by Rachel Au

(Originally published in August 2020, updated in July 2023)

Traditional Chinese Medicine stands by the practice of eating with the seasons. As the Chinese saying 不時不食 goes (pronounced “bud si bud sik” in Cantonese), foods that are not in season should not be eaten.

Eating foods that are in season have multiple benefits. Fruits and vegetables will taste better, grocery shopping will cost less, and the environment will fare better. Traditional Chinese medicine has its own arguments for eating with the seasons as well. Ancient Chinese medical practitioners found out that our dietary requirements change with the seasons, as our bodies have varying needs depending on the weather and climate.

With summer being hot in most countries, Chinese medical wisdom dictates that our diets should contain more fruits and vegetables at this time to cool our body down and provide enough fluids. If you’re wondering what to eat in summer according to traditional Chinese medicine, here are ten foods to get you started.

1. Cooling teas

chrysanthemum tea eat summer
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Though technically a drink and not a food, cooling teas such as green tea, white tea or chrysanthemum tea help to cool your body down by warding off summer heat and detoxifying the body. Considered yin in nature, green tea and chrysanthemum tea also help in alleviating summer ailments such as irritability and insomnia. Visit our sister company, Pekoe&Petals, to buy some amazing tea for brewing at home. The tea professionals there can recommend different teas for different seasons.

Herbal tea, a drink popular in Southern China and Hong Kong, also helps to cool your body down in summer. The Chinese name for herbal tea 涼茶 (pronounced “leung cha” in Cantonese) literally means cool tea, so it’s pretty self explanatory what it does! Made by brewing herbs, plants, and fruits in water, herbal tea is traditionally served in rice bowls at stores, but can also be found bottled for customers to drink on the go.

2. Sugarcane juice

sugarcane juice eat summer
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Another drink that will keep your body cool this summer is sugarcane juice. Deliciously sweet and refreshing with a slightly grassy aftertaste, sugarcane juice is adored by kids and adults alike in Hong Kong. Stalks of sugarcane are fed into an extractor, which presses the sugarcane between two steel rollers to extract the green nectar. The juice is then served in glasses for customers to drink on the spot, or bottled for later consumption. According to traditional Chinese medicine, sugarcane juice is considered yin and helps remove excessive heat and humidity in the body. Research has also shown that sugarcane juice is rich in antioxidants, iron, magnesium and electrolytes. If you’re wondering what to drink in summer, this is it!

Want to try sugarcane juice yourself? Join our Central & Sheung Wan Foodie Tour, where we’ll take you to a decades-old, family-run sugarcane juice store in Hong Kong!

3. Watermelon

watermelon eat summer
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A list of what to eat in summer wouldn’t be complete without the most summery fruit of all– watermelon. The sweltering heat and stifling humidity of summer disturbs the balance of fluids and electrolytes in the body. Watermelon helps your body restore this balance with its nourishing and cooling effects. It has even been said to have calming effects, easing frustration, restlessness and worry!

The red flesh of the fruit is what we’re used to eating, but the white part of the rind actually contains the most potent properties. A mild diuretic, the white part promotes urination– an effective strategy to clear that summer heat from your body.

Few people know this, but even the seeds can be used as medicine. Boil dried watermelon seeds in water to make a tea that promotes urination and lowers high blood pressure. Using all parts of a watermelon is a fantastic way to get started on your zero waste journey for sure!

4. Cucumber

cucumber eat summer
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Cucumbers are at their best during their peak season, which spans the summer months of May through August. Besides tasting their best in summer, another reason to eat cucumbers over these months is that they clear summer heat and eliminate toxins according to traditional Chinese medicine. Being 95% water, eating cucumbers also replenishes our bodies with the water we’ve lost in the dehydrating heat of summer.

5. Bitter melon

bitter melon eat summer
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You might be noticing a pattern– melons make up a large share of what to eat in summer. This is because melons come into peak season in the summer. The third melon on our list is bitter melon, also known as bitter gourd or goya. Its unique bitterness makes it quite a polarizing vegetable– you either love it or hate it. The bitterness comes from a substance called momordicin, which promotes appetite while protecting the lining of our stomach and intestines. Viewed as a cooling food in traditional Chinese medicine, bitter melons help to expel summer heat, reduce inflammation, and sharpen vision. They are also rich in vitamin C, iron, and fiber.

There are two ways to reduce the bitterness of bitter melon. One way is to rub slices of the melon with salt and let them sit for 20 minutes, which draws out its bitter juices. You can then get rid of the excess salt by rinsing and draining the slices. Another way is to parboil the bitter melon by dropping pieces or slices of it into a pot of boiling water for 5 minutes, then rinsing them in cold water to prevent them from getting too soft.

6. Winter melon

winter melon eat summer
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The last melon on our list, winter melon is actually commonly eaten in summer despite its name. This massive melon can grow up to 15 inches in diameter and weigh over 30 pounds! Since it is so big, it is usually sold in slices at markets in Hong Kong. Winter melon is rarely eaten raw, and often used in nourishing soups. When cooked, it becomes soft and translucent, with a mild, refreshing flavor. The cooling nature of winter melon makes it a soothing remedy for the summer heat from a Chinese medical perspective.

Read more about winter melons and how they’re served at restaurants in our blog!

7. Mung beans

mung beans eat summer
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If you’re wondering what else to eat in summer, mung beans are a great choice. These tiny green-colored beans are small but mighty, packing a ton of benefits ranging from cooling and detoxifying the body to relieving rashes. While not a common ingredient in western cuisines, mung beans are often found in Chinese foods, from zong zi– sticky rice dumplings eaten on Tuen Ng Festival, to mung bean sweet soup– an old-school Cantonese dessert. You can grow your own bean sprouts from them with only a damp towel and a container, or add them to stews or curries like you would with other beans.

8. Job’s Tears

job's tears eat summer
Photo credit: National Institute of Korean Language via Wikimedia Commons

Also known as Chinese pearl barley and coix seed, Job’s Tears is a nutty, earthy, slightly chewy grain commonly used in soups and drinks in many Asian countries. In traditional Chinese medicine, Job’s Tears is thought to have cooling and diuretic properties, helping to reduce inflammation and heat in the body, which often accumulates over the summer.

Job’s Tears tends to be hard to come by in western countries, but Bon Appétit magazine has reported that Job’s Tears are actually picking up steam across the United States lately, with a few discerning cooks adding these seemingly-obscure grains to their menus.

9. Lotus root

lotus root eat summer
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Depending on how it is prepared, lotus root can offer different health benefits. When eaten raw, such as in salads or pressed into juice, lotus root is considered cooling and helps to get rid of excess heat in the body. When cooked, the root becomes warm in nature, and strengthens the spleen and the stomach. This is especially helpful since people tend to eat lots of icy food in the summer, which can weaken the spleen and the stomach.

10. Tomato

tomatoes eat summer
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Rounding off our list of what to eat in summer is the mighty tomato. Chock-full of antioxidants, vitamin C and potassium, this miracle fruit is also highly regarded in traditional Chinese medicine. Tomatoes are considered cooling in nature, helping to repel summer heat in the body, while aiding digestion and detoxification. What’s more is that tomatoes are at their peak in summer, meaning that you will be getting the most flavor and nutrition out of them.

Have more ideas on what to eat in summer? Let us know by leaving a comment below!

Featured image by kian2018 from Pixabay.