Demystifying Hot vs. Cold food in Chinese Medicine
What is Yeet Hay?
Yeet hay! The two words no Cantonese child wants to hear.
As a kid, I looked forward to summer for many reasons—school’s out, sun’s out—but prime among them was the arrival of lychees.
The fruit only appears for a slip of a moment during the season, giving it a sense of excitement and immediacy not unlike a flash sale. Get them while they’re hot! I love lychees - fresh ones, not canned. I love the way they burst in your mouth, the way they’re sweet but not too sweet. I even love the art of popping them just right, so they gently open between your fingertips like a flower in bloom.
So, of course, I’d gorge. Or try to, anyways. I’d devour one after the other until my mother or father would spot me and yell “Yeet hay!”
Those two words are the ultimate parental shutdown. Do not pass Go, do not collect $200, do not continue to indulge in those little balls of heaven. Want to tuck into something deliciously greasy and fried, like chicken nuggets or mozzarella sticks, instead? Sorry! Yeet hay! Potato chips? Yeet hay! Cup o’ Noodles? Yeet hay!
In Cantonese, yeet hay translates literally to "hot air” but denotes something much more abstract: it’s what happens when you eat a category of foods that, if our Chinese elders are to be believed, results in pimples, canker sores, sore throats, itchy or red eyes when eaten in excess. (In Mandarin, the concept is known as huo qi da, or “fire air big.”)
Don’t think I didn’t wonder, as I got older, if yeet hay was just something my parents told me to keep me on the healthy straight and narrow. But then there was the time I ate a bunch of bananas in a row. Those can’t be bad, right? All that potassium?
Wrong. Bananas are hon loeng (han liang in Mandarin), which means “cold-cool”—basically the opposite ofyeet hay. Eating too many foods under that grouping is just as bad, too.
So, what’s the deal?
It Has Nothing to Do with Temperature
While “hot” foods are often scorchers when it comes to temperature—fried eats, for example—that’s not always the case. Like lychees. Or ginger. On the flip side, certain kinds of teas are considered hon loeng, even if you sip them while piping hot. Whether something is "hot" or "cold" depends on its effect on your body's temperature, post digestion.
Hot? Cold? Huh?
Let’s start with a primer on the Chinese diet. In the West, foods are broken down into building blocks like calories, vitamins, carbohydrates, proteins and so on. In the East, they’re understood by categories such as movements, flavors and energies. Movements refer to how certain foods move in our body—e.g. things that make us sweat have an outward motion—while flavors are, well, the five flavors: sweet, sour, bitter, salty and acrid, which, according to the Chinese, correspond to different organs. To wit: sweets are said to make a bigger impact on the spleen and the salty stuff, on kidneys.
Energies, which refers to how foods make us feel after we eat them, is what’s relevant for us here. All foods are either hot, cold, warm, cool or neutral. Chili peppers or ginger—even if eaten straight from the fridge—are hot. An example of a neutral food would be that mainstay of every Chinese meal: rice.
Which brings us to the ol’ yin and yang. While the symbol’s ubiquitous now, beloved by tattoo enthusiasts and middle schoolers alike, it plays a key part in good health. Hot energies correspond with yang and cold, with yin. Keeping the two balanced is the secret to overall wellness. When there’s an imbalance, it throws your body off-kilter.
What Happens You Have Too Much?
Excessive heat leads to fevers, flushed faces, sweats, irritability, inflammation and ulcers. The symptoms of yeet hay are a subset of that. Excessive cold, meanwhile, causes fatigue, paleness, stomach pains, cramps and sore joints.
I’ve Overindulged. What Now?
Eat foods of the opposite energy. When I was younger and went overboard with fried (but yummy!) stuff, my mom would give me chrysanthemum tea, which has a cooling effect. Too much loeng? Try a cup of hot water with a few slices of ginger.
You’ll find a lot of traditional dishes and soups already have a mix of hot-cold ingredients to keep things balanced, like clams (cold) with thinly sliced ginger (hot).
And That’s It?
Not quite. How you cook a food can change its energy—frying and roasting increases heat while steaming, boiling or poaching lessens it. And then there are the factors of geography (chilly vs. temperate climates) and season. If it’s winter, bulk up on the warming foods and, if summer, vice versa.
Your own body type matters, too. Some people are naturally hotter (yang) and others, colder (yin)—which means we all start at slightly different baselines for maintaining that internal yin/yang baseline. If you’ve got a weak digestive system, then stay away from too much cold eats. And if you lean more yang and chow down on a daily super-sized order of burger and fries, don’t be surprised if you frequently end up with, say, a sore throat.