Two Kinds of Chee

“Chee” is one of those concepts that floats around in the English-speaking world, but is rarely understood outside of its cultural context. I’ve written about this before in Ginseng and Ginger posts. There are loads of potential benefits to your health if you consider Qi in your daily life. But, first we need to get an understanding of the meaning of the word “Qi” and then we can drape more layers of meaning on top of that.  After all, language defines culture and allows it to breath, which is not too far away from the literal meaning of Qi.

气 [qì]

氣 (traditional character)

Qi Gong Pose

Meanings: Air, gas, breath, mood, smell, manner, anger, etc.

The more familiar of the two Qis (mmmm, cheese…) is something called “Qi Gong”  气功 – literally “air” + “results/success”,and known as “a system of deep breathing exercises,”[*] it is a form of meditation and has been used by martial artists and common people for hundreds of years. The image to the right shows the flow of Qi through the body, with the 3 “elixir fields.” These are basically places where energy is stored. The arrows show how energy flows point-to-point through the body, although it is not always in this direction.

Dantian Energy Flow

Trivia time! Where is the center of the human body? When I was first asked this question I pointed to my naval/waist area. Where did you point? In fact, according to Qi Gong, the center of your body is at your upper lip. Yep, its in your face! This comes from the idea that energy is draped over your body from the top.

Combining body movements and breathing exercises are key to this practice and can have great health benefits, similar to Tai Ji or “Tie Chee”. Due to better blood circulation, relaxed breathing, and reduced stress, these exercises are used for health maintenance by millions of people around the world. As you can imagine, the field of Qi Gong is extremely deep and could take a lifetime to understand fully. Continue reading Two Kinds of Chee

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!

Asian Secret #1: Rice Cooker as Steamer!

Rice Cooker Options

I’m not sure if this is a big secret, per se; you probably use a steamer unit to cook your rice anyway! But, for those of you who don’t have one and are wondering about getting another machine, please don’t waste your hard-earned clams yet! Stick with one machine for now…

A rice cooker is most famous for cooking one thing…. RICE! And it really does a good job, because sticky rice comes out tasting nice and fluffy (moist) if set correctly. But that’s not all it does. In fact, you can do loads of other things with a rice cooker. Here I will show how a basic rice cooker works and how it can be used to steam food as well.

To the left are some standard rice cooker options. I prefer option 2 because my family doesn’t eat large portions of rice and the smaller machine is cheaper. This might also mean that the steaming space will be limited, but it will still work. (Visit this tutorial for more details on how to make rice.)

Steel Steamer Basket

PREPARING: In order to transform a standard rice cooker into a steamer for just about anything, you’ll need to get a steamer basket, which adjusts to the container it is put in. It will sit in the inner pot of the rice cooker. The water level shouldn’t come above the steamer basket. Make sure that you can put the steamer tray (a simple stainless steel plate will be fine) solidly on top of the steamer basket, without it floating around.

Stainless Steel Plate

Take a look at the eggplant I cooked using this method. You’ll notice that the steel plate can continue to be used as a serving dish when you are finished. This plate costs about $.05 here in China, but I’m sure you can get one for $1.50 in any large marketplace in the West. NOTE: If you don’t care about the juices leaving your food, you can leave out the steel plate.

COOKING: When you have placed the steamer basket in shallow water inside the rice cooker, you can then place your plate of food on top to prepare for steaming. When the plate is level, close the top of the rice cooker and start it up! It will cook the same way you cook rice. Check your recipes for length of time required. But if you are like me, you can just guesstimate when its ready!

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.

Pork Rib Chunks with Garlic & Black Bean Sauce

Garlic pork ribs
Ingredients for Garlic pork ribs

I’m finally letting this simple, but amazingly delicious recipe out of the bag! I would eat ribs everyday if I could because they are so freaking delicious. My favorite rib-dish is actually steamed and served more frequently at Zao Cha (早茶) or “morning tea,” which is most common in Southern China.  I have yet to find a more delicious way to cook pork ribs at home, but we will need to take a quick trip to the Asian Market first.

Start by preparing the following ingredients:
MEAT: Obviously, first comes the pork rib chunks. I buy them from a butcher’s market, which sells all cuts of meat in open air. The amount in the serving bowl to the right is about one full rib, which is about 8 inches long. You can get a 12 inch long rib chopped up for 2 people if this option is available. If you are not sure about portions, take a look at this article related to meat portion control.

Chilli powder, Corn starch, and Marinade
Chilli powder, Corn starch, and Marinade

SEASONINGS: We’ll simply take the chopped up pork ribs, rinse them through water, and do a simple 1 minute-marinade. I like 李锦记 (Lee Kum Kee) Brand’s prepared Black Bean and Garlic Sauce” marinade shown in the picture. (buy online) I also mix in some 玉米生粉 (Corn Starch), which is that bag with the ear of corn on it. Any corn starch will do. Notice that I don’t cake this onto the ribs; just put a shallow amount in your palm, with the marinade, and mix by hand a few minutes before cooking. I also put in Chilli powder according to taste. A spicy edge can enhance the flavor.

PLANTS: I’ve chosen to separate the shelved Seasonings from the fresh ones. As in the picture above, just cut a few slices of raw ginger, long segments of scallions, and loosely chopped up garlic. This should only take 1 minute.

1 ~ Warm up a frying pan/wok with corn oil (or whatever is available in the house). Throw in some of the garlic you chopped up with 1 or two slices of ginger. Shortly after you can throw in the scallions.

2 ~ Quickly throw in your marinaded pork ribs. Move them around in the pan to give them equal heat. If you find the frying pan is drying out, just add small amounts of water periodically. You’ll slowly develop a nice coating of sauce this way.

3 ~ Cover and let them cook for a few minutes, mixing them up with the sauce in the pan. Add water if needed. (The meat cooks rather quickly because it is not frozen and its rather thin on the bone. Cooking times may vary according to the thickness of your meat.)

4 ~ I usually pull them off after 4-5 minutes. If you want, choose a thick piece and pull it out. Slice it and check the middle.

Garlic Bean Pork Ribs
Garlic Bean Pork Ribs with Rice

I eat this dish with white rice, as you can see from the picture of the final product. Also, it goes well with stir-fried green beans.  Notice that the vegetables and the rice portions are about 50% of the meal. (Try your best to make a habit of this!)


Full Meal with Green Beans
Full Meal with Green Beans

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.