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!
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.
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.
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.