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Eating the Asian way: Plant-based recipes avoid fatty pitfalls of Americanized dishes

Thursday, March 07, 2002

By Mary Miller

First of three parts
If you live in rural Guangdong Province in China, meal planning is simple.

You serve congee -- or rice porridge -- for breakfast, along with a steamed bun and green tea. Lunch might consist of steamed vegetables, a little fish or meat, rice and green tea. Dinner would be the same. With this diet, your risk of heart disease and stroke would be low and the risk of certain cancers -- breast, prostate and colon -- would also be minimal.

Illustration by Steve Thomas, Post-Gazette
(Click image for larger view.)

Make the move to San Francisco and give yourself a few years of consuming the American version of Chinese food -- Sweet and Sour Pork, General Tso's Chicken and deep-fried egg rolls. Up go your blood pressure, your risk of stroke and your chances of developing some cancers. The incidence of these chronic diseases increases dramatically among Chinese who have moved to the West.

A majority of Americans think Chinese food is more healthful than their usual diet. Maybe so, but according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit consumer advocacy group, choices must be made carefully. According to its analysis, the fat content of an average restaurant serving of Kung Pao Chicken is 76 grams -- more than that in four McDonald's Quarter Pounders -- and the dish contains enough sodium for an entire day (2,600 mg).

How can we adapt our diets to be more like the original Chinese eating style?

As authentic Chinese food crossed the ocean, somewhere along the way the customary diet of grains and vegetables changed into a diet filled with meat-heavy dishes laden with thick sugary sauces. According to Eileen Yin-Fei Lo, author of "The Chinese Kitchen," the transformation from traditional Chinese began when male workers left southern China in the late 1800s to find jobs in the Western states mining gold or working on the transcontinental railway.

These men, not used to preparing meals, did their best with limited cooking skills and lack of familiar foods. They also had to prepare foods for large groups of hungry men, so steaming and stir-frying were virtually impossible. Bok choi (Chinese cabbage), choi sum (Chinese broccoli) and gai laan (Chinese kale) were nowhere to be found. Other vegetables were substituted.

Coming up

First of three parts

TODAY: Do as the Chinese do

SUNDAY MAGAZINE: It's fun to tofu

NEXT THURSDAY: The Korean breakfast -- for dinner


Spinach, iceberg lettuce, string beans and lots of bland American celery took the place of native vegetables. Fresh vegetables were difficult to find, so canned took their place. Cornstarch was used to thicken overcooked and soupy vegetable mixtures. A dish that originally had small bits of meat and lots of crispy fresh vegetables turned into a soggy cornstarch-thickened stew. And because limited time was available for fussy preparations, dishes such as slim, fresh spring rolls doubled their size, were deep-fried and became what we know as the egg roll.

The majority of railroad workers came from the Canton area in southern China, so for many years what Americans knew as Chinese was really Cantonese. By 1896, Chinese restaurants were attempting to make dishes from the Far East more palatable to Western tastes. Dishes such as chow mein, egg foo yung and chop suey became Americanized versions of chau mien, fu yung don and tsap seui. Chau mien, a traditional dish of pan-fried noodles with stir-fried toppings, bears no resemblance to the chow mein most of us know.

The Americanized version, commonly served at suburban dinner parties in the mid-'60s, was often a mixture of canned La Choy vegetables topped with bland brown Chinese gravy. Fu yung don -- lightly scrambled eggs with baby shrimp -- became egg foo yung and turned into a "somewhat flexible, hard egg omelet served over itself and doused with a viscous brown sauce," claims Yin-Fei Lo.

Tsap seui, which means mixed pieces in Cantonese, was originally a dish of small pieces of stir-fried vegetables mixed with pork innards. (The Chinese wasted nothing.) In 1915, the "Larkin Housewives' Cook Book" published a recipe for American Chop Suey that used macaroni, round steak, tomatoes and onions. Chinese food, in all its unauthentic glory, had been the food fad of the decade.

Another American symbol of Chinese food -- fortune cookies -- were invented in Los Angeles in 1916 by noodle manufacturer David Jung. He did, however, get the idea from the ancient Chinese rebels who exchanged covert messages hidden in buns.

According to Yin-Fei Lo, sugar and salt are used sparingly in authentic Chinese cuisine and there is no use of monosodium glutamate. MSG, invented in 1908 to supposedly give a meaty flavor to vegetable-based diets, has been used in American cooking as a flavor enhancer. This ingredient seems to have entered the American dining scene when restaurant owners tried to get some flavor back into dishes that had been overcooked.

Asian restaurant owners thought the American public preferred sweet foods. The overriding taste of dishes became "sweetness, sugary sweetness," says Yin-Fei Lo. Cantonese cuisine was the only regional Chinese food known until the mid-'60s when, because of a new U.S. Immigration Act, more Chinese immigrants arrived here. At this time, Hunan and Szechwan restaurants blossomed. But the sweet, cornstarch-thickened sauces quickly made their way to these new cuisines, too.

Oriental themes became popular for parties. Special ingredients were not widely available outside of large cities, so cookbooks suggested substituting apples for water chestnuts, tortillas for pancakes, and if a vegetable is not available, use celery -- lots of it.

Another wave of Chinese restaurants opened in the 1970s when President Nixon reopened relations with China.

