• Posted by Su-Mei Yu on May 13th, 2009, 5:55 PM

    The monsoon rain started to fall in a great crescendo. A couple of elderly friends and I had barely settled down to lunch when the dark sky burst open with heavy rain, followed by crashing thunder and flashes of lighting. Within minutes, the glass panes of the dining room facing the walkway at the Suan Dusit Rajabhat University in Bangkok, where my friends taught culinary arts, were sheeted with streams of water.

    Among several dishes my friends’ students had prepared for us was a plate of steamed bundles of sadow, bitter buds and leaves of the neem tree. These deep verdant buds began to sprout as soon as the rain arrived, covering the top of their massive trees like green umbrellas. “It is as if Mother Nature sensed we need extra bitter greens to protect us from unpredictable weather.” One of my friends said, as the other chimed in with an ancient and familiar Thai proverb, kom bpen ya, wan bpen roam—“bitterness is medicine, sweet is wind.” We nodded together in agreement. To us, this proverb is one of many exemplifying our people’s philosophy of health and well-being. That is, we are one with Mother Nature and our food is medicine.

    Seven years ago, I returned to Thailand to study with a traditional Thai folk doctor, Dr. Pennapa Subcharoen. She was not only the foremost authority in her field, but was also the director of the Traditional Health Medicine Division of the Thai Public Health Department. We formed a loving friendship that lasted until she passed away in 2008 of gall bladder cancer. Dr. Pennapa was a woman of wisdom who maintained that our ancient beliefs would one day be confirmed as the true path toward health. Her prophecy has to some degree become a reality in America, as support for local, seasonal and sustainably grown foods has taken on a revolutionary fervor. What we are experiencing in this country today echoes the ancient teachings of Thai philosophy.

    The elements of life—earth, water, wind, and fire—which are present in nature are also within each of us. These elements evolve as Mother Nature moves through the cyclical changes of seasons and the hours of the day. Just as different geographical terrains possess one of these elements, we humans are also dominated by one or two of them, called our “home” element. According to the Thai belief, our home elements are imprinted in our being, linking us to the particular astrological moment at the instant we were conceived.

    Until recently, in order for us to find our home elements, we needed to consult either Buddhist monks or Thai folk doctors. About a decade ago, Dr. Pennapa developed a device, which she called a wheel, that can help anyone of us to find our home elements. Our home element is the compass that we can use to help us navigate through life. It can help us live harmoniously with Mother Nature and thereby maintain a life of good health—physically, emotionally, and spiritually. As in nature, where each season is defined by distinct characteristics, people with different home elements also have their own defining features. For example, the earth element person fares better in warm weather and needs to take extra precautions to nurture the muscles, bones and tendons, especially during cold weather. The water element person, on the other hand, thrives in a warm, dry climate. Wet and cold weather aggravates a water person’s respiratory and digestive systems. A person with wind element has sensitive nervous and circulatory systems that need special attention during cold and rainy days. Lastly, the fire element person wilts in hot weather but glows in the cold. The circulatory and digestive systems of a fire person can really go out of whack if caution is not taken when the weather is hot.

    For us to stay healthy and in balance with Mother Nature as she evolves from one season to the next, and from one time of day to the next, it is vital that we cook and eat seasonal and, by extension, locally grown produce. For example, winter is the time of year when earth, water, and wind element people need to take special protective measures. Winter crops include buttery tubers, pungent onions, sour citrus, spicy garlic, and bitter greens. Tubers, rich in fiber, are not only good for digestion, but are packed with the vitamins and minerals that nurture our muscles, bones, and tendons—perfect for earth element people. Water people need protection for the respiratory system. Citrus nurtures the chest against the cold. Wind people, on the other hand, need spicy onions and garlic to help the circulatory and nervous systems. Although the fire person does well in the cold, eating plenty of bitter greens is an extra protective measure.

    The American movement that encourages us to eat locally and seasonally is politically and environmentally motivated. It is also a given that fresh not only tastes better but is better for you. The Thai theory, however, goes a step further. The proverb I mentioned earlier, celebrating bitterness as medicine and sweetness as increasing the wind element (which affects breathing, digestion, and emotion), epitomizes our belief that Mother Nature’s bountiful gifts have hidden medicinal values. The keys to unlocking their secrets are in the nine basic natural tastes, flavors and aromas: sweet, astringent, buttery, salty, bland, bitter, sour, cool/refreshing and spicy. Some are better suited to a specific home element as well as various seasons and times of day. That is, eating the “right” foods at the right times keeps you in equilibrium with nature’s changes.

    Getting back to the lunch with my friends on that wet monsoon day in Bangkok, the dishes were prepared with the vegetables and fruits of the rainy season, and the sadow (neem tree buds and leaves) whose bitterness appeases Mother Nature’s fire element, which dominates the noon hour. Bitter flavors are also most healthful for the water element, my home element. The bundles of buds were served with a dipping sauce that is sweet/salty/spicy–the first two tastes being best for my friend’s home element, earth. The spicy flavor balanced the wet and rainy day, dominated by wind, which is also my other friend’s home element.

    My forthcoming book details this ancient philosophy in simple and practical terms, making it easy for you to apply it to your own lifestyle. The book also includes Dr. Pennapa’s wheel to help you discover your own home elements. I can assure you that it will not only open your eyes and mind, and help you to understand and trust your inner self, but will also allow you to gain a new appreciation for what lies hidden in Mother Nature’s bountiful gifts. From that moment of discovery, you will realize why you have always been partial to, or disliked, certain flavors and aromas. The sweetness of carrot, spiciness of arugula, the slightly bitter and bland taste of broccoli, will take on entirely new meaning.

    Su-Mei Yu is the owner of Saffron, the first Thai restaurant in San Diego, California. Her latest project is a cooking school in Mae Rim, a city in northern Thailand. She inherited her love of food and cooking from her mother and has been cooking since she came to America from Thailand as a foreign student at the age of 15. She is the author of numerous articles and three books: Cracking the Coconut, which won the Julia Child award, Asian Grilling, and The Elements of Life. She also blogs about Thai cooking.

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