01- The Chinese Diet

Serves: 5



Chinese food has been called the diet of the future because it is high in nutrients, low in calories and invariably well-balanced. Meat does not predominate: vegetables (particularly the non-starchy varieties) do. The meats used are moderate in their fat content. High-protein seafood plays an important role. There are no dairy products. Animal fats are rare. Grains are plentiful, sweets negligible. Crisp, delicate foods are preferred to heavy, oily ones.

MEAT DOES NOT PREDOMINATE, VEGETABLES DO: The Chinese are not fascinated with great chunks of meat such as steaks, roasts, legs of lamb. They like their meat in small quantities, cut up or sliced paper-thin and combined with vegetables and other ingredients. A characteristic Chinese meat dish contains about one-fourth the meat Westerners usually expect, while a "heavy" meat dish is only three-fifths meat. (A duck, for example, that serves three or four in a Western meal will serve twice that many when prepared as a Chinese dish.) A typical Chinese family meal, however, also includes other "main" dishes made with fish, eggs, etc.

THERE ARE NO DAIRY PRODUCTS: Butter, cheese and milk are practically unknown to Chinese cooking. (Cattle, few and far between in China, were more profitably put to work as beasts of burden.) Yet, with nutritional ingenuity, the Chinese created their own "cow" which produced its own "dairy" products. They took the lowly soybean, whose protein closely resembles that of meat, and transformed it in innumerable ways. They softened and ground the soybean, then mixed it with water, converting it first to milk, then to curd, and finally to cheese. (They also put it to many other uses: made it into sauce and jam served its sprouts as vegetables fermented, dried and roasted it used it salty as a condiment, sweet in pastries.) Contact with the West eventually introduced milk and butter to Chinese cooking, but these dairy products were used primarily as flavoring agents and always in small quantities.

SWEETS ARE NEGLIGIBLE: Eating sweets is not a Chinese habit. They don't have much of a sweet tooth and are not taken with rich pastries and confections. (This is one reason Chinese women are able to keep their figures well beyond middle age.) As a rule, the Chinese prefer savories to sweets. (These savories take the form of dumplings, buns, wontons, egg rolls, etc., made with wheat- or rice-flour pastry, stuffed with various combinations of poultry, seafood, meat, vegetables, then deep-fried, steamed or boiled. Savories, or refreshments, can be taken with tea as a tea lunch or served with dinner as hors d'oeuvres.) The little need the Chinese have for sweets is usually satisfied by sweet-and-sour sauces served with meat and fish dishes.

Desserts as such are unknown and do not accompany family meals. On rare occasions, fresh fruit or candied ginger may be served at home after dinner. The few sweet dishes the Chinese have are reserved mainly for formal banquets and feasts. These are often hot dishes and include sweet hot fruit soups or teas, pastries filled with sweetened nuts, deep-fried sweet potatoes, and a rich steamed pudding called "Eight Precious Rice." These sometimes appear at the end of the meal, but more often as a welcome change of pace midway in a long progression of heavy or salted foods. Generally speaking, Chinese sweet dishes are not sweet at all in the Western sense. They have none of the sugary or syrupy sweetness associated with Western desserts. Even Chinese tea is taken without sugar because its natural "sweetness" is considered sufficient.

The Chinese, however, are great between-meal snack eaters and nibblers. They snack, not at regular hours (as is the case with Western coffee breaks), but whenever not eating becomes too monotonous. At such times they will eat various fruits (either fresh, preserved or dried), biscuits, small cakes, nuts and savories. Here again, the preference is always for light foods with subtle flavors, rather than rich sweets or heavy snacks.

(As for the meals themselves, breakfast in South China consists of a hot rice porridge called "congee," accompanied by several salty side dishes, while in the North, noodles are eaten. Lunch and dinner consist of soup, vegetables, some meat and fish, lunch being the lighter meal of the two.)

If the Western gourmet wishes to avoid the gout and related problems, he must save his rich dishes for special occasions only. On the other hand, he can indulge in Chinese food every day without suffering the consequences. Although this combination of good eating and health may seem like a paradox, the Chinese diet makes this happy arrangement possible: It simultaneously satisfies the palate while improving one's sense of well-being. Therefore it is not surprising to see that more and more health- and weight-conscious Westerners are turning to Chinese food. They have discovered its fundamental secret: This is the way to eat lightly and still eat well.

The Thousand Recipe Chinese Cookbook. ©1994 by Gloria Bley Miller.

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