Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is something common in our everyday lives as Singaporeans—turn around a corner in a neighbourhood and you will likely be able to find a TCM medical hall or two. In the recent hot weather and the durian season, you may have overheard people around you talking about ‘heatiness’ and eating or drinking certain foods or beverages to bring down the heat. What does this mean, and how does this affect our bodies? What foods can we consume to bring down the heat? First, we should understand how the concepts in TCM affect our bodies, to understand the need for a balanced consumption of foods.
TCM and its philosophy on food
You may have heard the terms ‘heaty’ and ‘cooling’ foods being thrown around a lot. These concepts are actually based on an old Chinese philosophy of yin (cooling) and yang (heaty), and have been studied for more than 2,000 years by TCM. The Chinese believe that foods can cause certain sensations and effects on our body, and understanding the body’s constitution is important to know what kinds of food to eat. For example, someone with a lot of yin energy in their body may be advised to consume more ‘heaty’ foods to balance out the cool energy.
TCM classifies foods into yin, yang, and neutral foods.
Yin foods (cooling)
Yin foods are those which are said to reduce excessive heat and toxins. People who are high in yang will need to consume yin foods to balance out their bodies. Symptoms of having too much ‘heatiness’ include having a reddish complexion, a dry mouth, having an easily irritated disposition, and insomnia.
However, you cannot overconsume cooling foods as well. If you have too much yin in your body, you may suffer from some symptoms, such as being intolerant to cold temperatures, having a pale complexion, sore muscles and joints, and being fatigued.
Foods which are cooling are usually lower in calories, have a soothing and refreshing taste, and require little to no cooking. Examples of these foods include green tea, salads, mangosteens and watermelons.
Yang foods (heaty)
Yang foods warm up the body and improve circulation, and help to dispel the cold. They are said to stimulate the body. People with more yin will need to consume more heaty foods. If you are too ‘cool’, you may experience symptoms such as cold limbs, bloating easily after eating, and experiencing discomfort after eating or drinking cold things.
Likewise, if you take too much yang foods, you will become ‘too heaty’, and may experience fever, sore throat, mouth ulcers, acne, excess thirst, redness of the skin, and get easily irritated often.
Foods which are heaty usually are higher in calories and can withstand high cooking temperatures. Examples include red meat, baked and deep-fried foods, durian, chocolates, and spicy dishes like curry.
These are balanced in both yin and yang and are suitable for anyone to consume. Some examples include berries, potatoes, rice, almonds, milk, and honey.
Eat these to beat the heat
If you are too heaty, you should eat more cooling (yin) food to beat the heat. Here are some common cooling foods to consume.
|Food categories||Cooling (yin) foods to eat|
Green leafy vegetables
|Meat, seafood and dairy||Chicken egg |
|Legumes, nuts, grains, and seeds||Barley|
|Condiments, herbs, and beverages||Salt|
Spearmint and peppermint
Out and about
Lo and behold, you can get ‘cooling’ foods outside of the home as well. When you need some convenience and cool, consider having a (healthier) snack, meal, or beverage from the hawker centre. Some options include:
- Cooling tea
- Cheng Tng
- Watercress soup
- Grass jelly
- Ice Kacang (do ask for less syrup)
- Sugar cane juice
- Green bean soup
- Gui Ling Gao (also known as black herbal jelly)
Avoid these to beat the heat
If cooling foods are recommended to reduce heatiness, then it goes that heaty or yang foods should be avoided to prevent your body from getting too heaty. Here are some foods to avoid if you are too heaty.
|Food categories||Food items to avoid|
|Meat, seafood, dairy||Butter|
|Legumes, nuts, grains, and seeds||Chestnut |
|Condiments, herbs, and beverages||Chilli |
Out and about
Singapore is a foodie paradise with an abundance of choices. In general, anything oily, fried, and spicy is considered to be heaty. Moreover, these foods, which tend to have a high fat and salt content, can raise our cholesterol levels as well. Do avoid them or make healthier substitutions when you can.
Recipes to beat the heat
Why not try out a simple recipe to make something cooling with the above ingredients yourself? A refreshing pasta salad is simple yet can be cooling if you add the right ingredients, and mint tea is very welcome in the hot and humid climate here in Singapore.
1. Summer Pasta Salad (about 5 portions)
- 500g tomatoes
- Half a white onion
- 1 cup of olives
- 1 medium zucchini
- 1 tbsp lemon juice
- 1 tbsp basil
- 1 tbsp oregano
- 500g pasta
- 3 tbsp olive oil
- 4 cloves garlic
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Bring a pot of lightly salted water to boil. Add the pasta and cook for eight to 10 minutes or until al dente. Drain and rinse the pasta under cold water.
- Prepare the vegetables. Deseed and slice the zucchini, slive olives into half, chop up the onion, and slice tomatoes into halves.
- Heat up a pan and add olive oil.
- Add olives, garlic, and onion to the pan and stir fry until slight brown.
- Add zucchini and tomatoes and turn the heat up to medium, stirring consistently. Cover the pan for 10 minutes to let zucchini thoroughly cook.
- Add salt, pepper, and herbs to taste. Cool before putting in the refrigerator to make a chilled pasta salad for the hot weather.
2. Mint Green Tea (1 portion)
- Mint leaves
- 1 teabag of green tea
- 1 tbsp honey
- 1 tsp lemon juice
- 1 cup hot boiling water
- Add mint and tea bags to hot water.
- Cover the cup and infuse for 15 minutes.
- Add honey and lemon juice and stir.
- Leave to cool, then enjoy.
Balancing your yin and yang can be as simple as knowing the right foods to eat—not only that, it is easily available and affordable too. Even if you are not big on TCM, seeing as yang foods are pretty healthy in general, why not do so for general health?
Also, you can get your loved ones to help you with purchasing these yang foods at discounted prices by using their senior privileges at supermarkets. You can ask for their sagely advice on this topic as well. After all, your first memory of ‘heaty’ being used is likely from your grandmother, or the aunties and uncles at the wet market—grandma does know best!
- Ajith, D. (2018). Cooling foods in Singapore: Where to get the best ice kacang, cheng tng, grass jelly and sugarcane juice. Honeycombers Singapore. https://thehoneycombers.com/singapore/cooling-foods-in-singapore-where-to-get-the-best-ice-kacang-cheng-tng-grass-jelly-and-sugarcane-juice/
- TCM Basics – Food. (n.d.). https://www.euyansang.com.sg/en/tcm-basics-%E2%80%93-food/eystcmoverview4.html
- Tcm, P. (2023). “Heaty” vs “Cooling” – PULSE TCM %. PULSE TCM. https://pulsetcm.sg/heaty-vs-cooling
- TCM Recipes for Staying Cool In Summer – Body & Soul. (n.d.). https://tcm-shanghai.com/en/blog/tcmrecipes/
- Top 22 Cooling Foods and Herbs (and Their Benefits) – Dr. Axe. (2023, May 5). Dr. Axe. https://draxe.com/nutrition/cooling-foods-herbs/
- What Do ‘Heaty’ and ‘Cooling’ Really Mean? (n.d.). https://www.healthhub.sg/live-healthy/800/Heaty-and-cooling-09Nov2015-NHG