While we report regularly in this blog on the many delicious tastes of the Mediterranean Diet, Oldways is a champion of all traditional diets. In fact, Oldways’ creation was inspired by a trip our founder, Dun Giﬀord, made to China, and we developed and published our Traditional Healthy Asian Diet Pyramid in 1995.
I was in Beijing last week participating in a Whole Grain Forum co-organized by Oldways’ Whole Grains Council, where one of the speakers – Qu Lingbo, Vice President of Henan Industry University – listed the ﬁve attributes of a good Chinese meal:
1) There should be a lot of dishes on the table so that each person can “reach the balance of his own diet.”
2) Food should be a social activity.
3) The meal should be beautiful.
4) The foods should be elegant.
5) The meal should be unique.
There was no discussion of the ratio of carbs to proteins to fats, or how many milligrams of calcium should be present, a refreshing contrast to the nutrient-centric approach to food too often taken in the U.S. We saw Professor Qu’s ﬁve attributes play out in meal after meal, as illustrated here with photos taken primarily at a “light lunch” we enjoyed in Mutianyu Village, after hiking the Great Wall.
[caption id=”attachment_2590” align=”aligncenter” width=”600” caption=”L to R: Hua Sun pointing to spicy trout; “Fish in the shape of a squirrel;” pork, bok choy and chestnuts”]
A Lot of Dishes on the Table
In the late 1920s, a Chicago pediatrician named Clara Davis carried out a famous experiment
to see if toddlers oﬀered an array of healthy foods would, over time, self-select a balanced diet. She concluded they would. Chinese meals work on the same principle: if there’s plenty of variety at every meal, one day you may go heavy on the vegetables, another time on the corn cakes or on the tofu – but it will all even out in the end, and you’ll be well-nourished without any tedious calculations.
[caption id=”attachment_2591” align=”aligncenter” width=”600” caption=”L to R: Sharing a meal; corn cakes; pork with bamboo shoots”]
Food Should be a Social Activity
I found it almost impossible to eat well before the rest of our group arrived. How can one person eat alone, in China? Your average American restaurant would blanch at twelve people arriving together for dinner, without a reservation. In China, we were seated without a ripple, with dishes shared joyfully around the giant lazy Susan. Western dining seems self-centered in contrast, where we order our own dish and swallow it down ourselves, with so little interaction.
[caption id=”attachment_2592” align=”aligncenter” width=”600” caption=”L to R: Omelet with vegetables & pancakes; garlic shoots in black bean sauce; scallion pancake”]
Food Should be Beautiful and Elegant
Every dish is a mix of colors, textures, and ﬂavors. Golden egg, sprouts and a mix of vegetables get wrapped in a smooth wheat pancake. Fermented black beans contrast with bright green garlic shoots and tiny bits of hot red chilis. Scallion pancakes are crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, with morsels of spring-green onions inside. How boring a large piece of steak must seem, or a mountain of plain white mashed potatoes, in contrast!
[caption id=”attachment_2593” align=”aligncenter” width=”600” caption=”L to R: egg drop soup; Len & Mary Marquart mix tofu with toppings; amaranth greens”]
The Meal Should be Unique
Part of the anticipation of every meal was the ritual of ordering. There must be cold dishes and hot dishes. There must be a soup. There must be greens, and proteiin (meat or tofu), and grains. There must be spicy, and salty, and sweet. The chef has created a palette, with the dishes he or she has placed on the menu, but it is up to the host to combine a good balance of dishes to create a unique meal. Every meal is diﬀerent, from the choices of the same menu.
The dishes in the ﬁnal picture above were especially interesting. The eggs in the egg drop soup were actually tiny bite-size vegetable omelets ﬂoating in a delectable chicken broth. The fresh tofu, the consistency of ricotta cheese, came with sprouts and sauce to mix in. The greens were from the amaranth plant – yes, the amaranth we know so well as a grain, its leaves doing double-duty as a plate of tender greens (like chard, which is a relative, amaranth sheds a reddish liquid when it’s cooked).
And that old saying about Chinese food, that two hours later you’re hungry? No way. A true Chinese meal, enjoyed leisurely with friends, is wonderfully satisfying!