I don’t know about you, but I am a total sucker for those “Melt away the fat!” and “Eat your way to a flat belly!” headlines on the cover of women’s magazines. With a hopeful heart and a serious suspension of disbelief, I flip to the corresponding pages, almost believing that my pants will feel looser upon hitting that magic article.
And you know what I find every single time, without fail?
Grilled chicken. That’s the secret to everything. Grilled. Chicken. Sometimes accompanied by steamed broccoli, sometimes carrot slices, always bland looking – there’s not even an optimistic mustard pot in the picture. True – grilled chicken is the most easily identifiable, controlled protein you can get your hands on, but the chicken that appears in these diets is the stuff of science, not food. It’s all about calorie counting, and treats the joy of eating like an invading army that needs to be battled.
By contrast, while Chinese women may not have the best eating habits when they do diet, it’s clear to anyone who lives here that they certainly have less of a need for it, even though they scarf down noodles like nobody’s business. Sure, genetics plays a part, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Chinese women who grew up in the West are heavier than their Chinese counterparts. Chinese food in restaurants may be greasy, as is all restaurant food (have you ever seen how much olive oil goes into restaurant pasta?), but Chinese food at home is not. You can pretty much eat cold, garlicky cucumber until the cows come home and still lose weight, and since Chinese food is served as several dishes, without pre-arranged portions, the rule of thumb of weight loss is: “Eat more vegetables, less meat.“
Taste, satisfaction, and variety, are not sacrificed at the altar of calorie counting.
And above all, there is the concept of 馋 chan. Some dictionaries translate chan as greedy, which isn’t all together correct. It’s more like a craving – the idea that you’re hungry for something, even when you’re not at all hungry. The need isn’t pathological, like those who eat while under stress, but it’s about craving the pleasure and joy of eating a mouthwatering morsel of food. No one in this country worships the calorie-counter, but they do venerate the god of chan.
If you’re still feeling chan after you’ve eaten a meal, your diet is bound to fail, because at the end of the day, you’ll need way more self-control to fight and stay within the bounds of any restrictions. If you must hear it in scientific and calorie terms, it’s that a little fat in your diet will keep you satiated and feeling full longer than a completely non-fat one, even if you’re consuming the same number of calories.
This is why Chinese dieters are big on using meat stocks: rich tasting, flavorful, a little fat, but still mostly water. Chinese vegetable and tofu stews are a far healthier alternative than winter’s mainstays of mash and meat stews. Another trick is embedded in the inherent way Chinese food is cooked and served: small morsels of meat, a great variety of dishes. Rule of thumb for ordering: qingchao or suanrong is always healthier than yuxiang or ganbian, where the veggies are first deep-fried.
Here’s a recipe for an entree salad that’s got a little bit of inspiration from everywhere. I use store bought jiangzhouzi, or stewed pork knuckle, fat trimmed, but it can easily be made vegetarian to serve as a side dish.
Photos by Mishka Family Photography