What exactly are traditional Chinese superfoods, and how are they different from other popular health foods like salmonavocado, and quinoa? When I say "traditional Chinese superfoods," I mean foods commonly eaten in China that are believed to improve health and cure aches or illnesses. The Chinese believe that the foods you eat greatly affect your body's balance between "cold" and "hot," more commonly known as "yin" and "yang." The idea of yin and yang is super profound and lengthy, but the gist of it is that certain foods create heat while others reduce it, and the goal of a healthy diet is to find a balance between the two by eating each type in moderation.

With this complex philosophy, the Chinese have developed a whole system of Chinese medicine devoted to food, using certain foods to cure common ailments or improve overall health. I'm not an expert on Chinese medicine, but my family often uses Chinese food therapy and I have studied it a bit in college. On that note, here is a list of traditional Chinese superfoods that can help with everything from indigestion, fatigue, and common colds to period cramps and detoxing. 

1. Goji Berries

Photo of Goji Berry

Foodista on Flickr

Goji berries are bright red, raisin-like berries that have a sweet and sour taste. They are known to be full of antioxidants, which can improve the immune system and help prevent cancer. The Chinese believe that goji berries can help with anti-aging, in addition to preventing eye disorders. Goji berries are usually steeped in boiling water to make a refreshing dark brown herbal tea or they are cooked in chicken soup. For a more modern twist to this traditional food, a handful of goji berries can be added to granola, oatmeal, or smoothie bowls for a nice chewy texture. 

2. Brown Sugar

Brauner Zucker / Brown Sugar

wuestenigel on Flickr

Chinese brown sugar, also known as black sugar, is a little bit different from the brown sugar that you may find in Western grocery stores because it tends to be darker and less sweet. Brown sugar is said to help get rid of menstrual cramps and it can be extremely comforting when dissolved in hot water for a nice morning beverage. This is because brown sugar is traditionally believed to warm the body and promote blood circulation, which is especially important when your body is losing blood during your menstrual cycle. So girls, not only can you eat chocolate when you're on your period, but you can also reach for some brown sugar to calm down the cramps. 

3. Ginseng


SnippyHolloW on Flickr

Don't be alarmed by its weird shape–ginseng comes from the same family as any other commonly known root, like ginger or carrots. Maybe you've seen ginseng in Arizona tea or on a fresh juice label, but ginseng is one of the most sought-after foods in China because it is known to boost energy levels and strengthen the immune system to prevent diseases. Other studies have found that eating ginseng can help reduce inflammation and lower blood sugar. This nutritious root can be used to steep ginseng tea or it can be found in large jars of liquor. Like some other traditional Chinese superfoods, ginseng can be boiled with soup to create a more earthy, bitter taste. 

4. Green Tea

genmai cha, loose leaf tea, green tea, tea, tea pot
Jocelyn Hsu

It is well known that green tea has several health benefits, such as helping to prevent diseases and improving cognitive functioning. The Chinese believe that green tea also has the ability to cool the body down, which may sound confusing because the beverage is usually served hot. Here's why: Green tea is bitter and naturally bitter foods are believed to cool heat. This is especially helpful when you feel constipated or when your tongue is swollen. The most effective way to make green tea is to steep loose green tea leaves and add a minimal amount of sugar so that it still keeps a bitter taste.

5. Bitter Melon

Bitter Melons

Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com on Flickr

Bitter melon is an exotic fruit that yields a bitter taste, as its name suggests, and it is shaped somewhat like a zucchini. The bitter taste of this traditional Chinese superfood is quite off-putting when eaten raw, but it is worth it since bitter melon is believed to cool the body down significantly, making it a staple treatment for acne and other inflammatory skin conditions. Bitter melon is also thought to lower cholesterol levels and help prevent the production of cancer cells. One way to eat bitter melon is to roughly chop it and stir-fry it with a bit of sugar to mellow out the bitterness.

6. Ginger

Emily Conner

Ginger is a very common superfood in Chinese households because of its versatility in Chinese medicine and because it's a staple in dozens of recipes. Ginger is known to heat up the body with its strong spicy flavor, which can help cure the symptoms of a common cold including nasal congestion, chills, and aches. It is also believed to help treat nausea and stomach aches by warming the stomach and acting as a digestive aid. One of the most convenient ways to get your ginger fix is to steep a few thin slices of fresh ginger in hot water and add honey, lemon, or brown sugar for flavor. 

7. Jujubes


evenkolder on Flickr

Jujube is another name for a dried date, which is a fruit notable for its high levels of vitamins and minerals including vitamin C and A, iron, and calcium. This superfood is believed to improve a weak digestive system, helping to alleviate diarrhea, vomiting, and indigestion. Jujubes can be eaten straight for a light snack, and they can also be added to healthy chicken stews or herbal teas. Because of their sweet flavor and sticky texture, jujubes are additionally great for healthy dessert recipes like pudding, yogurt, or even ice cream. You know what they say: three jujubes a day keep the doctor away.

8. Barley

Barley germinating

emmajanehw on Flickr

Barley is a whole grain that is high in fiber and protein. When cooked in water, it expands from the size of a sunflower seed to the size of a large pearl. Barley is often used to relieve constipation and support good spleen health, which is especially useful for reducing fat. This super grain can be cooked with white rice for any meal of the day, or it can be steeped in hot water to make barley tea.

9. Mung Bean

dried mung beans

Stacy Spensley on Flickr

Mung beans are a slightly sweet bean that are high in fiber and packed with nutrients like potassium, magnesium, and antioxidants. Not to be confused with green beans or peas, these small beans are more common in Asian countries because they are versatile and can germinate to make bean sprouts. And no, rest assured because mung bean sprouts don't actually smell like death. Mung beans are another superfood that can help cool the body down, so they are great for reducing bloating and calming down acne. They can easily be made into soup by boiling in water or cooking them in the rice cooker, and mung bean sprouts can be stir-fried to make a light side dish for rice. 

10. Chrysanthemum Flowers

Close up of dry chamomile in a jar

wuestenigel on Flickr

Since tea is a substantial part of an Asian diet, a lot of traditional Chinese superfoods can be used to make tea, and chrysanthemum flowers are no exception. The Chinese believe that it can cool the body by soothing sore throats, acne, or headaches. Not only can they be made into herbal tea, but chrysanthemums can also be added to light stews and desserts like pudding or yogurt.

It may seem strange to think that common day-to-day foods can influence your internal balance, but it's worth trying out the next time you aren't feeling well–you might just discover a natural home remedy that's easy to find in your kitchen. The next time you feel a cold coming on, try drinking some hot ginger water. Or, the next time you're feeling stomach pain, try eating some jujubes and making some barley rice.