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The Yin and Yang of Asian Diets
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— April 16, 2008

The Yin and Yang of Asian Diets

By Allan Richter
  • The stellar health and longevity of many Chinese and Japanese is testimony to the life-sustaining qualities of an Asian diet. Rich in vegetables, fish and rice, and deeply rooted in ancient Chinese medicinal and agrarian values, the diet has slight variations in different Asian countries. But it does have one key common ingredient—a carefully cultivated sense of balance.
The Yin and Yang of Asian Diets

Linda Yo was the picture of health when she immigrated to the United States at age 18. Growing up in Indonesia and elsewhere in Asia, she loved to eat as a young girl but never gained weight. Yo, who is Chinese, remembers rice porridge breakfasts and vegetables, fish and some meat for lunch and dinner. Simple noodle soups were often appetizers and meals just before bed.

“I came to the United States in the fall of 1986—by Christmas I was already chubby,” recalls Yo, who says that her fast weight gain of 25 pounds began at a Virginia community college cafeteria. “I would eat a hamburger, but it was small and didn’t fill me up, so I would come home and eat something else. At that time I didn’t know how to cook, so I would buy macaroni salad, fish and chips, that kind of thing. A lot of desserts, too. The ice cream in this country is fabulous.”

Motivated by a classmate who teased her about her weight, Yo set out to regain her slender figure. She tried teas, diet pills and starvation diets. She emptied store shelves of weight-loss books. “Nothing worked,” she said. One day, as Yo stared in the mirror, her mind began to drift back to Asia. “People there ate three to five times a day,” she says. “They like to eat out a lot because apartments are small and it’s not really convenient for them to cook, but they were slim. So I thought maybe I should prepare my food the traditional way.”

Yo was short on cooking skills; she had to use what was available and what she knew. So she began to marry rice, an Asian staple, with Western foods like frozen fish that she baked. “That’s what you do in Asia. You combine everything with rice and, when you eat meat, slice the meat thinly,” says Yo, who put the lessons she learned in her book Asian Slim Secrets (Asian Way). “In about four months, I lost the 25 pounds.”

Yo’s transformation from and back to her more slender self is but one more piece of evidence that the Asian diet and lifestyle is a fountain of youth. The life-sustaining qualities of Asia’s diet have long been affirmed by the endurance and longevity of its people.

Proof in the Pudding, and Fries

     In more recent years, the benefits of the Asian diet have become more apparent because of the damage that Western influences have had on the Asian lifestyle. Many Chinese children have become obese as their families have found prosperity—and the greater amounts of food and more sedentary lifestyle that come with it. The arrival of fast-food restaurants in China has exacerbated the problem. Similarly, Asian immigrants to the United States have become more susceptible to obesity, cancer and other afflictions normally associated with life in the West.

Before Western influences left their mark, Chinese were found to eat about half the fat, one third less protein and 70% more fiber than Americans, according to the China-Cornell-Oxford Project, an ongoing study that began in the 1980s, cited in Healing with Whole Foods: Asian Traditions and Modern Nutrition (North Atlantic Books) by Paul Pitchford. Nearly all of the protein the Chinese consume is from plant sources, while 70% that Americans eat is from meat. Heart disease and cancer cases in the United States vastly outnumbered those in China.

The good news is that Asian immigrants are bringing with them many of the ingredients heretofore found mainly in their native countries. Even in the absence of those ingredients, Americans can create authentic, healthy Asian dishes with alternative but similar foods. And Asia is so geographically vast that anyone looking there for healthy recipes has a richly diverse menu from which to choose.

Balance, Above All

     Each Asian country has its own dietary nuances that are based on culture, climate and available ingredients. The fertile banks and rich soil of Vietnam’s Mekong River Delta, for example, have produced many varieties of extraordinarily fragrant rice and helped cultivate a diet of fresh-grown herbs and greens as a matter of routine, says Wendy Chan, a co-author of New Asian Cuisine (International Food, Wine & Travel Writers Association). The river has also produced a catfish called a basa that is popular in the Vietnamese diet. “It is not a bottom feeder, so it is healthier” than the American catfish, says Chan.

Whatever their differences, all Asian diets stem off the same centuries-old search for a balanced life—the yin and yang—that is rooted in China, where food and medicine are often synonymous.

China’s culinary tradition is tied to an almost scientific approach and ancient reverence for agriculture, says Bruce Cost, author of Asian Ingredients (HarperCollins). 

Chinese cuisine represents Asia’s “mother cuisine,” Cost says. Unlike Western weight-loss trends that have at times dispensed with carbohydrates and fats, the Chinese diet is more welcoming.

“The Chinese believe in variety,” Cost says. “We might think, ‘Oh no, pork fat,’ but they might get nourishment from a little fatty piece of pork. Then they’ll have bean curd or drink tea with dim sum; the tea cuts the grease and soybean curd is an antidote to certain types of cholesterol. The Chinese have known these things empirically. You have a much more intricate system where you get a variety of foods, and they all have a reason in the meal.”

The Chinese sensibility for balance has taken root in India, too, in its diet, observes Linda Bladholm, author of The Asian Grocery Store Demystified (St. Martin’s Griffin). “They have the same sense that certain foods are heating and cooling, like chilies, which cool the system by making you sweat, and you have to have a balance of them to have your system working correctly,” she says. “Each Asian country is a little bit different but it’s the same sense of keeping an inner balance through what you eat.”

Yin foods are considered cooling; they are moist and soft, like melon or crab, says Bladholm. Yang foods are hot and include garlic, chili, ginger, fried foods and red meat. But more than seeking equilibrium between hot and cool, Asian diets pursue a balance of color, flavor, aroma and texture, Bladholm observes, as well as salty, sweet, sour, bitter and spicy.

