I must apologize to all my readers that have not had the pleasure yet of living in or visiting China because this blog is dedicated to those of us expatriates who have had the enlightening experience of seeing our Chinese friends (especially girl friends) wolfing down enormous amounts of food at least 3 times a day and never seeming to add even the tiniest amount of excess weight as well as being able to imbibe copious amounts of alcohol, get ragingly pissed and never seem to be any the worse for wear the next day
For the most part in the West, Chinese food is considered to be the antithesis to a healthy diet. The rice or noodle heavy meals and fatty meat dishes are judged to lead to obesity and heart disease. Actually the opposite is true: the Chinese way of eating is healthy and gratifying, has many disease fighting properties and is believed without a doubt by the Chinese to prolong life. Authentic Chinese food and the way the Chinese actually eat won’t make you fat, and that the rising levels of obesity observable in China today are in fact caused by the proliferation of sugary, over processed Western style fast foods e.g. a McDonald’s on every corner. The Western predilection to counting calories with every meal is alien to the Chinese diner. For them eating is as natural as breathing, one of life’s pleasures free of guilt and seeing food as health giving nourishment, not potential weight gain.
The stomach and the libido
You will quite often hear the Chinese describing their favorite foods as being “healthy” and attribute many health giving properties to just about every category of food especially proclaiming that “its good for women or “very good for men!” Meaning of course, that their libido will get an extra boost from eating a certain category of food.
Chinese apothecary recommends a variety of foods and herbs as medical treatments or with libido boosting properties; chilies for example are said to promote digestion; stimulate the nervous system enhancing the feelings of sexual arousal. Garlic to counteract toxins and ginger increases the libido in both genders by increasing the circulation of blood. The list goes on but the fundamental hypothesis is that certain foods can ensure that all the organs are working correctly allowing energy, or chi, to flow efficiently through the body.
Green tea eliminates toxins, aids digestion and allays hunger. It has also been suggested that green tea can fight cells which cause cancer and heart disease. Green tea is an important antioxidant, but it will only help you lose weight if you drink 40 cups a day.
Two thousand years ago, Hippocrates said, ‘Let food be your medicine.’ But I think in the West we have lost this along the way.
“Have you eaten yet?”
The most usual greeting you will hear in China is “chī le ma? Have you eaten yet?” This is a statement more than a question and is basic to Asian hospitality. Nevertheless, this is just a casual greeting, and not, as most foreigners who don’t understand this kind of custom might regard, an invitation to have a meal together. So one can reply with “chī le” or “méi ne” which means “yes, I have eaten” or “no, not yet.”
Regular eating times are also one of the secrets of Chinese healthy eating habits. You can actually set your watch to the Chinese internal eating clock. There is no way that they will miss a meal at the allotted time and if by any chance they have the miserable misfortune to actually miss or be late for a meal their day is totally ruined.
A raw deal
You won’t find much raw salad eating culture in the Chinese diet. While raw food has a higher concentration of vitamins than cooked food, research has shown that lightly cooking vegetables as in the Chinese cooking method of quick stir-frying over a very high heat seals in the vitamins and makes the nutrients easier for the body to absorb. The stomach is unable to digest too much raw food; this can lead to bloating and weight gain.
Eating a big salad with lots of different raw vegetables in its self is very agreeable and undoubtedly healthy, and I wouldn’t recommend giving this up but there must be something to say for the Chinese version of eating greens where the vegetable is thought of as a featured item or a meal in its own right and not just as an accompaniment to other foods. Vegetables should make up half of what’s on your plate in any given meal, so this fits perfectly with the Chinese diet.
In the typical Chinese meal there are always at least one or two dishes purely of vegetables.
The array of vegetables available and served in a typical Chinese meal like bean sprouts, bok choy, Chinese broccoli and cabbage, long beans, eggplant are powerful sources of fiber, vitamins and minerals.
Staple foods like rice in southern China or noodles and steamed buns in central and northern China are essential to the Chinese diet although not as prevalent in all meals as perceived in the west. These are home foods, quick lunch meals or snack foods and are not necessarily served or required in formal banquets or in a restaurant meal.
Some form of liquid food is also always present at a Chinese meal, often in the form of soup or porridge.
In the west we generally drink water with our meals which the Chinese rarely do. Instead, they serve a healthful liquid food as part of the meal. Soups in Chinese cuisine culture are seen as “energy” or healthy giving. Much in the same way as the ubiquitous Jewish Chicken Soup
The Chinese diet balances yin (wet and moist) and yang (dry and crisp) ingredients. Yin foods like leafy vegetables, fruits, grains & nuts cool the body down, while yang foods such as meat, spicy dishes, wine, and coffee heat it up.
The family style multi-dish approach to eating in China means most meals contain yin and yang in balance.
You should have complex carbohydrates, a protein and a grain together for many different reasons, one of which is the experience of eating different textures together with the cooling yin and the hot yang…
E.g. Chicken and cashew nuts in typical Sichuan spicy style with steamed rice
In Chinese culture balance in nature called Feng shui and in traditional Chinese apothecary is all important and so it is in their diet. Protein type foods are seen as yang and carbohydrates as yin. The balancing of these two in a meal helps stabilize blood sugar, which is crucial to good energy and minimizing weight gain.
The Chinese eat until they are full. In the west we often take a feast-or-famine slant to eating that is laden with guilt while holding on to the latest diet fad during the week and then binging over the weekend, or missing lunch to make room for a calorie laden tiramisu and cappuccino in the afternoon.
Our eating habits are erratic and unhealthy while the Chinese are consistent in eating three regular good meals every day.
The Chinese believe that the stomach should be contented before the brain can think and will stop everything they are doing when it is time to eat because nothing is more important than eating together with family or friend. It’s a way that the Chinese show their hospitality and warm connection with you.
Is Chinese cuisine healthier than other cuisines? I hear this question quite often and in the end I suppose it is all a matter of proportion. I guess it is like asking whether Mediterranean food is healthier than French or Northern European or any other cuisine.
Some are healthier than others, but the bottom line is that it depends on which foods you eat and how you eat. Most organic ethnic cuisines, unadulterated by modern technology, rejecting commercial convenience or fast foods and taking advantage of the seasons are healthy diets.
And lets face it the Chinese have been around for a long long time, without really changing their diet and they seem to be doing just fine so I for one will be going out tonight and looking for a restaurant where the menu is only in Chinese and I will most likely be the only lǎo wài in the place.
a very interesting perspective from a Western – which I can’t agree more! …afterall it’s all about balance. I love Chinese cuisines…yumm!