The Oily Chinese Food Debate: Healthy or Not?

Oily Dumplings

As the world turns its eyes on China, and all parts of developing Asia, increasing numbers of Westerners are traveling here and getting a taste of it for themselves, literally. As tasty as the dishes may be, foreign guests have started deciding for themselves that Chinese food might just be “a little too oily to be healthy.” I’m personally biased and in favor of Asian food traditions, but I do think the argument deserves a fair bout!

Round 1, Ding!

When friends visit China their #1 concern about the food is sanitation, but also the oiliness. The picture to the right is one rather oily example. To satisfy their curiosity, and mine, I decided to ask some Chinese friends what their take is on this matter. I’ve listed their responses to common concerns that are voiced by Westerners (American friends, specifically):

1. There is simply too much oil in the food. How can this be healthy? The initial response to this question is:  Yes, there is oil on the food, but we don’t eat it. It just sits in the dish. Its not like a soup you drink or a gravy that you might put on potatoes.

2. How do you avoid eating much of the oil? People here use chopsticks for food that is sitting in broth or oil. We just let most of the oil drip off of the food first. The portion of rice you eat is important too. The combination of  roughly 30% staple and 50% main dish and 20% liquid (soup or water) are important to note here.

3. Doesn’t the oil get on your rice too? The oil can sometimes drip on the rice, but that is not how rice is consumed here. Normally people take pure, white, cooked rice with their food. This soaks up oil or other strong flavors from the food and protects your stomach. Fried rice is not a substitute for white rice either; and spooning the sauce of any dish into your rice is never done.

A case of misunderstanding: I remember making green beans with sausage bits and a simple cabbage dish for my family last Christmas. I also made white rice to go with it, of course. The salty/oily sauce that went in the green beans dish was irresistible to my grandmother, who is an amazing cook of Mediterranean food. But when I explained that “the rice soaks up the sauce”, she immediately tested my claim; she took a spoon and proceeded to pour the sauce over her rice… moments later… “Mmmm, it is sure does!” she said.

Chinese Green Beans

4. My friend went to China and gained weight. Why? The major reason Westerners gain weight in China is because of mixing food habits. We all try to assimilate to the local food culture at first, but we soon begin missing the dishes from home. Some people go back to convenient eating habits, like sandwiches for lunch. Others miss cheese and butter and other processed foods, so they might visit the foreign food store every few weeks or so. These actions have inescapable consequences.

Ben’s Opinion: Food culture is special and synergistic: more than the some of its parts. Using our own (American) nutritional logic to understand how on earth the Chinese (Koreans, Japanese, Vietnamese, etc.) could be so healthy would be a mistake. We shouldn’t use a microscope to look at how a system works. We should be looking at the big picture here. From that perspective, I would say, whatever these food cultures are doing… they are doing it right!

Please add your thoughts, comments, and rebuttals below. Thanks!

Use Ginger in Dishes

Ginger is commonly used in Chinese cooking. You can find that and garlic everywhere in China! And its no mystery that it is good for your health. Slice it or chop it for added flavor with fried veges. A respected professor and leader in my university here suggested me to eat small cubes of it with warm milk in the morning to support the flow of “Qi” in the body and settle my stomach. Its better to eat (swallow) ginger earlier in the day, but you can use it with cooking at anytime of the day.

Here are some health benefits sourced from Wikipedia:

“Ginger may also decrease pain from arthritis, though studies have been inconsistent, and may have blood thinning and cholesterol lowering properties that may make it useful for treating heart disease…Ginger compounds are active against a form of diarrhea which is the leading cause of infant death in developing countries…

Ginger has been found effective in multiple studies for treating nausea caused by seasickness, morning sickness and chemotherapy…. Ginger is a safe remedy for nausea relief during pregnancy…Tea brewed from ginger is a folk remedy for colds,… congestion, and coughs.”

Western vs Eastern Food Choices

A colleague recently asked me what the difference was between Chinese and American cuisine, besides our bread staples. I told her our general attitude toward eating is different; Americans trust science, Chinese trust tradition. I told this young, thirty-something English professor that we often make healthy choices based on what science reports tell us is healthy. (The media often attempts to play the “honest” broker… which is equally damaging.)

She replied, “But isn’t science better?” To which I replied, “when children born after 2000 have a 1 in 3 chance of developing childhood diabetes, then we are doing something wrong.” In fact, its also a matter of household income. If you are a minority born after 2000, you’re likelihood of getting Western diseases diabetes increases. Watch Food Inc here, which is a documentary explaining this problem in more depth.

Although we owe a lot of advances in society to science, the use of science as a general method of dictating food choices to the mass audience has been a failure. When the PR of Frito-Lays defends consumers’ right to enjoy “fun” food, it starts to define us as a nation. There’s nothing fun about diabetes and heart failure, which has touched every single family in America.

Drink Soy Milk- Its Not Dangerous!

After starting to type “soy…” into google, I got a quick suggestion of “soy milk dangers” and I immediately chuckled. Anyone who is saying that “soy products are harmful to you! Don’t drink them!” are just trying to sell you something in its place. I promise. As with all health-media frenzies, it is about controlling a multi-billion dollar industry: FOOD. We all think that nutrition scientists have something important to tell us, but they really don’t. As long as you eat and drink products that are as close to natural as possible, and in moderation, you will be fine.  But avoid too many modified products, because you don’t want scientists getting between you and your food, right?

Vitasoy Original
        Vitasoy Original

Sometimes I drink Vitasoy, which is a Hong Kong company’s export to the Mainland. The Original flavor is pretty low in sugar and contains no GM soybeans. [Genetically Modified] Sometimes I’ll drink 100% fruit juice from Huiyuan, a chinese juice company, and it is not cheap compared to other juice alternatives. (Coca-cola attempted to buy Huiyuan a year ago) But that is the reality of the modern grocery store; companies often disguise corn-based additives, sugar, and water by putting a flashy, fruit-cornucopia label on it. Spend a little more on real food now, so that you spend a little less at the doctor’s office later.

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.