The Classification of Food and Drink in the Balance System
All food and drink is classified according to the four elements, or a combination of them, according to the way they affect the body rather than to the nature of the foods themselves. Thus, ice is not cold; it is dry since it contributes to the operation of the element that is given that name. Honey, even if it is taken directly from the refrigerator, is hot because of the nature of its contribution to body functioning.
Edible substances, in the Swahili view, can have another property in addi-
tion to the four components of the body's elemental balance, and this is being either "heavy" or "light." This dimension appears to be similar to another aspect of Galen's system. Galen, like his Swahili successors, believed that in addition to the four primary "qualities," there were "secondary qualities" that modified the primary qualities. As Siegel, an authority on Galen, puts it, "Galen regarded all parts of the body as a combination of primary qualities, but modified by the addition of secondary qualities. Thus, the blood is red; bile is bitter and yellow, and because of some other secondary quality each exhibits a varying viscosity" (ibid., 147).
In Swahili understandings, "heavy" foods facilitate the effect of, say, cold less than "light" foods do. For some foods, being heavy or light is an inherent property. Others, including most meats, are neither heavy nor light in themselves but can become either depending on how they are prepared and on how long they have been stored.
The classification of foods and drinks in this system is exhaustive, with previously unknown foods or drinks being classified by their observed effects on those who ingest them. Most foods are classified according to being either cold or hot and also according to being either wet or dry. Some foods, however, are so strong along one of the dimensions (hot or cold or dry or wet) that their standing on the other is negligible. Cold and hot are more powerful in their effects on the body than dry and wet, with hotness being a definite cause of dryness (i.e., if there is enough hotness, wet foods will be converted to dry), and excess cold can cause otherwise dry foods to produce the reaction of wet ones. Neither dry nor wet, however, can produce either hot or cold. Despite this, wet and dry must be in balance quite as much as hot and cold must be, if illness is to be avoided.
A few common foods and their classifications can serve as illustrations of the system:
Corn: cold and dry, light in the stomach
Wheat: cold and dry, heavy in the stomach
Millet: hot and wet, heavy in the stomach
White beans: dry and cold, heavy in the stomach
Red beans: hot and dry, heavy in the stomach
Goat meat: hot and dry
Fruit: all fruits having juice are hot and wet, heavy in the stomach
Since foods are classified according to how they affect the body, it is not surprising that their classification changes as the food substances do. Thus, many foods are understood to change their effects with time, so that fresh cow's milk is hot and wet, but if it stands for some time, it becomes cold
and wet, and if allowed to sour it is only wet without cold. Rice is hot, but if it is stored for a year or so it becomes dry. In the winter, bananas are hot and wet but in the summer cold and wet.
Similarly, the state, including size, or age of the source of a food is understood as affecting the food's influence on the body and therefore the food's classification. So, for example, the meat from immature chickens, that is, from hens that have not yet laid eggs and roosters that have not yet crowed, is hot, moderately wet, and fairly light in the stomach, but when the birds are older, their meat is hot, dry, and heavy in the stomach. In the same way, the flesh of large fish is understood to contribute to the hot element in the body but that of small fish to the cold. Even within the same food, the constituents can have different elemental standings, if these are taken to have different effects on the body. Thus, the whites of eggs are cold and wet, while the yolks are hot and wet.