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February 8, 2012

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Springing for sprouts, spicy herbs

IT may be freezing cold, but according to Chinese solar terms, spring has arrived. That means it's time to change your regimen to get in tune with the rising yang (hot) energy in the universe.

Eat sprouts and shoots (growing things), fresh vegetables and pungent, piquant, slightly peppery herbs, such as green onions, garlic and potherb mustard.

The first solar term after the Chinese Lunar New Year is lichun (spring begins), which arrived last Saturday, declaring the beginning of a new season. (See "Cosmic sundial of solar terms," Shanghai Daily January 22, 2012).

This is the season of birth and growth, crucial for both agriculture and personal health.

One traditional agricultural ritual is da chun niu - beating the spring bull, expressing wishes for good crops and prosperity.

Small hollow clay statues of bulls (which were used to pull plows) are beaten with sheaves of grain, so the animals will not be lazy and will work hard. When the statues are broken and grain fills the clay fragments, it's a good sign of good harvests to come.

It has become a spring ritual to change diet and "bite the spring" (yao chun), meaning to eat (bite) foods that increase yang energy or help the energy to "ascend" and spread through the body. Spring foods include green onions, turnips, various sprouts and caraway seeds.

Regular physical exercise is important, as is getting up early if possible.

Food therapy is always recommended, changing with the seasons, to help store yang energy in winter, to reduce it in summer and boost yin (cool) energy, and so on.

"Reinforcement with food is recommended in spring, but with a strategy that helps yang energy to ascend in the body, while protecting the liver, which is vulnerable in spring," according to Dr Zhang Zhenxian, director of the Special Medical Care Department of Yueyang Western and TCM Hospital.

Pungent foods that boost yang are recommended, while sour foods such as hawthorn and lemon should be avoided since these may damage the liver, the organ that "dominates" in the spring season, thus restricting the growth of yang energy.

The major principle of "biting the spring" arose thousands of years ago. It calls for eating fresh vegetables, notably sprouts, and adding pungent (spicy, acrid and slightly yang) herbs that activate the blood and energy circulation.

The five classic pungent herbs served in wu xing pan (springtime plate) are green spring onions, garlic, pepper (black, white, Sichuan), potherb mustard and ginger. These dishes were popular in the Tang Dynasty (618-907). Spring rolls and spring cakes made with thin sheets of flour, fresh vegetables and pungent herbs are still popular today.

Other pungent herbs and vegetables include leeks, caraway seeds and cinnamon.

Too much is as bad as too little, the saying goes. The same is true for boosting yang energy.

Dr Zhang warns against over eating pungent and spicy foods and herbs lest they cause problems of "ascending fire," such as ulcers and toothaches. Chinese doctors typically warn against heavy exercise that's exhausting.

Spring cuisine

Spring rolls
Ingredients: 12 spring roll skin sheets, minced pork (300g), bamboo shoot slices (100g), Chinese leek shoot slices (100g), salt, sugar, sesame oil for flavoring.
1. Mix minced pork, bamboo shoots and leeks. Stir.
2. Add salt, sugar and sesame oil to season. Stir.
3. Wrap 50g of mixture in each spring roll skin to make rolls.
4. Fry until golden.
Benefits: Helps reinforce yang energy, benefits digestive system, activates blood and energy circulation.

Toon sprouts and scrambled egg
Ingredients: Chinese toon sprouts (500g), 3 eggs, green onion slices, salt for seasoning.
1. Chop sprouts into pieces.
2. Mix raw eggs with sprouts.
3. Add salt to season. Stir.
4. Pan-fry green onions, add egg mixture, fry again.
Benefits: Toon sprouts help boost yang energy, benefits the stomach and regulates energy circulation.

Five pungent foods
Green onion
Accelerates blood circulation, promotes perspiration and improves appetite. Rich in selenium, it helps fight negative signs of aging.

Promotes cardiovascular health, helping lower cholesterol, blood fat and blood sugar. A natural antioxidant and antibacterial, it is said to have anti-cancer benefits.
Accelerates blood circulation, expands blood vessels, improves appetite and helps relieve coldness in extreme weather conditions. Pepper (black, white, Sichuan) is rich in vitamins C and A.

Potherb mustard (and other mustard greens)
Works as antioxidants, benefits the cardiovascular system. Rich in vitamins A, B, C and E and phytonutrients, it helps refresh the mind and relieve fatigue. It can also improves appetite.

Accelerates blood circulation and improves appetite. Boosts the immune system, fights inflammation and widely used as a TCM herb to dispel pathogenic cold, treat indigestion and relieve carsickness and vomiting.


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