Seven Elements Harvest
The topic of five elements cooking came up at brunch a few weeks back. Friends had started to change their eating habits based on the principles of five elements cooking, an approach based on traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). I’m not the type of person who worries much about nutrition, but a few years ago I had read up on the subject and made a few positive changes to my diet. As a disclaimer, the description below is by no means comprehensive and is merely a summary of what I think is important for today’s post.
Instead of worrying about the calories, fat, and carbohydrates that many frustrated eaters currently agonize over in the Western world, five elements cooking is concerned with the thermal effect food has on your body. In TCM, it is believed that there are three sources of energy: energy you get from breathing, energy you get from eating, and energy that you were born with – a gift from your parents. The first two sources you can replenish, but when the last source runs dry, you die. So the more energy you get from breathing and eating, the longer you live.
This is why it is important to strengthen your center, the seat of your digestive fire, so that you can get the maximum amount of energy from the food you eat instead of drawing on that precious reserve of energy you were born with. Five pairs of organs (think acupuncture or shiatsu) correspond to one of the five elements (wood, fire, earth, metal, water), a taste (sour, bitter, sweet, hot (as in spicy), salty) and seasons (spring, summer, late summer, autumn, winter). All foods are associated with one element. Sometimes a food can belong to two different elements depending on how it is prepared. In order to maintain a good balance, every meal should include all five elements.
Now, the changes I made to my diet do not include making sure that every meal I cook includes the five elements – I’m too lazy and suspicious of diets where you need to think that much. What struck a chord with me was the importance of tending your digestive fire, which in my case means eating foods that are warm enough that I don’t tax my center more than need be. According to Christiane Seifert (who along with Barbara Temelie has done the most to bring five elements cooking to the awareness of those who can read German), you can harm your digestive fire by eating large amounts of raw fruit and vegetables and sour milk products as well as by consuming ice-cold meals and drinks. You can strengthen your center by eating veggies that are cooked (but not to death), local fruit stewed into compote (citrus is a no-no in Central European climes because it cools you off too much, but if you lived somewhere warmer, it would be fine), cooked grains, soups, and avoiding bread. Temelie goes as far as to say bread is the original fast food.
What this translated into in my life was eating more oatmeal, polenta, and cooked semolina (remember that the Romans were big fans of gruel, too). I started stewing fruit and only having yogurt and raw berries for breakfast in the summer (instead of all year round). The water pitcher came out of the refrigerator and remains at room temperature. I was never a huge bread eater, but now I prefer it toasted when I do indulge. I’ve found that I don’t feel cold as much as I used to and know how to warm myself up in winter with a bowl of polenta or a good soup. While there are some people who need to cool down and can eat raw veggies to no detrimental effect, I am not one of them.
Like in Ayurveda, the TCM approach to nutrition acknowledges that people’s constitutions are different and also that what we need to eat to remain healthy changes over the course of our life as well as over the course of the year. Yes, eating seasonally receives another vote here. And on that note, there is so much in season here now that I don’t know where to begin in processing it all. Apples. Plums. Squash. Tomatoes. Chanterelles. Figs. And it looks like we’ll have a tree full of peaches to be picked in about a week. So now it’s time to shut down the computer and head into the kitchen. A happy harvest to all!