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Cambodia’s food is a living chronicle of its history, disclosing the influences of invaders, travellers and traders who have each left their own subtle yet indelible culinary traces behind them. And it is not just in the food and its recipes, but the manners in which that food is viewed and consumed. As an inheritor of Chinese influences, Cambodia has absorbed and reformed a wide range of dishes. But it has also absorbed the philosophies that underpin how they are eaten, including the principle of yin and yang.

Yin-yang is a concept of Chinese philosophy that seeks to unite and balance the opposing principles of the universe, namely yin — representing the female, humid, dark and cold — and yang — representing the male, dry, light and hot. The philosophy governs many things, but has found particular resonance in its application to food, possibly due to influences from India’s Ayurvedic traditions (which also take account of a person’s character when determining diet).

The philosophy is not related to temperature or spiciness, but to the effect foods have on the body. Yin foods are cooling and relaxing, such as fruits and green vegetables. Whereas yang foods, representing strength and heat, invigorate and embrace animal products (though not veal), warm spices, alcohol and chocolate. In Chinese culture, rather than polar opposites, yin and yang exist on a spectrum including neutral foods such as rice and cereals. This spectrum has been more or less ironed out in Cambodia, though rice is largely regarded as neutral.

The philosophy was in fact one of the earliest forms of medicine, a divergent attempt to resolve physical ails by physical means rather than spiritual ones and, importantly, its primary goal is preventive, to make the body a unwelcoming environment for viruses and infection. By maintaining balance in one’s diet, one helped to maintain the body’s balance of the vital elements of bile, blood and phlegm. This is achieved by balancing the five essential elements of fire, earth, wood, metal and water, expressed in the bitter, sweet, sour, spicy and salty tastes. Thus, anyone sitting down to a traditional Cambodian meal is enjoying an expression of the balancing forces of yin and yang, through the balances of tastes that a Cambodian table seeks to achieve in the selection of dishes.

Yin-yang is not alone. Parallels can be found elsewhere in the world: from the principles of Sardi and Garmi in Iran and Afghanistan (also inheritors of the Ayurvedic traditions) to the doctrine of the four humours developed by the Greeks, Hippocrates and Galen. It even made its way to South America via the Portuguese, and from there it is thought to have migrated to the Philippines.

In Galen’s model, food is transformed by the body into the essential fluids of the humours, namely blood (hot), yellow bile, black bile and phlegm (cold). Europeans may no longer practice the principles of humoral medicine, but they still speak its language. Thus, someone who has overdone yin foods (cold and dry) that convert to black bile will become melancholy — literally melan chole, or black bile). Another person, after binging out on yin foods that are cold and wet and which convert to yellow bile will end up angry, or choleric.

Therefore, in order to preserve good health and good being, a person needs to maintain their natural balance of humours by balancing the foods that define them. It’s fair to say that while many in Cambodia have forgotten many of the traditions, and which are ’hot’ and ‘cold’ foods, there is still a vigilant adherence to dietary restrictions for certain illnesses, especially after pregnancy.

A disorder of the body thus becomes an indication that a disorder of one of the humours is afoot, which can be remedied by correcting the imbalance. Thus, for example, a fever can relieved by consuming cold, dry foods (or by bloodletting or cupping to release the hot blood).

But how does one know which food to prescribe other than for obvious cases like a fever? In addition to corresponding to specific tastes that provoke specific fluids in the body, the five universal elements also represent different parts of the body. The sweet earth element relates to the stomach and spleen. Fiery wood is sour and relates to the liver and gall bladder.

The interaction between the elements is normally a fuelling process that generates the stuff of life. Thus wood fuels fire, fire forms earth, earth contains metal, metal carries water and water feeds woods. But if one wants to defeat an excess of any of these elements and their humours, as evidenced by sickness in a specific part of the body, then one needs an overcoming interaction. In that case, fire melts metal, metal penetrates wood, wood separates earth, earth absorbs water and water quenches fire.

Getting the balance right is the essence of life itself.