Home Cooking in Shanghai – TCM Style

I had the pleasure of meeting Shanghai based Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) food therapist Anna Na during the recent annual Shanghai vegan challenge.  While I am not a practitioner of TCM principals of eating, I agree that the TCM plant based style of eating is very healthy.  Anna has expert knowledge of local ingredients and how to prepare them.  From memory alone, she can name every type of produce available at a Chinese market along with price, seasonal availability and pesticide usage.  Quite a feat when you consider the variety in the local wet market.  I wish I could do the same! Luckily, Anna provides cooking classes in Shanghai!

Cooking With Anna Na
Home Cooking in Shanghai

I recently received a one-on-one cooking class from Anna. She brought to my house a plethora of interesting ingredients including; purslane, spring bamboo, yam, black mushroom and broad beans.  I have seen these ingredients in Chinese restaurants but trying to prepare them at home has been a huge challenge. Restaurants in China often use lots of additives (including MSG) to create an intense flavor that is difficult to replicate. When cooking at home, I don’t want to use mystery ingredients or chemical additives. I was blown away by the food that Anna created. It was way better than restaurant food, with no chemicals used.

Delicious Tofu
TCM Tips When Cooking

How did Anna do this in my kitchen? She used some flavorful – and healthy – spices.  These included black sesame paste, soybean powder, salt with dried bamboo, soy sauce, red rice wine, chili paste, black vinegar and Chinese miso. Anna purchased all these ingredients from the local Chinese farmer’s market.  She taught me that the best vinegar is from Shaanxi province and not to buy Shanghai soy sauce or vinegar because the Shanghainese often add sugar to it! Shanghai people are famous for their love of sweet flavors and will even add sugar to their stir fried bell peppers.  Anna added miso to our potato and bean dish –something I would never have thought of; it provided a very intense and delicious flavor.

Another “trick” she uses to ensure her dishes are flavorful is to be mindful of vegetable combinations.  She uses the different flavors of vegetables (sweet, sour and bitter) to complement each other.  One of the most interesting ingredients to me was the purslane. It’s a deep green succulent with yellow flower buds that looks like an inedible weed. However, it’s indeed edible and has a bitter peppery flavor similar to arugula. Anna explained that this vegetable is extremely healthy (as many deep green vegetables are) but is unpopular & therefore good value in Shanghai due to its bitter flavor.

Broad-beans & Vegetables
Get Cooking!

We made five giant dishes that cost very little. It took me three days to eat what we made! For those of us wanting to eat a healthy and cost effective plant based diet in Shanghai, learning to use local ingredients and cooking methods is invaluable. Even if you can afford weekly Kate & Kimi or Epermarket deliveries, it seems a real shame to come to China and not learn any of the local food culture.  If you are concerned about pesticides, get a weekly veggie box from Goma Greens (RMB 159 weekly for a box of local veggies) and get creative in the kitchen. Good luck!

Until the next time – Eat Well Shanghai! – Jessica W.

Monosodium Glutamate- A Divided World

Monosodium glutamate, frequently called MSG, is widespread in Asian cooking. Experts frequently debate whether its use is bad for your health (or even good for you).

Although many westerners live in fear of MSG, Japan, where use of the food additive is common, is widely regarded as one of the world’s healthiest cultures. However, on visiting a local Shanghainese restaurant at the weekend where the owner advertises food cooked with quality oil, filtered water and no MSG, it is clear that concern over MSG is now coming to China. But are we right to be so concerned with MSG; it is partly natural after all…

What is MSG?

Professor Ikeda discovered a fifth taste bud on the tongue known as “Umami” in 1909, a savoury taste. Ikeda identified that a natural compound known as “glutamic acid”, picked up by this fifth taste bud, was present in many savoury foods. Ikeda created a version of this compound that was stable enough to be added to food, dissolvable in water and storeable by adding salt and water- MSG.

In summary, MSG can be added to food enhancing flavour and taste of savoury foods.

What are its health effects? 

MSG came under scrutiny in 1968 after a doctor nonchalantly referenced side effects – sweating, heart palpitations and nausea – after eating a Chinese meal; this bred the term ‘Chinese restaurant syndrome’. Despite this widely referred to ‘medical’ condition, there appears to be no proof of MSG causing these symptoms.

Some countries have added MSG to their food additives list, allowing regulation and control over the food industry adding it to foods. However, it is regarded as a safe food by the Food and Drug Administration, EU, Britain and Australia. Despite this, the fear of food additives lives on in the West; with continued criticism and skepticism from the experts over the safety of MSG.

To overcome this un-abating concern the food industry have given MSG numerous different names (e.g. glutavene, calcium caseinate, autolyzed yeast extract) and is now almost impossible to identify on most food packaging.

To rub salt into the wounds of its detractors, producers of MSG are now promoting the product as a health food – having a third of the sodium of table salt and is generally used in smaller quantities – that creates flavour whilst reducing sodium content. However, this evidence is also unsubstantiated.

It is difficult to say what the consensus on MSG will be in the next few years, a banned “E number” or a health saviour in a society with increasing heart disease? We will have to wait and see. In the meantime, it won’t stop me eating delicious Chinese food but if I can avoid it, I probably will.

Sophie Thomas, Dietitian


Tordoff, M et al.(2012) ‘No effects of monosodium glutamate consumption on the body weight or composition of adult rats and mice.’ Physiology and Behaviour. 107(3):338-345
Mouitsen, (2012) ‘Umami flavour as a means of regulating food intake and improving nutrition and health.’ Nutrition and Health(1) pp.56-75