Foods for a cold or flu: Chinese Medicine style

July 4, 2011 — 4 Comments

Upon my recent return to Australia from the US, I promptly got the crazy flu-bug that’s been going around the country. Three months of travel, hard work, a little too much fun at times and going from hot humid New York to cold, windy Melbourne meant that even my best efforts at staying well weren’t enough.

Getting a cold or flu is a natural course of life, and as my mum says, it’s a good clean out of your system (thinking of what I’ve been coughing up lately, I might agree!). It’s not overly pleasant and sometimes can degenerate to bronchitis, sinusitis or pneumonia. However nature has provided us with foods that can help us back to the road to recovery. You don’t want to eat too much with a cold or flu; as the saying goes starve a cold and flu, feed a fever. The theory behind this saying is that you’ll end up feeding the bug. There are certain foods that are better to have during convalescence than others of which I’ve utilised in recipes below. Forget antibiotics, flu vaccinations and codine laden medications, here’s some tastier medications*…

Oatmeal with apple and pear compote

Oatmeal with Apple and Pear compote, raw honey, soaked almonds and coconut oil

1/3 c. oats cooked with 2/3 c water over low heat for about 10 minutes
1 x apple, quartered, cored and sliced
1 x pear, quartered, cored and sliced
half a mandarin, segmented and cut the inside membrane out to scoop out the pips
1 x star anise
peel of half a mandarin, thinly sliced
pinch nutmeg and cinnamon
dash of vanilla
1 x tsp rapadura sugar or similar organic non-refined sugar such as panella or palm sugar
10 x almonds, soaked overnight in cold water then sliced
1 x tsp organic raw honey
1 x tsp coconut oil

  1. In a saucepan, combine apple, pear, mandarin peel, sugar, vanilla, spices with a dash of water and cook over low heat for approx 10 – 15 minutes, stirring occassionally until the fruit has softened. In the last 5 minutes add the mandarin segments. At the end stir in the sliced soaked almonds. This will be enough compote for 2 serves.
  2. Once your oatmeal and compote has cooked, place the oatmeal in a bowl, spoon on the coconut oil and honey so it starts to melt in. Spoon over the compote and add a dash of soy or other non dairy milk

