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Chinese Food Symbolism: Vegetables (Part IV- More About Them)

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Foods and Symbolism

Winter Volume: 1996 Issue: 3(4) page(s): 11 and 20

As you have been reading, many items have symbolic meaning. In what follows, are more about those in the vegetable category. This will complete the alphabetical order following mushrooms, the last one discussed in the previous issue of Flavor and Fortune.

Noodles and rice, the staff of life and the bulk of the diet to Chinese are grains, not vegetables. They are topics worth much consideration as the fan for which vegetables (and meats) provide flavor. Both deserve and will be given their due in a future issue. Now on to more about vegetables.

Onions in various forms are used a lot in Chinese cuisine. Perhaps it is popular because they believe that onions clear the mucous in the digestive tract and that they clear congestion. No doubt there are other reasons, too. However, it should be noted that Chinese vegetarians, Buddhists mostly, do not eat onions or garlic. The fingers of a woman are sometimes called scallions; no one could advise why. But everyone did agree that a single woman should go to a field of onions and dig them, if it's the fifteenth day of the first month of the year should she want a good husband. Wonder if it is fine for a Buddhist woman to dig them as long as she does not eat them. The onion itself in pictures and in words is a stand-in for the word clever. You would be clever, too, if you knew that when a pregnant woman wears an onion at her waist, she wants to bear a son. Before marriage, those who put them under the bridal bed must be the opposite of clever. They are outright malicious because if found there, the husband will be unable to consummate the marriage.

Orchids, the many varieties, though not consumed, is loved as the emblem of both love and beauty; it also stands for grace and refinement, and symbolizes numerous progeny. Confucius spoke about how exquisite the orchid was. That has been translated to mean a reference to the perfect man. The 'yam' or Dendrobium nobile is a perennial orchid native to Burma and China. This is a plant with fleshy yellowing stems and oblong leaves. The Chinese believe the plant to be atonic and one to treat impotence. It is not the yam/sweet potato root a westerner would think of when hearing the worn yam, which is below.

The Chinese plant of immortality is probably not a vegetable. This ling chih, as it is known, grows at the roots of trees and is probably more correctly a fungus. Some people refer to it as a divine plant, others repute its seeds as the food of the 'genii.' Large quantities of fungi are eaten by the Chinese and are believed to have tonic properties. They will be discussed in a future article devoted solely to them; but do see mushrooms in part one on this Vegetable Symbolism.

Plantain, though a fruit, is used as a vegetable in China and cooked as a sweetener in some meat dishes, as starch in others. Its leaves are also used for writing paper, when none is available, and symbolizes high status.

Radish the fleshy root consumed as vegetable, has its leaves used medicinally. When seen in pictures, it may mean famine, or be there to represent illness. The common radish used and illustrated is the long white one, sometimes referred to as a Japanese radish, but correctly called Raphanus sativus.

Sorrel or Oxalis corniculata is also known as 'yellow wood sorrel' and is a sour or sharp-tasting vegetable. I could not find much about it except that it is used as a cooling agent and to help those who have trouble urinating. The Chinese cook the leaves of this plant and make a decoction from all of it. Do not confuse this with true sorrel or sour grass, that is another vegetable used, but no symbolic reasons could be found.

Soybeans are the meat-without-bone of the Chinese dietary. They have been discussed in other articles (see index of this and previous volumes). As early as the second century BCE, Liu Kan mentions them; later they are used for flour, soy sauce, and tofu, and eaten as the bean itself. Soybeans are thought to cool sexual energies, perhaps that is why tofu is popular in Buddhist monasteries, where celibacy is the rule. It is known that beans, in general and soybeans most especially, complement whole grains as sources of essential amino acids. What is less known is that most beans are considered warming and acidifying yang foods, but soy beans are just the opposite.

Taro, a tuber found in many forms, grows in wet lands and in dry soil. It is particularly popular in the south of China. In some southern provinces, it is always eaten on the same day a single woman takes to the fields to dig onions. Of course, the reasons are different, taro his purported to keep one's eyesight; or improve it should it be less that good. In other provinces, taro is eaten on the fourth day of that first month. This is especially true in the province of Anhui where the word for taro (yu nai) sounds very similar to one which means either good luck or much wealth.

Yam, that is the real yam or Dioscorea opposita is a vine grown for its edible tuber, a spindly-shaped item used as food. It is a popular item to treat coughs, yellowish vaginal discharge, and general weakness. The Chinese believe that excessive mucilage in the plant is effective as a cough remedy and that it has a soothing effect on mucous membranes. When one sees a picture of a yam, it may be depicting illness.

Yard-long beans are but one in the botanical family of Leguminosae. The 'yard-long' or 'asparagus bean,' also known as Vigna unguiculata sesquipedalis, does grow about a meter long. Its long inflated pods are thought to be tonic foods. Chinese women are encouraged to consume this plant to treat excessive urination; they also believe that if pregnant and overdue, they should burn it and use the ashes to induce labor.

Yarrow is a perennial herb more used for divination, as an item whose scented foliage can be inhaled, and for its purported medicinal value. The leaves of one variety, Artemisia vulgaris, are used as condiment and in alcoholic beverages. The leaves, they believe, are taken to relieve headache, treat menstrual problems, and even treat strains and swellings. Yam is liked by women who pick it on the fifth day of the fifth month, then dry it and hang it on the door of their homes to protect against poisons. Yarrow has other symbols and uses, one of which is as one of the eight symbols of a scholar. When made into pellets, yam is used in moxibustion, and as a cure for gout, rheumatism, and several types of paralysis.

All of the these and the vegetables discussed in the previous issue have more symbolic meaning in pictures and poetry that they do on the table. For the symbolisms of fruits and meats, read earlier issues of Flavor and Fortune.

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