Chinese Food Therapy 食疗 shí liáo // A Beginner’s Guide

What is Chinese Food Therapy?

There are many things to love about living in China, and one of them is of course, the food (see below)!

There seem to be an unlimited amount of food options in China.

Shanghai alone has so many restaurants constantly being added to an already incredible culinary scene.

As delicious and varied as Chinese food is, did you know that Chinese people also uses food as a way to regulate the body in the form of Chinese food therapy?

Chinese Food Therapy – What is 上火 Shàng Huǒ?

Chinese Food Therapy – Heaty / Cold Food

Chinese Food Therapy – Where did Chinese Food Therapy Come From?

Chinese Food Therapy – A Common Ingredient

Chinese Food Therapy – FAQ’s

Herbs and Spices in Chinese

What is 上火 Shàng Huǒ?

Have you ever heard a Chinese friend mention that he/she is 上火 (shàng  huǒ)? The conversation might have gone something like this:





(Zhōumò qù nǎlǐ wán le mā?)

Did you go anywhere fun this weekend?

“跟朋友去吃了四川火锅。 今天有点上火。”

(Gēn péngyǒu qù chī le sìchuān huǒguǒ. Jīn tiān yǒu diǎn shànghuǒ.)

I went to have Sichuan hot pot with friends. Today I’m suffering from an excessive internal heat.

The said friend might then proceed to make a cup of 菊花茶 (jú huā chá), or chrysanthemum tea.  

If this conversation and the behavior of the person sounds baffling to you, then this article is here to dispel the confusion.

The Chinese food therapy, or 食疗 (shí liáo), is the idea of using food as a way to regulate and heal the body.

The practice is largely drawn from Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). One core principle of Chinese food therapy is that food shares the same origin as medicine and can be used, just like medicine, to treat diseases.

According to TCM, food can be broadly categorized into three types, heaty, cooling and neutral.

10 Must Try Shanghainese Foods 🍜 Your Complete Guide Thumbnail

10 Must Try Shanghainese Foods 🍜 Your Complete Guide

Chinese food is so diverse that it’s really difficult to say what’s best, so we’ve diluted it down. Here are the top 10 best Shanghainese food dishes.

Chinese Food Therapy – Heaty/Cooling Food

Heaty food like alcohol or spicy food nourishes the 阳 (Yáng). Too much heaty food in the body creates more heat in the body; and an excessive amount of heat in the body can causes physical symptom like dry mouth, heartburn, oral ulcer, and constipation. Yikes!

The concept of 阴阳 (Yīn and Yáng) is a fundamental principle in Chinese medicine and more broadly Eastern philosophy; and it’s more mysterious and complex than calculus.

So for now, it’s sufficient to know that the body needs a balanced Yin and Yang to be working at its best.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are cooling foods, or food that nourishes the 阴 (Yīn) in the body.

Examples of cooling food include banana, cucumber and pear.

Cooling food can be used to counter the excessive heat in the body to 降火 (jiàng huǒ), or reduce the excessive internal heat, and vice versa.

Neutral food such as rice and black fungus is neither heaty nor cooling.

The person from the exchange at beginning of the article had Sichuan hot pot during the weekend and therefore is suffering from an excessive internal heat.

Drinking chrysanthemum tea can help reduce the heat in the body - Chinese food therapy.
Chrysanthemum tea can help reduce internal heat

Though Sichuan hot pot has gained immense popularity in China, it’s also extremely spicy.

All that spiciness creates an excessive amount of heat in the body and throws off its balance.

To alleviate symptoms of 上火 (shàng huǒ) and restore the balance in the body, TMC recommends to consume cooling food such as 菊花 (jú huā), or chrysanthemum,  cucumber, or mung beans.

The friend in this case decided to drink 菊花茶 (jú huā chá), an easy and accessible remedy.

Where did Chinese Food Therapy Come From?

Chinese food therapy is so ingrained in Chinese culture that it has been influencing what people choose to eat at meal time for centuries.

In ancient China, the Imperial Kitchen, known as 御膳房 (yú shàng fáng), consisting of a team of TCM and Chinese food therapy experts, would serve carefully prepared food using TCM principles to regulate the health of the emperor and his/her family.

Snow pear dessert soup is used to alleviate dry coughs
Snow pear dessert soup – Alleviate dry coughs

Fast forward centuries later, Chinese families also utilize Chinese food therapy to care for the health of their family members.

For example, if a child in the family is suffering from dry coughs, the adult in the family would prepare:

  • 冰糖炖梨 (bīng táng dùn lí) to help alleviate the symptoms.
  • 冰糖炖梨 (bīng táng dùn lí) is a dessert soup made with
  • 雪梨 (xuě lí) and 冰糖 (bīng táng), or snow pear and rock sugar.

According to TCM, snow pear has the ability to thin mucus and restore moisture in the lungs, and in term stop the dry coughs.

Chinese Food Therapy – A Common Ingredient

One common ingredient you might have encountered in most Chinese restaurants is black fungus, 木耳 (mù ěr), a soft, jelly-like ingredient often served as a 凉菜 (liáng cài ), or cold dish.

Though to many expats, it’s an unusual ingredient to see on the table, black fungus has been enjoyed for centuries in China.

Black fungus is neutral according to Chinese food therapy and can provide many benefits for the body.

This curly and interesting looking ingredient is packed with fiber, iron, and vitamin B-2.

It has a neutral property and can clean the digestive system and blood, boost immune function, and delay signs of ageing.

Black fungus has also been recently found to be anti-tumor, hypoglycemic, and anticoagulant; and can also help lower cholesterol!

Go ahead and fill up your plate with as much 凉拌木耳 (liáng bàn mù ěr), or black fungus salad, as you want next time you see it!

What we have covered so far is really just the tip of the iceberg.

Although you might not be ready to diagnose your friends just yet, at least next time your friend complains of 上火 (shàng huǒ), impress them and show your concern by saying 多喝点菊花茶 (duō hē diǎn jú huā chá), or drink more chrysanthemum tea 🙂

Chinese Food Therapy – FAQ’s

What is Chinese Food Therapy

Chinese food therapy 食疗 (shí liáo), is the idea of using food as a way to regulate and heal the body.

What is “Heaty Food”

Examples are heaty food include alcohol or spicy food which nourishes the 阳 (Yáng). You should get a balance of Heaty and Cooling food to nourish both sides equally.

Why do Chinese eat black fungus?

This curly and interesting looking ingredient known as black fungus is packed with fibre, iron, and vitamin B-2. Due to this, Chinese people eat black fungus in a lot of dishes.

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