I don’t know about you, but I am a huge fan of spicy food and Sichuan food has become a bit of a staple in my diet since moving to Shanghai. Top of my list are “mapo doufu” (麻婆豆腐), “dry fried green beans”（四季豆） and “kungpao chicken” （宫保鸡丁）. Sichuan food has a characteristic numbing spiciness, created using Sichuan peppercorns; in this cold weather, nothing seems more appetizing than a spicy meal to warm you up.
Over lunch a few days ago, whilst ladling another generous helping of mapo doufu into my bowl, I started to think about how healthy or unhealthy these dishes were.
Indicated by its name, mapo doufu’s main component is tofu, cooked in a spicy bean-based sauce with perhaps some mincemeat. For humour’s sake, I feel I should tell you that the literal translation of this dish is “Pockmarked Grandma’s Tofu”; you may therefore see it written as this on menus.
My concern was the amount of oil being used to make this dish – but my fears have been averted. The recipes I looked at, including speaking to a friend who recently attended a Sichuan cookery course, show a relatively small amount of oil needed to make mapo doufu. The addition of a fatty meat such as mincemeat, however, does significantly increase the fat content of this dish. Nevertheless, tofu, which is the basis of the dish, is a very low fat source of protein as well as being a good source of calcium.
Dry Fried Green Beans:
You could easily be misled into thinking from its name that this is a very low fat option, unfortunately this doesn’t seem to be the case. This dish is created using haricot, verts or Chinese long beans and is a vegetable dish very far from being bland. Garlic, chilli paste, ginger, peppercorns and salt all go into the making of this dish to create a flavoursome concoction. It may also include dried shrimp meat or pork. The dry fried beans are stir fried with oil; they require constant moving in the work to prevent them from becoming stuck. The amount of oil added to this recipe does seem to vary; but unfortunately, to prevent the beans from sticking, a significant amount appears to be used. All vegetables are naturally low in fat, however this dish seems to have turned something very healthy, full of vitamins and minerals into a high fat side dish.
This dish is typically made with chicken, peanuts, vegetables and Sichuan chilli peppers. Although many variations of this dish can be found in different regional Chinese cuisine, it originates from Sichuan. Being one of the most popular chicken dishes in Chinese cuisine, there are many variations, including some westernized versions.
Chicken, the primary ingredient, is a low fat source of protein and the peanuts provide a healthy source of ‘monounsaturated’ fats known to improve your cholesterol levels as well as providing protein, fibre and B vitamins. Most Chinese meals receive criticism for adding salt and sugar. Despite this, there appears to be only relatively small amounts of salt and sugar added to a dish for four people – 2 teaspoons of sugar and 1teaspoon of soy sauce. Of course, eating out is always going to allow for variations in recipes and these may possibly be less healthy. Whilst these recipes suggested only a small amount of salt and sugar, mass catering could see large quantities added.
Consequently, it seems as though there is something we could all learn from traditional Chinese cooking: the creation of flavour using ginger, onions, garlic and those spicy Sichuan peppercorns demonstrates that there are other ways of providing taste aside from fat, sugar and salt.
Sophie Thomas, Dietitian