Bringing Back Some Lessons from China

—by Ellen Sushak, HPC Member

Of course, my mind was on food and eating during my trip to China last November. After all, I was traveling with eleven other dietitians.

Let me back up for a moment to provide some background. Early last spring an invitation arrived at my home from the People to People Ambassador program to join a goodwill mission of registered dietitians to China. Our goal would be to connect with our counterparts working in China. As you might guess, it cost a lot to go—time and money—but after about an hour of thought, I was sure I could find a way to do it. After all, exactly how many times had an opportunity like this come my way?

We twelve met in Hong Kong, then traveled with a guide/translator to Beijing, Xi’an, and Kunming. On arrival we received a briefing on the nutritional status of Chinese people from the Center for Disease Control. Along the way, we visited dietitians in hospitals, university-based researchers in food science and nutrition, and directors of food service operations in schools and health facilities.

My preparations for the trip included reading up on Chinese history and culture, and assembling gifts from my home state. I took American Indian “dream catchers,” and handmade bits of art and culture from the Minnesota History Museum. I began to correspond with the other members of my team. Each of us was from a different state, and we worked in many different aspects of nutrition. Our group included a renal dietitian, a diabetes educator, a private consultant, the director of a large hospital food service, the clinical nutrition leader of a major health service, and a college professor.

I was expecting to eat poorly on the trip. We were told we’d be using chopsticks, and I was really bad at this skill, in spite of lessons from my Japanese sister-in-law. I shouldn’t have worried. The wonderful meals prepared for us at each site drove me to master the chopsticks, quickly. One advantage of eating with chopsticks is that you are forced to slow down (at least at my skill level). The food tasted wonderful, as each bite arrived oneby- one.

Here are some observations about Chinese food: Rice is, of course, served at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Breakfasts are as likely to include savory and spicy foods (even pickles) as other meals. Congee, or rice gruel, is a staple at breakfast. Tidbits of leftovers—meats or veggies or even pickles—are added at the table. If you want to know what congee is like, try the recipe, or think of grits or cream of wheat, whichever one you really like. A porcelain spoon is used for eating congee, as well as for eating soups. Just like soup, congee is very comforting, warm and filling. And it isn’t boring, as each day new leftovers appear. It’s also gluten-free!

Our breakfast typically included tea eggs as well. These are hard-boiled eggs steeped in a briny mixture of soy sauce, star anise, and other spices. They are served hot or at room temperature. I love them and have made them many times since my return!! People enjoy them as snacks, too. Sometimes, if we were exceedingly lucky, steamed buns were part of the first meal of the day. Tthe recipe is too long to include here, abut suffice it to say that steamed buns are yummy, plump, and filled with a savory or sweet filling, stretching a little “goodness” a long way by encasing a treat inside a warm, bready covering.

Breakfast illustrates how cleverly the Chinese make sure everyone is fed, even when protein foods are in short supply. Fish, meats, and soybeans are stretched by serving them with a lot of carbohydrates and many, many vegetables.

At Chinese meals, I never saw a cake, a pie, or a cookie for dessert. No candy, either!! Instead the end of the meal was signaled by watermelon, grapes, pineapple, or my favorite—something called a “dragon fruit,” which has the texture of a kiwi, but is colored white with a red rim when sliced.

All our meals were served at large round tables, with a huge “lazy susan” in the center. The servers would add serving dishes to the “susan” as they were prepared, and we diners would pass the dishes by turning the round platform to move the dishes from one eater to another. Using serving chopsticks, each of us moved a small portion of food from the serving plate to our individual plate (about the size of a small salad plate). The polite way of doing this meal-ritual was to take a tiny portion, comment favorably on the food, and then have a bit more, if any remained after everyone had tasted. Of course, many dishes were going round the table at one time, so sometimes a taste of each was satisfying.

Lots of vegetable dishes were served. I fondly remember wonderful dishes with cabbage, or bok choy and broccoli, or green beans with lots of onions, garlic, and mushrooms. Carrots, eggplant, and turnips were also in good supply. Foods did tend to be a bit oily, glistening with light sauces. Each item on the table was seasoned to have its own flavor and add to the array of colors and textures on the table.

There were also dishes that included meat—chicken, duck, and pork were favorites. Beef was present, as was lamb. Sometimes we were served meats that no one could/would tell us the origin of. (Sometimes we shied away from eating these meats.) Fish and seafood were plentiful. Wonderful fish— whole fish in sauces, deep-fried chunks of fish and shrimp, and mussels— graced the tables everywhere we went. At one meal we even ate scorpions, presented deep fried, to ward off rheumatism! Of course, tea was a part of each meal, and we sipped it from tiny cups.

I hope to write a future column to describe the blending of traditional Chinese herbal remedies with Western style medicine, as witnessed in Beijing First Hospital, and to tell about ongoing research being conducted at Kunming Medical College into the active ingredients of herbal remedies. But first, I encourage you to try the tea eggs and congee; to eat with chopsticks now and then to slow yourself down; to surround a table with friends, fill it with food, and enjoy the experience together. And, of course, to use small dishes, a great way to focus on the succulence of your foods