The Yin and Yang in Chinese Cooking

Balance in Foods and Cooking Methods

A sign of yin yang from the seeds of black and white sesame

 eskymaks / Getty Images

In Chinese philosophy and religion, there are two principles: Yin and Yang. Yin represents negative, dark, and female or feminine. Yang represents positive, bright, and masculine. 

The philosophy of yin and yang is the center of Chinese culture and plays an important part in everything to do with China and Chinese culture. The first references to yin and yang came from the “I Ching,” the five classic works compiled and edited by Confucius.

Yin and Yang as Complements

People often think of yin and yang as opposing forces. However, it is really more appropriate to view them as complementary pairs. In Chinese culture, when problems arise people usually assume there is a conflict between these two elements or there is an imbalance between their surroundings.

No matter whether there is a flood, divorce, or even a fire in the kitchen, all can be attributed to the disharmony in the forces of yin and yang. The interaction of these two elements influence the destinies of creatures and life in general. Of course, this can sound overly superstitious to many people but which culture doesn’t have its own special belief?

Balance and "Hot and Cold" in Chinese Food

When you talk about the yin and yang in Chinese cooking and Chinese food, you are looking for a balance in your food. As mentioned before, yin and yang should be seen as opposing forces and should be treated as complementary pairs. So in Chinese cooking, when chefs design or think of an idea for a dish and menu they will try to find the “perfect balance” of the food. The concept of “hot and cold” in food is important to understand as the basis of balance. 

In China and Taiwan, most people don’t use “yin and yang” to describe food but instead use “hot and cold”. The hot and cold here doesn’t relate to the temperature but the attributes of the food. 

Yin and Yang Foods

Characteristics of yin (cold) food include:

  • Green food
  • Bitter and sour food
  • Grows in the water
  • Consumes less sun while growing
  • Winter and rainy season vegetable or fruit 

Examples of yin foods are:

Characteristics of yang (hot) food include:

  • Red food
  • Sweet or spicy food
  • Food that grows in the soil
  • Food that consumes more sun while growing

Examples of yang foods are:

  • chili
  • ginger
  • mango
  • cherry
  • duck
  • beef
  • cinnamon
  • nutmeg
  • almonds
  • peanuts
  • eggs
  • glutinous rice
  • garlic
  • sesame oil
  • alcohol
  • papaya
  • pumpkin

So when you seek the balance of yin and yang in Chinese food and cooking, you combine food that "balance" these complementary characteristics.

For example, autumn is usually the best season for eating crabs in the East and Chinese people usually eat steamed crab with a sauce that is made of chopped ginger and rice vinegar. As you can see from the lists above, ginger is a yang food and crab is yin, so this combination forms a perfect food “balance.” Chinese people usually cook winter melon soup with some julienned or thin slices of ginger or stir-fried clams with ginger. Flavorful ginger is a yang/hot food and can balance yin/cold food like winter melon, crabs, and clams.

Yin and Yang Cooking Methods

Another thing about yin and yang in Chinese cooking is the cooking methods. Generally, Chinese people think yin cooking methods are boiling, poaching, and steaming. Yang methods are deep-frying, roasting, and stir-frying

Please note: suggestions in this article are purely suggestions. Please ensure you eat a balanced diet. If you have any health issues, seek professional help before embarking on a new diet.