During the crusades in the 12th century, an envoy arrived at the court of a local ruler in Syria and requested that a physician be sent to a Crusader camp in the mountains of Lebanon. The ruler agreed to do so, and sent a local Syrian-Christian physician. The physician prepared for a long stay, took his belongings and left. When he returned after ten days only, his family asked him: You walked for a few days in each direction, how is it that the Crusaders let you go so early? The physician replied: There were two patients awaiting me, one who suffered from a serious wound in his leg and the other from dementia. I advised the first to lay a compress on his leg until it heals, keep it clean and rest. To the second I prescribed a diet fitting her temperament and physical condition to moisten her bile.
And how are they doing? He was asked. Well, when I completed my diagnosis a European physician suddenly arrived. He told the man with the wounded leg that following my advice will lead to certain death and that he can die with two legs or live with one. When he chose living with one, the physician amputated the leg and the man died immediately from the operation. As for the woman, he declared she was possessed and that an exorcism was needed. He cut her hair and preformed a few other treatments, and then she too died, most likely from sunstroke. When I saw that, I stood, said that it appears that my help is no longer needed, and left.
Practitioners of ancient and Western medicine look at an ill person and see two very different things. The first look at an illness and see an imbalance in the way of life, the second see in it an attack by germs. While the first ask what did the patient eat before he got sick, the second just want to make sure he has nothing in his stomach before an operation. While the first instruct the cooks what should be prepared, the second write drug prescriptions. The first concern themselves with prevention and search for the root of the problem, while their colleagues give out drugs to ease symptoms and amputate affected limbs. Both approaches are necessary, but they are very different.
The central medical theory used by physicians throughout Europe and Asia during ancient times was Humorism – the theory of elements, temperaments, and humours. This theory was based on the idea that the body needs to reach balance. In all those cultures – the Greek, the Chinese, the Indian, and the Arabic – the theory had a similar foundation, but it also differed in accordance to ancient local traditions. For example, the number of basic elements (thought to be the fundamental building blocks of every living thing) was deemed to be four in Greek and Arab medicine, six in Indian medicine, and five in Chinese medicine.
According to ancient Greek medicine, and according to the Arab traditions that relied on it, every body is composed of a certain mixture of the four basic elements: fire, water, earth, and air. The elements define the temperament of the person and are expressed through it: air bestows a moist and hot temperament, earth a cold and dry one, fire is responsible for hot and dry temperaments and water for cold and moist ones. The humours are the most physiological element, and their action in the body has to do with the person’s temperament and their current situation in life. Before a physician could decide on a treatment that would restore his patient to a balanced state of health, he first needed to establish the patient’s temperament as well as the nature and temperament of the illness, and to possess extensive knowledge of various foods and herbs and their typical temperaments. If the person was determined to suffer from excessive heat, the physician would prescribe foods, activities and medicines that possess a cooling effect, and vice versa. There are many external factors influencing a person’s temperament – winter was thought to have a cooling and moistening effect, and a profession such as glass blowing could turn the temperament to be a more hot and dry one. Foods of different temperaments could also influence a person’s temperament. The physician’s goal was always to help restore the patient to balance. However, the ancient physicians wrote, the perfect balance does not exist in reality, but rather as a perfect ideal to work up to.
But what is the relevance of thousands-year-old medical theories? And how is this related to food?
Well, these theories appear to hold much wisdom that we might be able to learn from. A central method of balancing a person’s temperament was through diet. Some ancient cookbooks described beside every recipe its effects on the temperament. It might be beneficial for today’s nutritional science to examine these ancient truths, surviving in various regions in the world for hundreds and thousands of years, and check to see if they cannot be used to restore the body to balance in modern times as well. In fact, the method is still alive and routinely used in many different cuisines until today. Many people, from Iraq and Persia to India and China, still make decisions regarding their families’ nutrition according to the temperaments of the dishes and of family members. Until recently, this method was the main tool to keep healthy in many countries around the world.
In a conversation between myself and a Persian woman, now living in Israel but raised in Iran, she told me that her father was of a cold temperament and so suffered from stomach aches and phlegm if he ate cooling foods. However, he liked eating beef – a warming food – very much, and so her mother would prepare for him beef patties containing copious amounts of garlic and walnuts, considered warming foods, so that the patties as a whole would be temperamentally balanced. The woman also told of her grandfather, who had a hot temperament, and so her grandmother would serve him a bowl of plums to eat every morning to help cool him. When she herself ate cold foods and felt unwell she would receive some raisin Arak (a distilled alcoholic drink) to warm her. She concluded saying that her temperament has since changed, and that today it is hot.
Temperamentally balanced beef patties
500 gr. (1 pound) fresh ground beef
100 gr. (3.5 ounces) walnuts, crushed or ground
5 cloves of garlic, crushed
1 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
Preheat oven to 200c (400F). Mix all of the ingredients. Form patties and place in a baking dish. Bake for about 15 min.
Warming winter chai
Chai is an Indian spiced tea, combining spices that have a heating effect on the body. This is a recipe for Chai concentrate, which can be cooled and later mixed into hot or cold water to create the tea. Chai has a warming effect on the body whether served hot or cold. You can also use fresh milk or soy milk instead of water.
1 tablespoons whole cloves
1/2 tablespoons black pepper corns
Fresh ginger root
4 cinnamon sticks
1 tablespoons cardamom pods
1 liter (2 pints) water
Combine ingredients in a pot. Bring almost to boil. Reduce heat and cook for an hour. Cool and place in refrigerator. Chai can be sweetened with molasses or pure date syrup.