The Wondrous Health Benefits Of Traditional Chinese Medicine
I was exhausted when I first met Zoey Xinyi Gong. Despite the coffee I had downed earlier, I found myself low on energy — something I blurted out as I stepped into the chef’s apartment in Brooklyn. She looked at me empathetically and seemed to know just what to do. Her secret? Traditional Chinese medicine.
In red heels — her house slippers — Gong glided from the door to her expansive pantry of dried herbs, fruits, flowers, grains, and fungi. “American ginseng, jujube dates, longan, tangerine peel, goji berries,” she said as she collected the ingredients in her cupped hand. “This is good for fatigue.”
Gong rinsed the dried goods and threw everything into a black ceramic pot of simmering water. A few minutes later, she poured an ochre-hued herbal tea into a glass and handed it to me with a warning: “It might be bitter.”
I took a sip and felt a rush of warmth from the woodsy, familiar flavours — along with, to my distinct surprise, a slight but immediate prickle of energy. I looked up from my cup. “You must get this a lot,” I said. “People ask me about joint pain or skincare, but I can’t cure everything,” Gong replied with a smile. “I know food.”
The people to whom she was referring are the more than 200,000 followers on Instagram and TikTok who seek out Gong for her distinct approach to healing through food. Gong is a chef, a consultant, and a teacher whose methods are rooted in traditional Chinese medicine. TCM is a holistic, intuitive way of caring for oneself, of bringing the body into equilibrium through evaluating qi (the body’s vital energy) and how it circulates through meridians (channels in the body that are typically associated with organs). It is practised through a wide range of applications: Herbal remedies, acupuncture, and exercise are a few. While TCM has been a part of mainstream medicine in Asia, including China, Japan, and Korea, for thousands of years, it has more recently received increased attention outside of Asia. In 2015, Chinese scientist Tu Youyou won the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for discovering a new antimalarial remedy based in TCM. And in 2018, the World Health Organization added a chapter on TCM to its global health compendium, the International Classification of Diseases.
Diet is a fundamental part of Traditional Chinese Medicine, and Gong’s expertise centres on TCM food therapy. For the people who follow her or attend her classes, she is redefining what healthy food looks, smells, tastes, and, most importantly, feels like. There are no protein shakes or one-size-fits-all supplements, no turmeric “elixirs,” detox juices, or shame-inducing diet regimes. Instead, there are dishes that satisfy as well as nourish, like hearty bowls of soba noodles in a bone broth fortified with angelica root and desserts of sweet rice and black sesame porridge.
“We are really trained by society to follow trends in wellness. We skip looking at ourselves,” she says. “I want to bring another side to healthy eating, where you can be relaxed and flexible and you don’t have to give up your cultural cuisine.”
Gong grew up in Shanghai, where Traditional Chinese Medicine was a regular part of her family’s lifestyle. She remembers her grandmother slipping longan and goji berries into dishes for overall health and her mother taking her to a herbalist for acne. Still, after she moved to the US as a teenager and health issues began to surface, Gong found herself turning to Western medicine first. She had a persistent skin rash and joint pain and regularly went to the hospital for treatment. Nothing worked for her until she changed her diet, eliminating dairy altogether. And after experiencing the healing power of food, she decided to pursue a career as a nutritionist, earning a B.S. in nutrition and public health at New York University.
But during her time at NYU, she started to question some of what she was learning. Nutrition classes taught that there was a specific amount of vitamins and minerals a person needed daily; Gong didn’t understand how that number could be the same for each person. During hospital internships, she saw that patients were required to eat a certain amount of calories, but in the form of burgers and canned fruit. She saw how much they didn’t enjoy the food and how they often suffered because of it.
Gong began to dig into the TCM principles she’d grown up with. She credits Yang Xiao Lu, a book written by Chinese doctor Gu Zhong in 1698 that focuses on food as yangsheng, or life-nourishing, with leading her to the approach she takes in food therapy today. She believes that food should be balanced, seasonal, beautiful, and individual, rather than used in a calculated diet that makes eating a stress-inducing chore rather than a joy.
“My own food pyramid changed,” Gong says. “Before, it was salads, California fish, and olive oil. Now, I have a lot of beef tendon, bone broth, herbal teas — food that makes me happy.”
After graduating from university and studying TCM at the Pacific College of Health and Science and on her own, Gong started hosting pop-up dinners. She also began sharing the food she was making on social media, where she explains the thought process behind her meals, like how pears are the perfect winter dessert because they reduce dryness and heat when you’re living in a warm apartment. She’s been able to introduce people to Traditional Chinese Medicine as well as connect Asian Americans with their culture in a new way. “I wanted to give them space to explore their roots and come together,” she says.
