When Chinese people talk about “hot” food, they could be talking about three different things: temperature hot, spicy hot, or inner fire hot, which is this mysterious thing that I haven’t quite figured out yet. Basically, people in China believe that certain foods cause your inner temperature to rise, and certain foods cause it to cool down. And according to traditional Chinese medicine, if you don’t maintain that balance, your body can have all sorts of problems. I think this is the most obvious application of the Yin and Yang concept in the Chinese daily life.
So this is what I’ve been able to gather so far. When you have too much inner fire, you can get acne breakouts, cold sores, nose bleeds, and you may even accidentally bite your lip/tongue while eating. Eczema is also a “hot” disease. Hot foods are also associated with virility, I believe. Anyway, hot foods include the following: red meat, ginseng, garlic, onion. Whether or not something is “hot” is not directly related to temperature or spiciness, but many spicy and rich foods often fall under that category. Fruit can be hot, too, like durian. A coworker told me that most fruits that grow in Southern China are considered hot.
When you have too much inner coolness, you have cold hands and cold feet and you feel cold easily. Cold foods are a little more obvious: cucumber, watermelon, basically many types of veggies and fruit. And even though the “hot” and “cold” foods are not directly correlated with hot and cold temperatures, it is advised that you eat more cooling food in the summer and heating food in the winter. But my friend tells me that you can’t cool your inner fire by merely eating lots of cool foods — because the fire may get even bigger. So complex!
Of course, there’s plenty of neutral foods, too. Rice is neutral. Noodles, too.
In some ways, all of this hot and cold stuff makes perfect sense to me. I mean, when it’s hot out, we want to eat more cool foods, right? Popsicles in the summer and beef stew in the winter — common sense, right? But then I get all confused when they start talking about hot food causing acne and bitten lips and all that stuff.
For the Chinese people, however, the idea of what’s hot and what’s cold is ingrained in many (if not most) decisions they make about what to eat, what not to eat, and what they need to eat. I bet this has a pretty significant effect on the way that food is marketed in China, and I wonder if there are any interesting examples of foreign companies addressing this cultural difference.