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Yin and Yang in Chinese Cooking 

"Real knowledge is to know the extent of one's ignorance."

Written by Rhonda Parkinson

Yin and yang. Hot and cold. Male and female.  The philosophy of yin and yang lies at the heart of Chinese culture. The first references to yin and yang come from the I Ching, the five classic works compiled and edited by Confucius.  Taken literally, yin and yang mean the dark side and sunny side of a hill.  People commonly think of yin and yang as opposing forces.  However, it is really more appropriate to view them as complementary pairs.  The Chinese believe problems arise not when the two forces are battling, but when there is an imbalance between them in the environment.  Floods, divorce, or even a fire in the kitchen - all can be attributed to disharmony in the forces of yin and yang.

This is the traditional symbol for the forces of yin and yang, sometimes described as two fish swimming head to tail.

How does the concept of yin and yang relate to food?  A basic adherence to this philosophy can be found in any Chinese dish, from stir-fried beef with broccoli to sweet and sour pork. There is always a balance in color, flavors, and textures. However, belief in the importance of following the principles of yin and yang in the diet extends further. Certain foods are thought to have yin or cooling properties, while others have warm, yang properties.  The challenge is to consume a diet that contains a healthy balance between the two.  When treating illnesses, an Oriental physician will frequently advise dietary changes in order to restore a healthy balance between the yin and yang in the body. For example, let's say you're suffering from heartburn, caused by consuming too many spicy (yang) foods.  Instead of antacids, you're likely to take home a prescription for herbal teas to restore the yin forces.   Similarly, coughs or flu are more likely to be treated with dietary changes than antibiotics or cough medicines.

Almost no foodstuff is purely yin or yang - it's more that one characteristic tends to dominate.  This is why there is not complete agreement amoung experts as to which foods exhibit yin or yang forces.  It also reinforces that it is not so much the individual ingredients, as the the balance and contrast between ingredients in each dish, that is important. Interestingly, cooking methods also have more of a yin or yang property, as the list below demonstrates.

Cooking Methods: 

Yin Qualities:

  • Boiling
  • Poaching
  • Steaming

Yang Qualities:

  • Deep-frying
  • Roasting
  • Stir-frying

Types of Foods: 

Yin Foods Yang Foods
Bean Sprouts Bamboo
Cabbage Beef
Carrots  Chicken
Crab Eggs 
Cucumber Ginger
Duck Glutinous Rice
Tofu Mushrooms
Watercress Sesame Oil
Water Wine


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Yin and Yang Image reprinted from the site of Mary Shomon, About's Guide to Thyroid Disease

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