Gong relies on classic TCM herbal formulas (there are more than 12,000) as the base for her recipes and then builds on them, drawing on her training as a registered dietitian, her cooking experience, and her whims. She takes into account the thermal nature of ingredients (which can be constituted as hot, warm, neutral, cool, and cold) and the five flavours, or elements (sweet, acrid, salty, sour, and bitter), and how they move through your body in the form of qi (pronounced chi). This highly personal approach results in creations like the winter menu (see below), which includes plump parcels of napa cabbage stuffed with tofu (in lieu of the more usual pork) slicked in a vibrant goji-berry-enriched sauce that helps hydrate the body, and warming mulled-wine-and-cranberry-juice concoction sweetened with brown sugar and infused with angelica root and jujube dates, to help nourish the blood and remove blood stagnation.
Last December, working with Shien Lee (of the experimental nightlife pop-up Dances of Vice), Gong opened The Red Pavilion in Brooklyn as a way to expose more people to the joys and flavours of Traditional Chinese Medicine. In a Wes Anderson-esque space, the two offer TCM-focused cooking classes during the day and a chef’s table at night along with performances and parties. (The latter don’t fall under the TCM category but feature medicinal drinks like ginseng-infused vodka and herbal recovery broths.) This month, she’ll release her first cookbook, The Five Elements Cookbook: A Guide to Traditional Chinese Medicine with Recipes for Everyday Healing, where she guides readers in the basics of TCM through encyclopedic entries on common ingredients and 50 nourishing recipes.
In everything she does, Gong is determined to give others that same creativity and freedom she has experienced through TCM-centered cooking and eating. “People have an assumption of what a healthy life is,” she says. “I wanted to bring our traditions back and explain why they’re such a good thing.”
Zoey Xinyi Gong’s Traditional Chinese medicine pantry
“Whole grains are a huge part of TCM food therapy,” Gong says. “Millet is particularly good since it’s easy to cook, strengthens the spleen, and helps the body digest food and transform it into usable qi.” She uses a specific type of millet called foxtail millet; it’s the base for her morning congee.
2. Goji Berries
These barely sweet berries are packed with vitamin A and in Traditional Chinese Medicine are said to restore the liver and relieve fatigue. Gong enjoys adding them to dairy-free yoghurt or sautéed greens: “They add a beautiful colour.”
3. Angelica Root
Earthy and herbal, this root is known for boosting women’s health. “It helps with a range of issues, from cramps to hormones,” Gong says. She slips it in bone broth or turns it into tea.
4. Black Sesame Seeds
“This seed replenishes the kidney and contains lots of healthy fats and minerals that are good for our hair and skin,” Gong says. She grew up eating two tablespoons of black sesame powder every day; these days, she uses the powder for baking bread and sprinkles the seeds on anything, savoury or sweet.
5. Jujube Dates
For Gong, this dried date is a pantry workhorse. “You can add it to bone broth or steam it with mochi,” she says. “It’s a great sweetener.” In TCM, jujube dates are believed to strengthen the spleen and replenish blood.
6. 13-Spice Powder
This spice mix, fragrant with star anise, fennel, Szechuan peppercorn, and more, pairs well with savoury foods, from crawfish boils to barbecue skewers, and helps regulate qi. “These dried spices are warming for the body and the meridians [channels through which qi flows],” Gong says.
Herbal chicken bone broth with soba noodles
“In China, this broth is traditionally given to postpartum women,” says Gong. Fortified with buckwheat noodles, it’s a meal believed to replenish and build immunity.
Pan-fried lamb dumpling
The peppery spice blend in these warming dumplings is informed by TCM principles; it includes aged tangerine peels, cinnamon, Szechuan pepper, and galangal.
Napa cabbage pockets with tofu
Shiitake mushrooms, Chinese chives, and crisp mung beans, believed to hydrate and clarify skin and reduce inflammation, fill these savoury pockets.
Black sesame paste
Black sesame is believed to nourish the kidneys, benefit hair growth, and nourish the liver. This pudding-like dessert is a Chinese classic with deep, nutty, satisfying flavour.
Steamed pears with sticky rice
Pears are believed to alleviate the ailments that cold weather brings, and the addition of ghee helps to give skin and hair a healthy shine, says Gong.
Traditional Chinese Medicine-inspired mulled wine
Warming the body, promoting healthy blood circulation, and lifting the mood are all benefits of drinking this mulled wine in cold and dry weather.
This story first appeared on www.foodandwine.com
(Credit for the hero and featured image: Charissa Fay)
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