Health explanation
It’s no secret that I love my oats. Because they’re easily digested and great for the middle jiao (digestive center of the body), slightly warming, easy to make and you can change it up as much as your imagination will allow! This is a great recipe if you’ve got a lot of mucous, called damp in Chinese Medicine. It contains a lot of tasty ingredients that are very beneficial to recovery from the ravages of a cold or flu. If you’ve got  hot signs (red face, fever, sweating) do steer clear of the mandarin peel and spices since you will require more cooling foods.
Apples are easily overlooked as a medicinal fruit. They are cooling by nature and thus gently cooking them adds warmth needed for a cold-type cold or flu. They are excellent for indigestion and digestion problems in general. They’re very good for cleansing the liver, moistening dryness and dry lungs. The pectin in apples helps remove excess cholesterol, toxic metals (mercury and lead) from the system and residues of radiation. Remember to grab an apple if you suffer from hypoglycemia, as they help rectify low blood sugar and mental depression that comes with it.
Pears directly effect the lungs – which in Chinese Medicine are responsible for our immunity – and help to stop coughs. The sour properties of pears help eliminate excess mucous and the cooling natures eliminates heat. They are great with moistening dryness associated with heat, think: dry  throat and croaky voice.
Mandarin peel. The Chinese Medicine materia medica lists tangerine peel as one of the most commonly used herbs, but for our use we can substitute mandarin peel, being more readily available. Often in the form of aged tangerine peel, called Chen Pi, it promotes the flow of qi, harmonises the middle jiao – known as the stomach and spleen or digestive center of the body – and dries damp. In the form listed in this recipe (fresh) it is more drying but less regulating of the middle jiao and most commonly used for treating phlegm-damp coughs. Also useful in vomiting and belching.
Almonds are great for coughs, however their oil content means they should be used very sporadically with a “productive” cough (eg. mucous) so they don’t contribute to the already existing damp overload. By soaking the almonds makes them more digestible and enhances their nutritional value by energetically beginning the sprouting process. The skin of almonds is slightly bitter and thus good to for damp and phlegm conditions including diarrhea. I wrote about the benefits of almonds here which also includes a recipe for making almond milk (too easy!).
Star Anise is considered an elixir in Chinese Medicine because of it’s refreshing and detoxifying qualities. When slightly warmed it has an expansive quality which will help expel the pathogen
Cinnamon (known as Rou Gui) is highly warming and is very effective for dispersing cold. This should only be used if you are not displaying heat signs, and are experiencing chills or have an aversion to cold. It is very effective for moving blood, since stagnation of blood and qi are common factors in pathology. In addition, this unassuming  little spice helps in the generation of qi and blood. I like to use a tiny bit of cinnamon because it’s very warming to the kidneys which house our constitutional energy and are prone to cold.
is known as Rou Dou Kou in Chinese Medicine is also a warming herb in the Chinese Medicine materia medica, thus also promoting the circulation of qi. Nurturing to the digestive center, it is great for alleviating diarrhea and other digestive disorders such as nausea. It is quite strong so you don’t want to overdo the use of nutmeg – a pinch is enough here.
has been used for centuries as medicine and works to harmoise the liver, neutralise toxins and relieve pain. Raw and unprocessed honey has the ability to dry up mucus and is helpful for those with damp conditions (although not recommended for infants). It contains beneficial minerals, enzymes and anti bacterial properties.
Coconut oil – I love this stuff and wrote a big post about it’s healthful benefits here. Essentially it’s a powerful anti- viral and bacterial and has a cooling effect to balance the heating properties of the other ingredients.
Non dairy milk – Since dairy is highly damp forming (think mucous) so you don’t want to add to your current overload. Choose non-dairy substitutes such as rice, nut or soy milks or non at all!

Vegetable and Pearl Barley Soup

Pearl Barley Soup. Pic source:

2 x carrots, finely diced
2 x sticks celery, finely diced
2 x small leeks, halved lengthways then sliced
3 x cloves garlic roughly chopped
1 c. pearl barley, soaked for at least 2 hours. If you haven’t soaked them, no worries, the soup will just require longer cooking
2 x bay leaves
Salt and pepper to taste
1 Lt vegetable stock
Small head of broccoli cut into florets
Large handful of parsley coarsely chopped
2 x 1 cm thick slices of ginger
dash of cayenne pepper

  1. Heat oil in a large soup pot and saute leeks. Add a tsp of salt.
  2. Add in carrots and celery and saute for 2 mins.
  3. Add rinsed pearl barley stir for 30 seconds then add hot stock, ginger and bay leaves and garlic. Bring to the boil and reduce. Cook until the barley is tender – up to an hour for unsoaked barley.
  4. In the last 5 minutes add the broccoli florets and parsley. Adjust seasoning to taste
  5. Remember to remove the bay leaves and ginger before serving

Health Explanation
When you want a little something-something at other meal times when you’re under the weather, keep it light with broth-based grain soups. Easily digestible and hydrating, you’ll give your body the support it needs to recover quickly. Steer clear of chicken soups while in the acute stages, since chicken is highly tonifying and nurturing and it’s likely you’re “feeding” the pathogen. If you do eat chicken, take it while you’re on the way up for a speedy and full recovery.

