Thanksgiving and the Fire Chicken: the hot and cold of foods – a quick holiday primer
BEHOLD, the Great Fire Chicken!
When I was a wee acupuncturist in training, I noticed that none of the Chinese faculty ate the typical Thanksgiving turkey leftovers. Upon mentioning it, one of my professors responded, “Chinese do not eat turkey because it is too hot.” What does that mean? At the time, I had only recently been introduced to the thermal concept of foods and their effect on the body, so that response didn’t really register.
The answer to the question of why the turkey is considered too “hot” lies in thinking about food a little differently. Usually, we think of food through the lens of chemistry (looking at you fat free, dairy free, exclusionary “miracle” diets). Most often, when people talk about food, we talk about carbs, rather than grain, protein rather than meat, etc. This is very different from how food is discussed in the clinic and as seen through the lens of Traditional Chinese Medicine.
When talking about food in the clinic, we look at the two thermal aspects. First is the temperature at which the food or drink enters the body. This is pretty easy to recognize: hot cup of soup, cold glass of water. The second, and harder to recognize, is the thermal effect of that food once the body has metabolized it. This is what my professor meant by the turkey being too “hot”.
It is also possible for a food to be too cold in a particular situation. For example, when my son was four, we took him to a Chinese Medicine practitioner for the treatment of a chronic cough with sticky, thick mucus – about the time we weaned him, he turned into a big ball of yellow snot. The practitioner recommended taking him off of soymilk because it was too “cold” for his digestion at the time. Soymilk, as a “cold” food, was cooling off the digestion system, requiring the body to add more of it’s own warmth from other areas and systems to keep the digestive system at “operating temperature.” Ethan’s system was constantly being cooled to the point where it could not warm back up to work efficiently. The practitioner suggested goats milk instead as it was more “warming”. We did what he said, and the chronic cough disappeared and green snot-ball of a little boy returned to normal and he has had great lungs ever since.
Does this mean that these foods are bad and nobody should eat soy or turkey? That depends. Let’s take another soy product that, as it turns out, is a superfood: Miso. It is a soy product that is considered a powerful digestive aid in Asian countries. Scientists have identified it as a major reason that the Japanese have one of the lowest breast cancer rates in the world. Miso, through a long fermentation process takes a highly cold and indigestible food — the soybean — and makes it highly digestible.
Let’s take another example of how the same food can change temperature depending on how it is processed: Green tea is moderately cooling, which is one reason it’s so refreshing in the summer, and Oolong tea warming. Oolong is tea from the same plant as green tea, but green tea is “fresh” or raw or unprocessed. Oolong has undergone various levels of aging and fermentation, this processing, results in a “warmer” food, or stated another way, a food that adds a moderate amount of warmth to the system, while green tea will result in a moderate cooling effect on the body.
Now back to our Thanksgiving turkey, which in Chinese literally is called Fire Chicken 火雞. I never did learn whether they had ever had a really well prepared turkey — we all have had to suffer through the odd, poorly prepared bird and know how painfully dry, dry, dry a bad turkey can be. The question of whether or not turkey is good or bad like almost any other food likely revolves around the question of the frequency that you are eating a food. Remember that Chinese Medicine follows the principle of 中庸 Zhong Yong, a principle similar to the golden mean in Greek Philosophy. I interpret this as everything in moderation, including moderation itself. Even foods at an extreme end of the hot/cold thermal spectrum like the fire chicken has a place if only consumed occasionally, or as part of a yearly tradition. The key to the turkey lies into the wisdom of the harvest feast and tradition of the fiesta. These festivals, marked by ample food and drink and celebration, were times to compensate for the days of hard work and more scanty food intake, a sort of rebalancing and storing to get ready for the cold and harsh of the winter season. Unfortunately, most modern digestive systems are already overloaded with too much nutrition, thus making Thanksgiving a meal of excess on top of excess.
One question remains: if it’s okay to tank up on a good, building Thanksgiving meal once a year, how do we keep from over loading the digestive system the rest of the year? While, this is a subject of past blogs and definitely will be addressed in future submissions as well, one good rule of thumb that one of my teachers taught me was that you can eat as much as you want as often as you want as long as you put the right things in your body and only eat till you are 70% full every time. Going back to the moderation principle, one of the exceptions to this rule is the annual Thanksgiving meal.
In the vein of Thanksgiving, we have some fabulous recipes this month: Miso Mashed Potatoes and Chez Panisse's Turkey and Gravy. We also have a special tea recipe that's super easy to make and will help you digest all of the delicious food.
Next month (if I can get David off his keister), we will continue exploring this concept with: How to tell if you’re eating too much “hot” or “cold” food for your system. Stay Tuned!