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Winter and Traditional Chinese Medicine by Jacqueline Heng

The cold, wet and windy change in Melbourne weather signals the arrival of winter.  As we head deeper into the colder months, we find ourselves increasingly spending more time indoors. There is a need for more rest and sleep and a noticeable decrease in outdoor activities.  Winter represents the most Yin aspect of the four seasons.  Yin is cooling, dark, soft, gentle and its energy tends to move inwards.

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) winter belongs to the organ of the kidneys.  The kidneys are known as the ‘root of life’. They store essence (Jing) which we inherit from our parents at birth and this determines our constitution.  It is said that if a person has a strong constitution, he or she has strong kidney Jing.  The kidneys govern birth, growth, development and reproduction/fertility.  Children that are slow to grow and develop might have weak kidney Jing and couples struggling with infertility may suggest some element of poor kidney Qi and Jing.  The kidneys manifest in the hair. Beautiful strong healthy hair is an indication of kidney vitality combined with well nourished blood.  As we age, the energy and essence of the kidney decreases and we start seeing strands of white hair appear. Aging is inevitable but to age gracefully and have the vitality to live without major illnesses shows kidney Jing has been looked after and preserved for used when required.

Willpower and drive in life is determined by the strength of the kidneys.  If the Kidney Qi is strong the drive will be strong and the mind will be focused on set goals pursued in a single-minded way.  When the kidney Qi is weak you will have doubts, fear of failure and be discouraged from your purpose in life.  Subsequently this may lead to mental depression and can trigger Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) a depressive condition that occurs during winter.  It is important to strengthen and tonify the kidneys during the winter months as a preventative measure. To avoid Qi stagnation be gentle with yourself, eat foods that nourish the kidneys and take time to rest and rejuvenate without being overly sedentary.  It is best to do gentle long walks in the park or woods or the occasional cross country skiing to admire the beauty of winter.  This will ensure that Qi continues to flow while conserving and building kidney strength. The key is to have a good balance between activity and rest.

Kidney Nourishing Foods Include:

Grains millet, barley, rye, oat, quinoa, amaranth, black glutinousrice
Beans soy, black beans, kidney beans, aduki beans
Protein mutton, duck, beef, fish
Vegetables mushrooms, leek, pumpkin, beetroot, lotus root, seaweed, sweet potato, potato, yam, mustard green, turnip, kelp,
Fruit dates, pear, apple
Nuts and seeds walnuts, chestnuts, black sesame
Herbs & Spices black pepper, cinnamon bark, clove, fennel seeds, fenugreek seed, garlic, ginger, horseradish, nutmeg, rosemary, sage, star anise, thyme, white pepper
Others miso paste, black fungus, tofu, chicken eggs, oysters, shellfish,


In TCM diet therapy the emphasis is on cooked meals served warm.  Anything raw, cold, overly spicy, greasy or deep fried should be avoided.  In winter the best way to prepare meals is to slow cook at low temperature. The experience of food should have a grounding and centering feeling which reinforces the capacity for storage – where energy is conserved and strength is built in the  lead up to spring.

Here is a lovely slow cooked recipe by Gloria Chan @mgtestkitchen for you to try – Enjoy!

Miso barley risotto, mushrooms, pangrattato

Whenever I crave comfort food, my mind often wanders towards carbohydrate-rich dishes such as pasta, bread or risotto immediately. It’s also quickly followed by extreme lethargy once I’ve overdosed on said carbs because I can never seem to stop myself from having that last mouthful of carb that tips me over the edge despite being full. Over the years, I’ve found other healthier substitutes so that I may have my proverbial cake and eat it (and bit more will power!).

Barley is one of those healthier substitutes which can be used in so many different ways – in salad, soups, stews or risotto, to name a few. An ancient grain that is high dietary fibers, magnesium and selenium, I often use barley as a lighter way to enjoy risotto. The simple recipe below is for a miso mushroom risotto topped with “pangrattato” (a flavoursome Italian breadcrumb topping) to add a little texture to the palate. For me, miso and mushrooms are a match made in heaven so it made sense to pair them up to create this twist on the traditional Italian version.

