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In the search for balance, some people practice yoga, others time management, but Su-Mei Yu checks the weather, then heads to the kitchen. Yu—chef-owner of San Diego's Saffron and author of the recent cookbook The Elements of Life—was raised according to Thai traditions; influenced by Buddhism, these hold that the key to balance, and physical health, lies in cooking and eating the right ingredients for the weather.

These traditions rival the Physicians' Desk Reference for complexity, but briefly summarized, they start with the idea that the world is made up of four elements: water, fire earth and wind. A little like astrological signs, or God, the elements influence everything from our personalities to the seasons and the time of day. They're even associated with different tastes—and Thais count nine tastes, from buttery to sour to sweet. Thai medicine emphasizes keeping the elements and tastes in balance.

It all boils down to a practical and delicious notion: It's important to eat the most nourishing foods, particularly when it's not very nice outside. And for anyone not lucky enough to live in San Diego, March weather is often not nice at all. For these six dishes, Yu has chosen ingredient combinations that protect the body during the transition from cold, dry winter to cool, wet spring.

Element: Water

Linked in Thai medicine to the water element, mild ingredients like mushrooms are thought to relieve flu symptoms and boost stamina.

Element: Fire

The fire element is associated with bitter flavors; nutrient-rich bitter greens like Swiss chard and kale are also thought to be purifying.

Element: Earth

Buckwheat (used in soba noodles) and salty foods like miso are earth-element ingredients that help warm the body on cold days.

Element: Wind

Ginger, garlic, lemongrass and cilantro are wind-element foods used in Thai medicine to help circulation and protect the heart.

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Published March 2010
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