Traditional Food Choices and Bitter Gourds

Ku Gua
Ku Gua "Bitter Gourd"

Have you tried “Bitter Melon” (苦瓜, Ku Gwa in Chinese)? Probably not. After the first bite you’ll say “What the… How can people eat this stuff on a regular basis??” And I agree, it is bitter and rough to get down. But many vegetables which have rather potent flavors in nature are full of great nutrients for our bodies. Think of it like a bank protecting its vault. The more valuable the contents, the more heavy-duty the lock! An appreciation for such vegetables is often steeped in the food culture of the local people where these mini-banks grow naturally.

Why don’t we make these choices too? Well, somewhere along the way of building our commerce-driven empire, we began allowing business to dictate what we should eat rather than carry forward traditions from the Old World. And after years of recalibration to the new norm, it is not going to be easy to switch back. We believe that healthy food isn’t delicious food because our preferred tastes have led us to diets full of sweet and salty “food-like substances,” a term I’ve borrowed from Michael Pollan’s book, In Defense of Food. If our parents, friends, and coworkers began to redevelop the habit of traditional, ethnic cooking, we would certainly notice a difference in our waistlines and overall health.

Dish made with Ku Gua
A dish made with Ku Gua

My  last thought: If Korean children are stating publicly that their favorite food is Kimchi (a spicy, pickled cabbage dish), and not ice cream, then there is a lot we can learn from the survival of traditional food values in a small but very modernized country.

Great Food for $1

Cauliflower, Carrots, and Spicy Chicken
Cauliflower, Carrots, and Spicy Chicken

I would be lying if I said that eating well in China requires more than $3 or  $4 per day. In fact, the more processed the food, the more expensive it is here; which is completely opposite in my country (America). Also, to make my life easier, I choose the campus canteen options which usually vary between 8-12 options. The picture to the right is two options + rice for about $1. (The rice serving is only about 10 cents.)

Today, I ate cauliflower and carrots with thin sausage slices and spicy chicken chunks (辣子鸡 La zi Ji). La zi Ji is one of the most famous dishes from Si Chuan province. This meal was a little on the meaty side …. but,  I usually get a single meat and a single vege (or toufu) dish together with white rice. Other days it is fish and veges and toufu. Most days I’ll also order a soup which contains peanuts, kelp, eggs, and chicken bones.

My canteen meals are quite varied and I get inspiration for new recipes from there. Best of all, I can eat lots of great food for little money. Paying $1-2 for a bag of chips just doesn’t make sense anymore.

Desert for Breakfast

How often do you or a loved one eat desert after dinner? Maybe some oreos, macadamia nut cookies, or a bowl of ice cream… We all probably think “I’m being bad, but its OK because I deserve it!” I know you “deserve” it, but that really isn’t the issue when it comes to desert. Your body doesn’t deserve a sugar rush just before bed and your taste buds are being selfish at the expense of your entire body.

After dinner I rarely eat anything sweet. In fact, a lot of meals I eat in China already account for my desire to eat sweet things. And at restaurants, the desert of choice is watermelon. Yes, a fruit. But, they aren’t thinking “oh, lets make a healthy choice and eat fruit” They are thinking, “watermelon is sweet, delicious, and its what my family ate while growing up.” Oftentimes, our parents teach us eating habits without realizing.

Just imagine 100 or 200 years ago; were grown adults eating ice cream or cookies after every evening meal? No way- this behavior is new for human biology and it leads to loads of health problems that the world now refers to as “Western Diseases”;  type II diabetes and cardiovascular disease. This is clearly an issue affecting the health of young people too, and it is not fair that they are learning these eating habits from their parents, who could be making better choices.

It’s your choice: I propose that you still eat desert, perhaps less of it, and at the beginning of the day. Yes, I am seriously suggesting desert in the morning instead of at night. Let your body use up the energy and calories while you go about your day rather than pack them away while you sleep. At some point, turn the daily desert into a special occasion food.

The “Too Healthy” Complex

I’m not sure where this all came from, but while I was growing up in Middle-America 1990s, I specifically remember people getting called out as “Health Freaks” or “Health Nuts.” For whatever reason, which I’m finding bewildering today, a person who chose to eat Toufu or drink Soy products was trying too hard to be healthy. As clear as day, I remember other kids saying “my mom drinks soy milk at breakfast and its gross!” Another would say “What a health freak!”

Well, we all avoided those too-healthy things and stayed in the safe zone. Phew! But what is so scary about soy milk? I drink it a few times a week now that I’m in Asia. Its popular with children here too. Its part of a balanced breakfast, which also includes porridge(congee), hard boiled eggs, scallions and salty tubers. It’s delicious with a little bit of sugar too. (And I’m sure its healthier than coffee!)

As I enjoy the Asian diet everyday here, I find that a lot of my Western diet starts to disappear. I only eat toast with peanut butter because I miss home sometimes. I only eat a large hamburger or pizza when I go on a pricey date with my girlfriend. I eat chips with salsa or dip when I’m home for Christmas. Sandwiches have lost their flavor for me. Salad is also flavorless, and is nothing more than uncooked vegetables in my mind. I’m not a health nut, I just like Asian food better.

Meat as a Garnish

Meat as a garnish
Meat as a Garnish

The big question here is about portion control through cooking. You will allow you and your family to consume less meat, and enjoy food more!

From this day forward, you should start looking at meat the same you look at salt and pepper. They are seasonings, flavorings, or whatever you use to give food a bit of a kick. Trust me- you will still consume meat, but it won’t be 1/2 or 3/4 of your meal. (Exaggeration? Think about what you ate for dinner over the past 2 nights.)

Try this: ONLY eat meat when you have sliced it into bite-sized pieces and cooked it with a vegetable. Not only will you enjoy the meat with more bites, but you’ll enjoy eating vegetables! Try some of the meat/vege recipes on this blog, like Sausage and Green Beans. My meat-loving family consumed 1 sausage and loads of green beans this way, instead of serving each member of the family one full sausage link. Try it and let me know how it went!

Rice or Bread?

rice and bread
Rice AND Bread

Ah, another timeless rivalry! Why are Asian people so thin when they eat bad-for-you White Rice all the time?? Isn’t Brown Rice better?? Well, I must say that I hate the flavor of brown rice. It tastes like “diet” cream cheese or “low fat” milk. It seems the flavor is missing…don’t you think?

White rice is a staple that Asian people generally find flavorful. It’s the bland base that keeps strongly cooked, but delicious, Asian food from hurting your stomach and body. Anyone familiar with drinking too much alcohol knows what happens when we over-power our bodies with any one thing. And so, too much salt or sugar is obviously not good for you. We need a simple staple, like bread or rice, to balance our systems.

Let me be clear though. I love bread too! Bread is yummy, but you should avoid overly processed breads that are common in American supermarkets and grocery stores. It should be a fresh, crispy baguette for example. The Europeans are getting it right with the way they bake, buy, and consume bread. Bread is not meant to be a shelved for weeks at a time. Make sure your staple is fresh and eat it right away.