A Tufts University student, born in Hong Kong in 1966, whose parents emigrated to the Bronx, N.Y., in 1969, said yes. He had heard his mother talk about "hot" and "cold" foods, but had just dismissed it as part of the Old World.
"She's not well-educated," Wai Gee Chu explained. And yes, she tried to get him to drink and eat certain things when he was ill, and when he's at home, he does it "to avoid a full-scale battle." But he doesn't pay any attention to this "Chinese medicine" and whatever it is that she's trying to get him to drink and eat in the first place.
Nutritionists and anthropologists, on the other hand, would listen well to Wai Gee's mother, if given half the chance. Culinary historians and others interested in the rich folklore of food might, too. Increasingly, the primitive practice of trying to balance "hot" and "cold" foods in the diet has become a subject of intense scholarly interest for a variety of reasons.
Hot-cold, as it is called, may perhaps be best defined, at least for understanding by Americans, in terms of what it's not.
First, it doesn't have anything to do with thermal opposites or the serving temperatures of foods. It doesn't even have to do with whether a food is spicy or peppery. It's a different kind of system entirely, one in which foods are not the only things to be classified in this way. Illnesses, weather, emotions -- even people -- may be "hot" or "cold," and to understand and follow the system is to try balancing the "hot" and "cold" extremes in one's life.
Second, hot-cold isn't only a Chinese tradition. It can be found being practiced in many other parts of Asia, Southeast Asia and the Mideast, as well as in Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa. It's an especially strong Hispanic cultural tradition, with medieval Spanish roots, which in turn stemmed from the ancient Greek humoral systems.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, it's not necessarily an everyday tradition. "People tend to use it more when they're sick or in other extreme circumstances, like childbirth," said Patricia M. Kelly, a Boston-based culinary arts teacher and historian researching the topic, especially its "cultural bases" around the world. "If you have a hot disease, you eat cold foods, and vice versa," said Jacqueline M. Newman, an English-language Chinese cookbook expert and professor of home economics at Queens College, Flushing, N.Y., who also has done research in the field.
How is the research being conducted? The hot-cold foods tradition is not written down somewhere in some definitive way. "I spent three weeks trying to locate the authority," said Chinese cookbook author and teacher Nina Simonds, who wanted to include a chapter on the subject in her latest cookbook, "Chinese Seasons," to be published this year. "And I came to the conclusion that there isn't any such thing.
"You're in a very shady area -- a gray area between food and medicine," Simonds added, "and probably the best people to talk to would be Chinese grandmothers."
Or Latino grandmothers, as the case may be, for the hot-cold systems in practice throughout the world today are not particularly consistent. They're not even intraculturally consistent, in many cases.
"There are lots of contradictions," said Ellen Kramer, editor-in-chief of the Cambridge, Mass.-based journal, Nutrition Planning. "If I named a food, I'd have people from one part of the world telling me it was hot, and another group telling me it was cold." Further, adds Kramer, who has degrees in both nutrition and anthropology, "if you ask 492 Moroccan mothers to list hot foods, you may get 492 different lists. Some will say chickpeas are hot, some will say they are cold."
In 1980, Newman and a Queens College colleague, Elaine Kris Ludman, asked 450 Chinese about their hot-cold beliefs and practices, and their results were recently published in The Journal of Nutrition Education. Their questions came in the form of a questionnaire they distributed in the People's Republic of China, Hong Kong and the United States. They asked their subjects which foods in the hot-cold tradition they would select to treat hot and cold health conditions. Actually, though, the Chinese themselves do not call these extremes "hot" and "cold." They are only loosely -- Newman and Ludman would say somewhat inadequately -- translated that way. The actual expression is yin yang, a Chinese coupling familiar enough to many Americans as a balance of opposing elements -- male, female; darkness, light -- in Chinese art and philosophy.
Some of the yin yang choices on Newman's and Ludman's survey:
Yin (cold) foods: bean curd, bean sprouts, broccoli, carrots, cucumber, duck, fish (some types), fruit (some types), greens (most), honey, milk, pork, water.