Cooking as art

So this is the path that Chinese cuisine took in the States. But what constitutes a real Asian diet and why is it so healthful? Chinese culture considers cooking as art.

"Cooking Chinese food is for us an everyday reminder of the importance of restraint," says Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid in their book, "Seductions of Rice." It is closely related to religion and customs.

The Chinese believe that dietary balance is enhanced by moderation, that overindulgence is harmful and that eating in balance is a way of life. Other rules common to Chinese homes also show us how deeply the culture plays a role in food and cooking. These include the prohibition of shouting and of short tempers in the kitchen.

The Chinese also discovered the medicinal value of some foods, such as ginger, to cure stomach ailments, and knew the importance of preserving nutritients by using fast cooking methods. Cutting food into bite-size pieces is unique to China, also. You won't find a 16-ounce Porterhouse steak on the restaurant menu in Shanghai.

In rural areas, sophisticated cooking methods and pre-made sauces are not available. Convenience foods still cannot be found in many parts of China. Heat is precious.

In rustic areas of China, meat and fish are used sparingly, almost as condiments. Saturated fat intakes are low because of the minimal use of animal products. The limited consumption of animal products plays a possible role in the low rates of certain cancers.

Milk, cream and butter are not a part of the Chinese diet, yet osteoporosis rates are very low. In the West, we associate milk and dairy intake with the prevention of osteoporosis, but this doesn't seem to be the case in Asia. Remember, the whole diet -- not just one aspect -- is important.

Soybeans and soy products are certainly a part of the Chinese pantry. They are a good source of protein and a source of phytoestrogens, plant chemicals that possibly play a role in the reduction of breast and prostate cancer risk. Some research shows a link between soy consumption and reduction of menopausal symptoms, such as hot flashes. Soy sauce, since it is processed and fermented, has lost the health-promoting qualities of soy.

Tea is a staple at every meal. Researchers have found that the antioxidant properties of one cup of tea are greater than those of one glass of fruit juice or an equivalent portion of fruits and vegetables. According to a recent report on CNN, there is also direct evidence that tea can protect against some cancers in humans. Mouth, lung, colon and digestive cancers are currently the focus of research.

To help understand the Asian diet, researchers at Cornell and Harvard universities and the Oldways Preservation and Exchange Trust developed an Asian version of the Food Guide Pyramid. This pyramid reflects the traditional plant-based diet of Asia. It emphasizes a wide base of rice, noodles, bread, fruits and vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds and is limited in meat.

"The nutrient composition of the traditional rural Asian diet is similar to the Mediterranean diet -- both are largely plant-based and both pyramids limit the consumption of meat," says T. Colin Campbell, Cornell professor of nutritional biochemistry.

Based on his research, Campbell concludes that the Asian diet is significantly lower in total fat than the Mediterranean diet and might even be more healthful.

Stick to basics

We can translate the traditional Asian diet into American lives, too. When preparing Chinese food at home, stick to the basics. Steamed rice and vegetables should fill up most of the plate, with meat just one-quarter or less of your dinner plate.

"Rice is typically eaten two times per day, every day," say Alford and Duguid.

Soybeans are often served, either in natural form or as tofu. Avoid too much soy sauce and mixes containing large amounts of sodium and MSG.

How much is too much sodium? According to the National High Blood Pressure Education Project, the daily limit should be around 2,400 mg. That is about 6 grams or a little over 1 teaspoon of table salt (sodium chloride) per day.

Use traditional methods of cooking, such as steaming and stir-frying. Steaming adds no calories and keeps a lot of the nutrients in the food as it cooks.

Stir-frying is another option, as long as the amount of fat is minimal. The wok can also be used as a steamer. The object of stir-frying is to cook food, but to still retain flavors, colors, texture and nutritive value.

When eating out, steer clear of fried foods, such as egg rolls, which tallied up 52 percent of their calories from fat, according to the CSPI report. Sweet and Sour Pork had a whopping 71 grams of fat. With egg rolls or fried wontons, the oil from deep-frying is absorbed into the doughy wrapper. You can blot off excess fat with a paper napkin.

Szechwan Shrimp came in low in fat in the CSPI study.

When ordering out for Chinese, ask for extra orders of rice. Keep the rice on a separate plate rather than mixing it with the sauce from your entree. Pick out pieces of meat and vegetables from the sauce and eat them with a chopstickful of rice, leaving the fat- and sodium-laden sauce on the plate.

If you're eating or ordering out, stir-fried or steamed vegetables usually are lower in fat. Most entrees had more than 2,000 mg of sodium per serving. One of the problems with eating out is that you have no control over what is going on in the kitchen.

CSPI recommends eating 1 cup of rice for every 1 cup of entree that you eat. If you add an order of steamed veggies, then you are really spreading the fat calories out and it turns into a reasonable meal.

The role of preventive polyphenols in tea and soy is still unclear, but it seems as if it is a good idea to include them in our diet.

For a taste of the real China in Pittsburgh, food enthusiast and expert on all things Asian Joe West recommends Orient Kitchen on Baum Boulevard and Tasty on South Highland Avenue in Shadyside. Both have standard American Chinese fare, as well as Hong Kong-style dishes.

And you can cook some of the accompanying recipes for yourself.

Free-lance writer Mary Miller of Fox Chapel is a registered dietitian.

Related Recipes:

Pepper Steak
Wonton Soup
Bok Choy with Sauteed Mushrooms and Shallots

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