The ancient Chinese believed in a system of hierarchy when it came to healing. Most valued was the least invasive method of creating positive change in another: the word. Next in importance was movement – the ability of a person to heal himself, by himself, using his body. Below movement stood massage where the touch and skill of another is used to direct the flow of blood and qi in the body, and under massage was acupuncture – for acupuncture requires the combination of another’s skill and the needles of the acupuncturist’s art. At the bottom of the hierarchy of healing was the use of herbs and food – for this required actually ingesting another substance, often on a daily basis, in order to create change in the body.
All food was considered an agent of healing and categorized under one of the five elements that make up Wuxing theory – Water, Wood, Fire, Earth or Metal. Wuxing theory, also known as five element theory or five phase theory, is one of the most far reaching and influential philosophies of the ancient China. It sees the world as a system of correspondences that fall under the governance of the five elements.
Winter is governed by Water. Water also rules the cardinal direction of the North, the colour black (or purple), the aspect of storage and rest and the environmental influence of cold. From a bodily perspective Water corresponds to the Kidneys and all aspects of health that the kidneys govern including bones, the ears and hearing, urinary, sexual and reproductive issues, developmental growth and the emotions of fear, insecurity and shock. The taste associated with Water is salty.
Food was categorized across the five elements according to its nature and the effect ingesting it would have on the qi in your body. This was often from the point of view of the thermal nature of the food (warming/cooling) or its remedial action (moistening, drying, purgative etc). For example, oysters which come from the bottom of the ocean were seen to be cold and eating them in winter would support the parts of the body regulated by the Kidney system (bones, yin, Essence).
Food that falls under the Water category tends to be yin and cooling in nature. It conducts the qi in the body downwards and inwards toward the centre which creates a sense of safety and security. The salty flavor of these foods was also thought to soften lumps, counter toxins, strengthen a weak heart-mind connection and improve concentration.
Food that supports the kidneys is black or dark blue in colour like soy sauce, black sesame seeds, black beans, blackberry and blueberry,
Other examples of food that nourishes the body during the long, dark months of winter rest include: miso, seaweeds, salt, millet, barley, quinoa, spirulina, chlorella, walnuts, parsley, rosehips, the onion family, crab, clam, sardines, pork and cheese.