Wash and peel the radish into ½ inch slices.
2. Put the slices into a pot and add water to cover them.
3. Bring it to boil and add the miso paste. Simmer until the radishes become soft.
4. Add black soy sauce and sugar into the soup. Stir over a low flame with a few minutes and it's ready to serve.