The Five Elements Theory of Chinese Cooking

Five elements theory in Chinese cooking
Five elements theory in Chinese cooking. Thoth_Adan Getty Images

The Chinese people believe that we are surrounded by five energy fields, or you could say five different kind of “chi” (氣), which are the Five Elements we are talking about in this article. If these five elements are changed or moved the theory is this could seriously affect people’s fate.


The “five elements” (五行) are also known as the five agents, five phases, five movements , five forces, five processes and five planets.


If the concept of yin and yang is the centre of the Chinese culture then the theory “five elements” should be treated as the cornerstone of Chinese culture. But what exactly are the five elements of Chinese cooking and how do they play their part in Chinese cuisine.


The “Five Elements” are metal(金), wood(木), water(水), fire(火) and earth(土). Chinese people use this Five Elements theory for a lot of things, from interaction between internal organs, politics, Chinese medicine and even Chinese cooking and food.


It’s just like finding the perfect balance yin and yang. Chinese people always try to find the perfect balance between the five elements. There are two main relationships between these five elements. One is called “mutual generation (相生)” and another one is called “ mutual overcoming (相剋)”


Examples of “mutual generating”:


Wood made fire stronger

Fire made Earth (ash)

Earth contained and bared metal

Metal improved the quality of the Water

Water helps the Wood grow


Example of “mutual over coming”


Earth can stop the Water (Think about people building a dam to stop water)

Water can stop a Fire

Fire can melt Metal

Metal can cut Wood

Wood can consume Earth


To give an example from nature, a plant (wood) grows when it is given water.

When burnt, wood gives birth to fire, and the burnt ashes subsequently return to the earth.


What role do the Five Elements Theory play in the Chinese diet?


Chinese herbalists and doctors believe to properly treat a patient you must know the state of the five elements of their body. Any deficiency or an excess of an element can lead to illness. 


Five elements also represent our five main organs, which are lung (metal), liver (wood), kidney (water), heart (fire) and spleen (earth). This five elements also represent by five different colours, white (metal), green (wood), black/blue (water), red (fire) and yellow (earth).










Gall Bladder






Small Intestine












Large Intestine











In Chinese medicine and cooking it’s believed if you are weak or ill in certain parts of your body or organs you should consume certain colours/elements of food to help you feel better and improve the state of your health. For example, if you have health problems with your kidney then you should eat more food that’s black/water in colour, such as wood ear, seaweed and black sesame.


List of different colour/element/organ foods:


Red/Fire/Heart Food:


Carrot, tomato, sweet potato, strawberry, chili, red beans, red pepper, jujube, goji berry, dragon fruit, apple, brown sugar…etc.


Chinese people believe consuming “red colour food” is good for your heart, small intestine and brain.


Green/ Wood/Liver Food:


Mung bean, Chinese leeks and all the green vegetables and green fruits and wasabi.


If you consuming “green colour food” it’s good for your liver, gallbladder, eyes, muscle and joint.


Yellow/ Earth/ Spleen Food:


Sweet corn, baby corn, yellow sweet potato, taro, oat, white, pumpkin, butternut squash, yellow pepper, soy beans, egg yolk, bean curd, ginger, orange, star fruit, lemon, pineapple, papaya, peanut, walnut, honey…and more. Mainly yellow colour food.


If you consume “yellow colour food” it’s good for your digestive system and spleen.


White/ Metal/ Lung Food:


Rice, glutinous rice/sticky rice, lotus seed, daikon, onion, garlic, bitter melon, winter melon, broccoli, bamboo shoot, white wood ear, milk, tofu, soy milk, Asian pear, banana, almond, white sesame, rock sugar and more…


If you consume “white colour food” it’s good for your lungs, large intestine, nose/ respiratory system and skin.


Black/ Water/ Kidney Food:


Wood ear, seaweed, shiitake mushroom, eggplant, black beans, raisin, blue berry, black grapes, black sesame, black vinegar, tea, sweet bean sauce and more…


If you consume “black colour food” it’s good for your kidneys, bones, ears and reproductive organs.


Please note, eating a balanced diet is very important and this article just gives you an introduction and suggestions about the ‘Five Elements” and how their theory reflects in Chinese food. If you have any health issues please consult medical advice before you look into any specific diet.