The Asian grocery store, its aisles mirroring a similar balance of tastes, colors and aromas, is a microcosm of the diet, she adds.

Chopsticks and porcelain spoons are used at Chinese tables, while knives, cleavers and forks are left in the kitchen, underscoring that Chinese cooking is meant to be “humanizing” rather than “brutish,” observes Francine Halvorsen, author of The Food and Cooking of China (John Wiley & Sons).

Further, Chinese cooking is filled with symbolism. The cuisine’s well-known five-spice blend (star anise, fennel seed, clove, Chinese cinnamon and Sichuan pepper) in part represents the five segments of the heavens and China’s five sacred mountains, says Halvorsen.

Many of the Asian ingredients and staples are more powerful in combination than they are on their own. “The mushroom combined with rice and soy sauce is just as high protein as meat,” but without the fat, Bladholm says.

At the center of it all is the key Asian staple—rice. Bland steamed rice complements and contrasts the strong flavors of Asian dishes, observes Yo. Rice helps keep Asians slim and less likely to overeat, Yo says, because it is bulky—some 70% is water, making it large in volume but low in calories. In contrast, its comparable Western food—bread—is filled with air pockets.

Although obesity in China has become a newfound status symbol and evidence of prosperity, the close connection between food and healing has not been lost. “The Chinese medicine concept is widely adopted everywhere by Asians,” says author Chan, adding that so-called herbal restaurants are a growing trend throughout the continent, particularly among the wealthy.

“A doctor/herbalist sits outside and will check your balance and recommend dishes for you, and the dishes will be prepared with tonics and medicines,” Chan says. “They touch your pulse and they would detect a lot of things about your health, and make recommendations. They also look at your face, the color of your complexion, and they can tell a general state of health that you’re in.”

Only Fresh Will Do

     An emphasis on fresh ingredients has also contributed to the health benefits of Asian diets. “Even in India today and parts of China, a refrigerator is a status symbol that is not put in the kitchen but in the living room. The mindset is to go shopping for every meal,” says Bladholm.

In Japan, for example, small markets where tofu and noodles are made fresh are on just about every corner. “People shop for fresh-made tofu in the morning, and then mushrooms, vegetables and seafood are all bought fresh,” Bladholm says. “That’s how I lived in Asia. The apartment I lived in had a tiny little refrigerator, but you couldn’t fit anything in there, so I got in the habit of shopping twice a day.”

Because fresh food is so highly prized, Japanese cuisine changes with the seasons, says Keiko Aoki, author of Easy & Healthy Japanese Food for the American Kitchen (Quill Driver Books). She renewed her interest in Japanese cooking to help improve the health of her husband, restaurateur Rocky Aoki, whose physical adventures in his youth took a toll.

Green leafy vegetables might be popular in the spring, for instance, while rice with peas picked that morning might adorn a summer table. Fall menus are likely to feature rice harvested in season with mushrooms, while root vegetables are popular in the winter.

As color and visuals are used to give balance to the meal, Aoki adds, table decorations are also seasonal: cherry blossoms in the spring, for example, and leaves in the fall.

Culinary experts who have traveled widely in both Asia and the United States say many ingredients to make authentic Asian dishes have become more available here as Asian markets have cropped up to support an influx of immigrants. Online shopping has also brought Asian spice racks and food shelves closer to American consumers. And often, where ingredients are difficult to find, reasonable substitutes are not.

Miso and soy sauce are readily available for many Japanese dishes. But shiso, an herb that brings to mind basil, curry and cinnamon with a hint of citrus, might not be. So Aoki recommends employing basil instead. Similarly, her miso cod dish would ordinarily be built around mackerel, but cod is more available here and is a perfectly acceptable substitute, she says. Likewise, any white fish can replace the anago, or sea eel, typically used in tempura dishes in Japan.

One Japanese ingredient for which author Cost says there is no substitute is dashi, a sea stock made from kelp and flakes of dried bonito, a member of the tuna family. Dashi is used widely in Japanese cooking. If you can find it, the ingredients keep well because they are dried and the stock is easy to prepare, Cost says.

Chan’s New Asian Cuisine cookbook is filled with recipes from modern chefs, who she says maintain the “essence” of Asian cuisine, but packaged with a tilt toward Western tastes. One beef recipe, Chan acknowledged, is not entirely healthy because of its portion size. “Typically this dish would be shared by a whole family,” she says, “but in America it would be an entrée.” Many others, however, straddle both cultures while supporting good health.

Herbalist Letha Hadady, DAc, applies elements of the Asian diet to the West by describing the eating habits of different personality types with Asian animal imagery.

Hadady recommends berries, parsnips and an Asian “superfiber” called shirataki for “bears” who have a sweet tooth. For irritable “tigers” who might overindulge in fried or oily foods, she suggests cleansing green herbs like alfalfa. “Dragons” lay low but get anxious and “fiery,” and need foods to build endurance. “Cranes” are congested, feel isolated or depressed and seek comfort from fattening foods; they should eat “anti-mucus” foods and teas.

“The emphasis is on a lighter, more easily digestible diet,” says Hadady, author of Feed Your Tiger (Rodale). Hadady also stresses balance. “If it’s a fish day, have fish; if it’s an egg day, have eggs; if it’s a tofu, have tofu,” she says. “But don’t mix all kinds of protein because it’s easier to digest one kind of protein a day.”

It doesn’t take a wok in every kitchen and a pantry with an exhaustive list of Asian ingredients to benefit from the dietary habits of the East. “It involves the philosophy more than the diet,” says Chan. “The general thinking is not to get yourself full. From China to Singapore, they know the key is to eat a greater variety of food and to exercise self-control.”

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