Foods of the onion family all share basic healing properties: being pungent flavour they all influence lungs and promote warmth thus have the ability to move stagnant blood and qi in the body while expelling cold. Rich in naturally occuring sulfur – a warming and purifying substance – onion family foods remove heavy metals, parasites, clean arteries, retards growth of viruses, yeasts, ferments and other pathogenic organisms and facilitates protein assimilation.
Garlic – a superstar as far as health maintaining properties go. Garlic can help everything from athletes foot, ear infections, food poisoning to snake bite! For the purposes of the cold/flu, garlic promotes circulation and sweating helping to purge the wind-cold pathogen. In alopathic medicine terms, garlic is known to inhibit the common cold virus and we’re beginning to understand it’s positive effect on other viruses associated with degenerative disease such as cancer, having strong anti- viral and bacterial properties. For a full description of how amazing garlic is, check out Healing with Wholefoods by Paul Pitchford p. 546.
Recipe: An little remedy my mum used to give us as children was finely dicing 2 fresh cloves of garlic, mix with olive oil (another potent anti bacterial source) and spreading on vegemite toast. Sounds weird, but it’s a really tasty medicine! Note that fresh garlic is especially useful for children since they’re prone to intestinal parasites.
Cautions: It’s worth noting that just because garlic is so amazingly good for you, that you don’t overdo it. Too much garlic can damage the stomach and liver. It is a potent herb and very heating so if you suffer from heat and deficient-heat signs such as red face, sensitivities to heat, desire for cold fluids, night sweats, malar flush then avoid taking garlic, especially in it’s raw form. It is ideal to combine with cooling foods such as wheat/barley grass products or eaten with meals (as in this recipe) to counteract the heating effects.
Cayenne Pepper is one of the highest botanic sources of Vitamin C and a good combination with garlic to provide a strong anti- viral and bacterial effect.
Leeks – another member of the onion family, leek posses a pungent/sour taste. This combination has a dual dispersing and constricting action; moving blood and qi stagnation while preventing “leaking” of these vital elements. Sour is a yin, thus cooling, flavour while leek’s properties are warming to the viscera.
Ginger along with cinnamon and nutmeg as listed above has an expansive, warming and drying effect. Ginger is especially useful for stomach upsets accompanied with damp conditions.

Pearl Barley. Pic source:

Pearl Barley is slightly sweet in flavour and supports the middle jiao and is very easily digestible.  It has been traditionally used in convalescents and invalids. Taking pearled barley and roasted barley removes the laxative effect, however in pearled barley there’s less fiber, calcium, iron and protein which in cases of sickness I think it’s better to have more gently nourishing food.

Parsley got a bad rap back in the ’80s, with that awful curly variety making appearances as garnish on plates the world over. However health-wise this is such a powerful kitchen herb to include in the diet. Most noteably it contains several times the Vitamin C than citrus and is one of the highest sources of Vitamin A (good for vision, bones, cell division and immunity), cleansing chlorophyll, calcium, sodium, magnesium and iron. It’s also great for improving digestion and the chlorophyll neutralises the strong odors of garlic. Curly or flat leaf – include parsley regularly in your diet.
Broccoli also contains more Vitamin C than citrus and has a high content of sulfur, iron, B vitamins and chlorophyll which helps mitigate gas-causing sulfur. To maintain the integrity of vitamins, include broccoli at the very end to cook for a couple of minutes only. I just read that broccoli contains five goitrogenous chemicals which disrupt the body’s ability to use iodine. Cooking broccoli is thought to reduce it’s effect, however use with caution in cases of low iodine and thyroid activity.

Rice Congee

Rice Congee. Pic source:

Commonly eaten in Chinese culture, congee is a thin porridge made simply from rice simmered in five to six times the amount of water. Although rice is the most common grain for congees, millet, spelt, or other grains are sometimes used. It is easily digested and assimilated , tonifies the blood and the qi energy, harmonises the digestion and is very nourishing. Since it has a cooling effect, it’s nice to add warming properties such as ginger to a congee, more so since it’s commonly eaten as nourishment for invalids and convalescents. Interestingly, congees are useful for increasing a nursing mothers supply of milk. The liquid can be strained from the porridge to drink as a supplement for infants and for serious conditions. Enhancing the therapeutic benefits of congee adding additional health  properties can be included by cooking process with appropriate vegetables, grains, herbs or meats in with the rice water. Since rice itself strengthens the digestive center, added foods become more completely assimilated, and their properties are therefore enhanced.

