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Dear Culinary Backstreets,
I’ve heard that Traditional Chinese Medicine dictates that you should alter your diet according to the season to stay healthy. What are some of the foods that Chinese doctors recommend when the temperature drops? 

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is all about balancing your yin and yang, a system that involves dietary practices as well as exercise, massage, acupuncture and herbal medicine. Winter is considered a “yin” season, meaning that it is cold and damp, and you should therefore eat warming, or “yang,” foods to balance out the external conditions.

The easiest way to maintain a TCM-friendly diet in the winter is to eat seasonally. While most supermarkets stock fruit and vegetables year-round, check out local wet markets to see what’s in season. Apples, lychee and apricots are ideal winter fruits, and root vegetables, squashes and mushrooms are “warming” or “neutral” vegetables. In Shanghai, try one of the sweet potatoes roasted streetside in 40-gallon makeshift kilns, or order a jin (500g or 1.102 lb) of chestnuts roasted in charcoal, another Chinese wintertime hawker treat that slots nicely into the TCM seasonal diet plan.

Here are a couple of specific tips to keep in mind when dining out. During cold months, diners should avoid raw foods, like cucumbers, which are considering “cooling.” Red meat is an easy way to get your daily dose of yang food, but you don’t want to overdo it with too much animal protein. Duck, lamb and beef are considered the best meats for boosting inner warmth, but make sure to pair them with hearty grains (oats, quinoa and rice) and legumes (black beans and kidney beans) to stay in balance.

Counterintuitively, spicy dishes are actually not recommended during winter months, as they are considered “hot,” not warming. When you eat chili peppers or other spicy dishes, you sweat, which actually cools the body and releases heat. Instead, try warming spices, like cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg and cloves, which conveniently make a tea that I think tastes great in wintertime! Black sesame seeds, ginger and garlic are all considered warming foods as well.

Keep TCM in mind after you’ve selected what ingredients to eat, as cooking techniques such as baking, roasting and stewing can also be used to give the body heat. Hotpot dishes like those at Lao Beijing are the perfect winter meal, heavy on the stewed lamb and with a broth that includes goji berries, another great warming food. Or eat a Muslim meal at Xinjiang Expedition, where the menu relies heavily on mutton year-round.

Steer clear of cold liquids, as they zap your body of yang properties. But the best part about following a yang diet this winter? Alcohol is definitely considered yang, so whip up a hot toddy or glass of mulled wine. Your body will thank you. – Jamie Barys

(photos by UnTour Shanghai)

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