Taiwanese Cuisine: Stir-fried green vegetables vs salad – when 'hot' means 'cold'

Stir fried green vegetables dishes are among the most common elements of Chinese family cuisine. Just a few pieces of garlic, sauteed with a few tablespoons of oil, stir-fried with some green vegetables: this is the simplest home-style dish.

Water spinach, parchoi, cabbage, spinach, kale sweet potato leaves, and bean sprouts are the stir-fried green vegetables dishes you see most often. You can see them on almost every restaurant menu. No matter if they are dining in fine restaurants or at street stands, stir-fried green vegetables are an essential part of many meals for Taiwanese people.

But, in fact, the Chinese word 'Chao Ching Tsai' which is translated as 'stir-fried green vegetables' doesn't only mean cooking with green vegetables, it also means cooking with fresh vegetables.

Many Western friends told me that something they miss when they are traveling is being able to get a big bowl of fresh salad. At the same time, Taiwanese friends often told me they miss stir-fried green vegetables when they are away from home.

In most of the western-style restaurants in Taiwan raw salads are very common, though in cheaper places they are very small, with rather unsubtle salad dressings. But most older Taiwanese people would definitely prefer to have stir-fried green vegetables. This is because raw salad is a cold food, and they have a principle of balancing their intake of hot food and cold food.

Hot or not?

The use of the words 'hot and 'cold' to describe Chinese and Taiwanese food can be very confusing. The use of these words by native speakers is based on Chinese medicine and health traditions and it does not necessarily refer to the temperature of the food, but to other nutritional and flavor properties. We began learning these eating guildlines when we are very little, so such food education is deeply rooted in our diet.

Most green vegetables are 'cold' according to this philosophy, but that doesn't have to mean they are physically cold when they are served. Instead, in Chinese, we describe food as 'cold' when we believe it creates a cooling effect on our bodies. For example, Chinese Cabbage is very 'cold', Western cabbage is neutral, and spring onion is warm.
When the weather is hot, or when our internal heat is high, water chestnut, cucumber and celery are good for cooling. On the other hand when the weather is cold, our blood circulation is poor, so black sesame oil and ginger, which we see as 'hot' foods, are very often used in our cooking.

We can easily see the concept of hot and cold food in a stir-fried green vegetable dish. The green vegetables are mostly 'cold' food, so when cooking the green vegetables, people will use 'hot' ingredients like garlic and ginger to balance the cooling effect of green vegetables. Of couse the heat to cook it is also a source of a heating effect. On the cold winter days, we will use black sesame oil and aged ginger to cook green vegetables, as the black sesame oil and aged ginger have a very warming and invigorating effect on our blood circulation.

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