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Two Hours Later, You’re Not Hungry

April 25, 2011

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.

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.

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.

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!

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!

— Cindy

One Comment leave one →
  1. April 25, 2011 3:08 pm

    Lovely approach. Food celebrated in its rightful place.

    Ironically there would be much less preoccupation with the ratio of carbohydrate, protein and fat if the federal government, public health entities and the medical community didn’t set up the high carbohydrate diet to be preferred in the first place. The push back gives space to people who don’t thrive in a high carbohydrate, low fat world.

    Unfortunately, the noise is deafening as each faction polarizes the conversation. Now we are left with too much information in indecipherable sound bites that mostly serves to confuse and overwhelm.

    Each person’s challenge is to figure out a balance of carbohydrate, protein and fat that works for them. Ideally eating whole foods.

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