Winter Solstice and the Concept of “補”
Today is Winter Solstice Festival and the Chinese diaspora around the world celebrates it as 冬至 Dong Zhi or Tang Chek which literally means “the arrival of winter”. Apart from the family reunion, ancestral and deity worship and eating glutinous rice dumplings called 汤圆 tang yuan or kueh ee, to the traditional Chinese, Winter Solstice is also a day to nourish oneself, build up and balance one’s constitution to brace the changes in season for the upcoming year. The concept of “補” （补） in traditional Chinese medicine practice is one which believes that one should take precautionary measures to maintain internal harmony within ourselves, boost our energy levels and immunity and balance the “yin and yang“. Prevention is always better than cure. So do you have the habit of 补 during 冬至 as well? Or do you know why we should do it? Read on to find out.
In the traditional Chinese lunar calendar, every year is divided into 24 solar terms known as “二十四節氣”. This is based on the rotatory action of Earth against the Sun. 冬至 Winter Solstice, it marks the day with the longest night and shortest daylight. It is said that after Winter Solstice, the days get progressively longer, with more sunshine hours, symbolic to the coming of Spring and rejuvenation of the Earth.
The tradition of ”補” during the Winter Solstice is one which has a long withstanding tradition in Chinese culture. As such there are many sayings tied in to justify it. Some say “三九補一冬，来年无病痛”. “三九” refers to the 27 days leading up to the Chinese New Year starting from the Winter Solstice. Otherwise it is “冬至補對一天，身體進步整年” or “一年補透透，不如补冬”. This is because of the idea of 氣始於冬至，周而復生. So Winter Solstice marks the beginning in the change in flow of “qi“, not only on Earth but also around our body. So nourish the body during 冬至 helps to tame and guide the flow of “qi” around our body. When the “qi” is 顺 “smooth flowing”, our body mechanisms will also be smooth running. So 冬至进補, is really a good way and the best time to “補气血,调阴阳”
药補不如食補, so nourish our body during Winter Solstice has never been to stuff oneself with chinese medicine on this day. It is always gradual and well-mannered, with slight changes to our meals this day with something truly beneficial to our health. It could be a simple ginseng chicken, as ginseng is known to 補气血”. For the ladies，當歸 angelica root could be added as well for its 滋阴 (nourish the “yin”) properties. Otherwise, something milder like a 四神汤 would be ideal for folks who do not want something which tastes too herbal. And if savory soupy concoctions is not your thing, one can always turn to desserts like 核桃糊，芝麻糊，龟苓膏 which apart from tasting deliciously sweet, are known to have properties beneficial for health as well!
For me, my mum’s 药炖乌骨鸡 Herbal Silkie Chicken Soup is ideal for provided an all rounded nourishing effect. Like many Chinese TCM soups, they are relatively fuss-free to prepare with a slow-cooker. Gone are the days when one would squat by a charcoal stove and fan furiously. For us at least. Otherwise, I think 巴生肉骨茶 Klang Bak Kut Teh would probably work very well for me as well, given the amount of herbs that actually went into cooking the soup. For desserts, I’d probably cook one of my favorites, 南北杏木瓜炖雪耳 Double-boiled White Jelly Fungus with Papaya. One of the important doctrines in TCM is the cyclic concept of “清、补、藏、防” and white (and black) fungus are ideal to provide the “清” mechanism, i.e. to purge and rid our body of toxins before putting in all that wonderful goodness through the other TCM-imbued dishes.
Contrary to common belief, 白萝卜 white radish (daikon) is actually good for 冬至. This comes from the idea of “冬吃萝卜夏吃姜” as being described in 《黄帝内经》. Another saying also goes by “冬季萝卜赛过小人参”, where consumption of daikon in winter is actually more effective than ginseng in nourishing the body! It could be as simple as a hot bowl of 萝卜排骨汤 Daikon and Pork Ribs Soup. Otherwise, daikon goes perfectly with beef as well in the robustly flavoured Cantonese dish 柱侯萝卜焖牛腩 Braised Beef Brisket with Daikon or something lighter like 金寶清燉牛腩干撈麺 Kampar Beef Brisket Noodles.
In TCM, it is firmly believed to “虚者补之”, i.e. it is important to known one’s constitution to better able one to tackle one’s needs and act accordinly to handle one’s deficiencies 对症下药. So it is important for one to know what one’s lacking whether it is 气虚、血虚、阴虚 or 阳虚, so as to solve the problem and eradicate its root effectively. When in doubt, always consult a Chinese physician to get to know yourself better, so as to provide for yourself better.
Happy Winter Solstice Everyone!
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