Barley Risotto Image (2)

Serves 4 (medium sized servings)

2 tbsp olive oil

1/2 a white onion, finely diced

4 cloves of garlic, crushed

250gm mixed mushrooms, cut into bite sized chunks

150gm cups of pearl barley

1L brown miso soup (you may also use white miso if you can’t find brown miso)

4-5 tablespoons extra miso paste (as extra flavouring. Do not mix this into the miso soup)

salt and pepper to taste

1 heaped teaspoon of umami paste (substitute with 2-3 anchovy fillets if you’re unable to find umami paste, or replace with additional miso paste for a vegetarian option)

zest of 1 lemon

large handful of garlic chives, finely chopped


Sautéed mushrooms

1 tbsp olive oil

3 cloves of garlic, crush

250 grams mixed mushrooms, sliced

Salt and pepper to taste

Pangrattato  (Breadcrumbs)

80ml olive oil

3 cloves of garlic, chopped finely

1 tspn dried chilli flakes (optional)

1 cup of breadcrumbs

Zest of 1 lemon

Large bunch of wild garlic leaves, finely chopped (replace with Italian / flat leaf parsley if wild garlic leaves aren’t available)


1. Heat the olive oil in a large heavy based pan and gently fry the onion and garlic on a low-medium heat until they’re translucent (don’t be tempted to turn up the heat as the garlic and onion will burn easily and leave your risotto with a acrid taste). Season with a pinch of salt and pepper, and transfer to a bow

2. Return the pan to the hob and turn up the heat. Add another tablespoon of olive oil to the pan and sauté the mushrooms until they’re brown (ensure that the pan isn’t over-crowded with mushrooms as this will steam the mushrooms. Split the mushrooms into two portions if your pan isn’t large enough. Only add salt at the end of the sauté process as adding salt too early will release any residual moisture from the mushrooms, causing them to steam instead of sauté)

3. Add the cooked onion and garlic back in to the pan, once the mushrooms have been sautéed

4. Add the pearl barley and give the contents a good mix to coat the barley well with all the lovely goodness

5. Add 750ml of miso soup, and bring to the boil before reducing the heat to a gentle simmer

6. Let the barley simmer for 40-50 minutes, stirring occasionally to help release gluten from the barley. This will give the barley the same consistency as a risotto (more miso soup might be required if the liquid evaporates quickly. Add the remaining 250ml of miso soup a little at a time until the barley is cooked. The consistency of the barley shouldn’t be dry and should be similar to a creamy risotto)

7. While the barley is cooking, prepare the remaining mushrooms and pangrattato, separately

8. Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil to medium-hot in a pan large enough to hold mushrooms. Add the garlic to the oil and gently cook until it starts to become fragrant. Add the sliced mushrooms and sautee until they’re brown. Add salt and pepper to taste, and set the mushrooms aside until you’re ready to serve

9. Return the pan back to the hob and heat 80ml of olive oil to medium-hot, but not smoking. Add breadcrumbs, chilli flakes (if using) and a sprinkle of sea salt and sauté for about 5 minutes, or until breadcrumbs are golden

10. Add the finely chopped garlic and cook for another minute

11. Toss in the chopped wild garlic (or parsley) and remove from the heat, then stir through the lemon zest

12. Season with pepper and a little more sea salt to taste, then remove from the pan and set aside in a bowl until you’re ready to serve

13. Once the barley risotto is cooked, stir in the finely chopped garlic chives and zest of 1 lemon. Adjust the seasoning of the risotto with salt, pepper and the additional miso paste if required. Everyone’s palate will be different so adjust to suit your desired taste.

14. Spoon the barley risotto in to bowls and top with the remaining sautéed mushrooms and pangrattato, and serve immediately