Origin of Food Therapy in TCM



Food therapy is an inextricable part of Traditional Chinese Medicine. There is a Chinese saying, “藥食同源“, which means Food and Medicine (herbs) share the same origin. This saying reminds people that medicinal herbs were discovered in the process of finding food and refers back to the legend of Divine Farmer (神農). According to the legend, Divine Farmer was the chief of an ancient Chinese tribe. He had an unique body which was transparent and allowed him to see the effect of the things he ate. To benefit his people, he decided to try all the plants in the wild. He would eat a plant and then see how it affect his body. Plants that were safe and mild would become food, and plants that had powerful properties would become medicinal herbs, and plants with high toxicity would be avoided. The Divine Farmer had many near death experiments but he was able to save himself due to his superhuman knowledge and abilities. However, there was one plant so poisonous that finally took his life.

The inspiring story of Divine Farmer hints about an earlier age (5000 years ago) when ancient Chinese was moving from a nomadic society to an agricultural society due to population growth. In order to satisfy people’s growing demand for food, early sages began to explore the world of plants. In the process, they build a wide knowledge about plants, their nutritional values as well as their medicinal properties. Some plants were deemed as food, some plants were deemed as medicine, and some plants were deemed as both. Therefore, Divine Farmer is still worshiped today as both the patron saint of agriculture and of Traditional Chinese Medicine. This highlight the integral part food therapy plays in Traditional Chinese Medicine and how Chinese will always see food from a therapeutic perspective.

Furthering the integration of food and medicine is the founder of herbal formulation, Yi Yin (伊尹), who is also worshiped as the patron saint of cooking. According to the legend, Yi Yin was the son of a slave woman, who had a miraculous virgin birth. He became a cook for the royal family of one ancient Chinese tribe. When the princess of the tribe was married to the king of another tribe, he became a member of the dowry slaves.  One day, the king, so impressed by his cooking, summoned him to award him. After a brief interaction, their conversation quickly turn into a discussion about life, society and the tyranny of despotic Emperor Jie. Yi Yin used his philosophy of cooking to explain everything. The key, to him, is harmony and balance. Like cooking, people must respect the intrinsic properties of natural materials. All flavorings and cooking techniques must work mutually to enhance without overshadowing each other. The same philosophy applies to medicine, life and society. Moderation, cooperation, reverence for natural orders and work with the flow are principles for balance and harmony not only in cooking but also in medicine and in governance. Amazed by the wisdom of the slave in front of him, the king elevated him to be his minister. Yi Yin aided the king in his campaign to overthrow Emperor Jie.  They founded a new dynasty called Shang, and Yi Yin became the celebrated prime minister.

Yi Yin is so honored because he symbolized many ideas central to Chinese thinking. Chinese sees the world as deeply interconnected. Therefore a wise person must see the “big picture”. They must see the universal patterns and principles that apply to everything. Cooking is no different from governing. For the food to taste good and nourishing, each item must play its part. Together, they taste better than each one of them individually.

Chinese believes synergy is the art to success. Similarly in medicine, cooperation is the key to healing. Cooperation between patients and doctors is more powerful than any therapeutic technique. Cooperation between herbs allows greater treatment potentials than any single herbs. Cooperation with nature will generate harmony and  happiness than seeking personal satisfaction alone. Yi Yin and Divine Farmer laid a foundation of holistic thinking that permeates throughout Chinese culture from cooking, eating to Traditional Chinese Medicine.

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