Yang (hot) foods: beef, chicken, eggs, eggplant, garlic, ginger root, liquor, red pepper, tangerines, tomatoes, vinegar.
Yin (cold) health conditions: cancer, menstruation, pregnancy.
Yang (hot) health conditions: constipation, hangover, sore throat, toothache, venereal disease.
Noodles, sugar and other sweets were listed as "neutral," as was "soft" rice (cooked in extra water), though "glutinous" rice was listed as "hot."
Their results revealed that the tradition continues to strongly affect the dietary practices of their respondents.
Newman was particularly intrigued by the unconscious element many subjects' answers displayed: "If you asked them if they put into practice the hot-cold concept, they say not. But if you ask them what foods do you give a pregnant woman, they give the alternate (hot) foods."
A much more comprehensive study of hot-cold beliefs in Mexico has been undertaken by Ellen Messer, associate professor of anthropology at Wheaton College in Norton, Mass., and president of the Council on Nutritional Anthropology. As part of her doctoral dissertation from the University of Michigan, she has studied the hot-cold practices and judgments of the Zapotec Indians in Mitla, Oaxaca.
Looking at only a tiny piece of Messer's study, one still can get an idea of the complexity of the subject Messer and others have chosen to work with. She writes:
"Traditional knowledge suggests that all meats (animals) come in hot-cold pairs. Commonly beef is opposed to pork, goat to sheep, and less consistently chicken to turkey. Some people, however, reverse the terms of the analogy, and classify beef as hot, pork as cold, while maintaining the central idea that meats come in pairs of opposed qualities. Others claim that all meat is temperate until spiced and use the spices to arrive at the hot-cold qualities of the meats (cilantro used with beef is cool; oregano with pork is hot) . . ."
Beef flavored with cilantro (coriander) and pork zested with oregano sounds culinarily enticing. In addition, cool foods, such as milk, are systematically spiced with "hot" cinnamon by the Zapotec, according to the Messer study.
Does hot-cold have a hand in gastronomy? "In the beginning," Simonds points out from her Chinese research, "spices were important more for their pharmacological aspects than their culinary ones. That's really how seasoning began." But the hot-cold studies have more at heart than waste.
As nutritious food is increasingly recognized as playing a role in good health, hot-cold is being scrutinized for both positive and potentially negative effects.
At the moment, most scholars shy away from drawing rigid conclusions about the nutritional or pharmaceutical benefits or dangers of hot-cold balancing. But Messer, for one, speculated that positive physiological effects "will probably be discovered in the future." One example, among others, she gave is that Yucatec Maya in Mexico avoid overexertion and electrolyte depletion by balancing their salt and water intakes through hot and cold rules.
Negatives, too, however, may be inferred from some studies. In Ecuador, for example, according to a profile published by the International Nutrition Communication Service (INCS) of Newton, Mass., some people believe that hot foods are bad for children, and many of these hot foods denied to them are protein-rich.
For three years, Kramer was part of the team that is still working to complete 36 INCS profiles of 45 developing countries and their nutritional status and nutrition-related beliefs and practices. In writing 14 of the profiles, Kramer has seen hot-cold surface time and again, and she said somewhat sardonically of the folklore: "These days we have much more sophisticated, much more incisive tools to determine our nutritional needs."
On the other hand, she adds, "Native beliefs have to be treated with some respect. Nutritionists should be able to confront these beliefs with some understanding. If we're not willing to listen to them, why should they be willing to listen to us?"
This attitude of sympathetic regard is particularly important since people who hold hot-cold beliefs are having more and more of an impact on our own culture, as Asians and Hispanics in increasing numbers become U.S. citizens, and as more Americans travel, study and do business in their countries.
It's the anthropologists, however, not the nutritionists, who have a less pragmatic, more transcendent, final thought about it all. As Messer said, "Studying ways in which people construct conceptual categories helps us to understand how philosophical systems are built up, which in turn may help us to better understand the very processes of human thought."