Food & Drink

You Are What You Eat The Ch’i of Food

Food is literally the life-giving energy, the ch’i , that sustains us all. But ch’i is not only associated with the intrinsic properties of the food, but also with the way it is cooked.  Jon Sandifer tells us about the Ch’i of food

The trend over the last 100 years has been to examine food’s properties on a microscopic level. What is the molecular structure of food? What is the fat, carbohydrate, protein and vitamin content? But for thousands of years, people have known what to eat, what to select, how to prepare food and when it was most appropriate to eat certain foods. Our great grandparents had not heard of vitamins.

From an Oriental perspective, ch’i can be translated as ‘life force’. The ch’i of food is not only associated with the energetic property of the food in question but also the ch’i of the cooking style and, to a lesser extent, the ch’i of the cook!


Raw foods have different ch’i characteristics. Salads, for example, can have bright, fresh ch’i but they do not have the stamina of foods that can hold their ch’i for years – grains, pulses and salt. During summer, the Fire season, we need foods that support and sustain us. Support could be interpreted as foods which give us balance and have a cooling quality – such as salads – or give sustenance in that their ch’i is expressed as uplifting and lively.

Spices from China and India have become increasingly popular in the predominately yang British culture.

Looking East

Until I studied Japanese cookery, I only had two approaches to cooking – it was either raw or cooked-beyond-recognition. Between these extremes of yin and yang, lies a spectrum of cooking styles – each of which bring a different quality of ch’i to the ingredients.

My own discovery of the combined effect of the ch’i of food and the environment happened when I arrived in Britain in 1962 – as a child to go to school. I had left sunny, coastal Kenya, where there is plenty of Fire, Wood and Water energy, to be overwhelmed by two Elements – Earth and Metal. I had arrived on an island and was living in an area dominated by clay; I was surrounded by the water of the North Atlantic; and there was plenty of cold weather thrown in for good measure – there was an over-abundance of Earth, Metal and Water. I also experienced a new distinction – the colour grey.

My school food was strongly favoured by these Elements. It was stodgy, heavy, overcooked, high in animal fats and, generally, salty. Even desserts, which need to have lightness and freshness – yin – were overcooked and heavy going.

Adding Fire

What my school food missed, and what we need to set in balance against the UK climate, is some Fire Element. This Element represents the sun and if its presence is hidden or lacking for much of the year we can bring it out in our cooking. Ideally our diet should include plenty of food that is cooked on a high flame for a short time. This could include pan frying, wok frying and deep frying. But even traditional British fish and chips, which should fit this description, has been given too much Metal treatment – it is often overcooked, heavy and soggy.

Some intuitive effort has been made though. British people tend to be attracted to tea (Wood or Fire energy) which is a stimulant, mustard (Metal energy), spicy sauces (Metal energy) and, more recently, to spicy foods from China and India (Metal energy).

Perhaps the predominance of yang characteristics in the British climate, culture and food has led millions to seeknew horizons (Wood energy) and fresh beginnings (Wood energy) abroad, particularly in sunny climates (Fire energy) far from home.

One of the most important ingredients in the kitchen is the cook’s own ch’i. If we are feeling tired, depressed or unenthusiastic, then naturally our cooking is going to reflect that – a rather uninspiring meal. If, however, our ch’i is bright and charged then our cooking and the meal itself will reflect this.

I find that I’m not particularly fussy about what I eat any more, or necessarily how it was cooked, but more interested in how it was prepared – whatever the food, if it is cooked with love, it is the best you can ever eat.

Use The Elements

You can use the Five Element model (see diagram on left) to enhance your ch’i, and to support any particular health needs you may have, through your diet. Fundamental to this approach is an understanding of Oriental diagnosis. A summary of the Five Elements, their related internal organs and symptomatic signs of any ch’i or emotional imbalances is listed left.

One way to use the Five Element model is, after identifying any weak Element, to support it by emphasising the free-seeding aspect of the cycle – that is by using the Element which precedes it in the Productive Cycle. For example, if your Wood Element is weak, then emphasise the Water approach to ingredients and cooking styles, to help nourish the Wood.



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