Cook 1 c. rice to 5 – 6 times water in a covered pot four to six hours on the lowest flame possible. It is better to use too much water than too little and it is said that the longer congee cooks the more “powerful” it becomes.

In his book, Healing with Wholefoods, Paul Pitchford has listed some common rice-based congees and their effects. Here’s a couple that might be useful:
Carrot: digestive aid, eliminates flatulence
Chestnut: tonifies kidneys, strenghtens knees and loin and good for treating anal hemorrhages
Chicken or mutton: recommended for wasting illnesses and injuries (because of it’s building properties)
Fennel: harmonises stomach, expels gas, cures hernia
Ginger: warming and antiseptic to viscera, used for deficient-cold digestive weakness (caused by antibiotics for example), diarrhea, anorexia, vomiting and indigestion
Leek: Warming to viscera; good for chronic diarrhea
Mustard: expels phlegm, clears stomach congestion
Poppy seed: relieves vomiting and benefits large intestine

I actually made congee once and it tasted like crap, but I didn’t add any seasoning. Then I had a congee in San Francisco when I got a bout of bad-ass gastro and it tasted awesome because they cooked it in chicken stock and there were mushrooms and other veg in it that I can’t remember. I found a great Chicken Congee recipe from The Secret Foodie which you will find here.

Melbournians might want to skip the whole 4 – 6 hours of slow cooking and try a tasty bowl at either The Supper Inn (not to be confused with The Supper Club. 15 Celestial Ave, Melbourne TEL: 9663 4759) or Wonton House (181 Russell Street, Melbourne TEL: 9662 9882). Alternatively, any China Town will have it’s congee.

Lemon and Honey
The old folk remedy really works! Lemon is sour and drying to all that mucous and contains the blessed Vitamin C, while honey is mositening to a dry throat and has those lovely anti’s (anti- viral and bacterial) that we need to chug down rather than the antibiotics (the wrong kind of anti).

Other helpful foods
Bioflavonoid-rich foods include cabbage with hearts, green peppers with their insides, parsley, carrots, broccoli, turnips, parsnips, horseradish, spring onions, garlic and most fruits (not bananas as they’re very damp forming).

Above all else, ensure you get plenty of rest, keep your fluids up with warm water and herbal teas such as green tea (full of antioxidants), chamomile or spearmint (antibacterial) or lemon and honey decoction.

Big warm hug,

Becki xox

*Do note that these recipes were based off my symptoms:

  • predominant chills (no fever) and aversion to cold
  • lethargy
  • body aches (on the first day)
  • high load of mucous (which came at about day 3)
  • loss of appetite
  • I even had some nausea and stomach upset which I’m not sure was the same bug, but even so there’s some stomach harmonising ingredients included here that wouldn’t do harm to your condition

Healing with Wholefoods, Paul Pitchford
Chinese Herbal Medicine Materia Medica 3rd edn, Dan Bensky, Steven Clavey, Erich Stoger


4 responses to Foods for a cold or flu: Chinese Medicine style


    It’s ‘Feed a Cold and Starve a Fever’ not the other way around


      It’s a really interesting thing huh? A lot of people get this confused. Traditionally the saying as you have phrased it is right…and I should clarify this. In TCM we talk about it in reverse, the principle being you “feed” cold an flu, you “feed” the pathogen. That is why in TCM we don’t prescribe chicken soup for colds and flu – being extremely nurturing. Hope that clarifies my what I mean better.


    I made the porridge with apple compote for my little girls this morning, as they have a nasty cold. My 2.5 yo said it was ‘delicious’. Great recipe.

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