A break in the country

It can be easy to get lost in the concrete jungle that is Shanghai but there are many opportunities to enjoy nature near to the city.  Yangcheng Lake is one such place. It’s a freshwater lake located between Kunshan and Suzhou, easily accessible by train.  It’s famous for Chinese mitten (or hairy) crabs which are considered a delicacy.

Biking by the Lake

Geese by the Lake

It was a very hot and sunny weekend and I was the only person crazy enough to go on a bike ride.  I rarely saw anyone except the farm workers, sweltering in the sun picking vegetables in their wide brimmed hats and somehow still smiling.

Flowers in the organic farm

I saw beautiful birds, butterflies, and wildflowers in full bloom.  In the Yue Feng Island Organic Farm, located on the grounds of the Fairmont Yangcheng Lake Hotel, there were grapes, tomatoes, various gourds, bitter melons, and pomegranates.  I love to see how the huge variety of vegetables and fruits are grown here in China; I had never seen a pomegranate tree before – a new one for my list ;).  I love being outside and active in the summer; it’s a great time to enjoy nature while getting some exercise.  What could be more beautiful than biking around a lake with a 33-acre organic farm!  Looking at all those beautiful fruits and vegetables gets me inspired about meal planning.

Delicious Food

Vegetables in the organic farm

Hotels and restaurants in the Yangcheng Lake area make great use of the local produce.  While Shanghainese food is too sweet for me, I find Chinese food from country areas to be very delicious and healthy.  Even though the Fairmont emphasizes hairy crabs as their specialty, I could also find some great plant-based dishes on the menu.  The food was fresh, light, and well balanced with amazing flavor.  Dishes included pumpkin and lily bulb with local honey, steamed tofu with truffle mushroom sauce & broccoli, and tofu soup with various greens & mushrooms.  I also had organic crystal ice plant salad with edible flowers – a must try green for expats.  Crystal ice plant is a dewy looking succulent plant. Its’ the ‘caviar of edible flowers’ according to the internet.  😉

Crystal Ice Plant Salad – Delicious!
Crystal Ice Plant up close

You will be surprised you can eat it and will likely either love or hate it.  Maybe the fact that it has vitamins and minerals, and is allegedly good for your digestion will make it taste better.  I was also surprised to discover that lily bulb is edible; it is indeed a tasty root vegetable.  I ate more flowers than I imagined possible.  I really loved all these dishes and have been craving them ever since. I also bought some grapes from the organic farm which were delicious.

I highly recommend getting out of Shanghai and enjoying seasonal summer produce from its source. Yangcheng Lake is one of many nearby places great for nature and hiking that won’t break the bank. Often, areas that are “off the beaten path” are the most interesting and relaxing; even with a 15-month-old baby in tow!

The Logistics

Yangcheng Lake is a freshwater lake located between the cities of Kunshan and Suzhou.  I travelled from Shanghai by train to Yangcheng Lake Railway Station; the station nearest to my hotel.  Stations in Kunshan and Suzhou may also be used; depending on your final destination by the lake.  I stayed at the beautiful Fairmont Yangcheng Lake Hotel.

https://www.fairmont.com/yangcheng-lake-kunshan/

https://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g608462-d1814128-Reviews-Yangcheng_Lake-Kunshan_Jiangsu.html

 

 

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.

Whole Of The Mooncake

Happy Mid-Autumn Festival! Wednesday, October 4 2017 marks the start of the holiday, which celebrates that big, beautiful full moon, which we should hopefully see through the clouds. This is one of the four major holidays in China, where families get together to celebrate under the moon, hope for a good harvest, and yes, eat mooncakes! And if you see the lines forming in the bakeries around Shanghai this September, you know that the mooncake business is booming; to such an extent that multinationals like Starbucks and Häagen-Dazs are piling into the market! Indeed, many businesses including department stores, hotels and restaurants have a very large (and sometimes very expensive) display of ornate gift packs with a huge variety of fillings, from the traditional to the downright crazy (McDonald’s mooncake anyone?) So, what’s up with the mooncakes?

Mooncakes traditionally consist of a round pastry, filled with a sweet, dense filling. The decorations on top of the cakes often represent Chinese characters for longevity or harmony.  In Chinese culture, the roundness of the cake symbolizes completeness and togetherness.

Transformers ice cream mooncake on sale in Shanghai. Definitely not traditional.

Unfortunately, mooncakes are not very healthy, especially the crust, which is typically made with lard. Calorie count varies hugely per cake, from 200 to 1000 calories, with most closer to the 500 mark. Vegan mooncakes are now available to meet growing demand; check out Jen Dow Vegetarian on Yuyuan Lu, Fortunate Coffee on Songhu Lu and TRIBE on Fumin Lu for some vegan options.

Here are some of the more popular, traditional types of mooncake:

  • Lotus seed paste (lían róng): Considered by some to be the original and most luxurious filling.  Salted egg yolk is often inserted into this and other pastes.
  • Sweet bean paste (dòu shā): A number of bean pastes are commonly used. Red bean paste, made from azuki beans, is the most common but mung bean and black bean are also used.
  • Jujube paste (zǎo ní): A sweet paste made from the ripe fruits of the jujube (date) plant. The paste is dark red and can have a slightly smokey / sour taste.
  • Five kernel (wu rén): A filling consisting of 5 types of nuts and seeds, coarsely chopped and held together with maltose syrup. Recipes differ from region to region, with walnuts, pumpkin seeds, watermelon seeds, peanuts, sesame, or almonds being popular options.

Happy Mid-Autumn Festival! May the round moon bring you a happy family and a successful future. – Jessica W. 😉

Trying to be…..Sugar Free

I recently made a presentation at FIAT Chrysler in Shanghai on how to balance blood sugar for more energy.  The presentation was part of a United Family Healthcare corporate wellness health initiative.  Feedback from the attendees was great and it was a privilege to be part of FIAT Chrysler’s corporate health program.  Being mindful of blood sugar levels is a good practice for all of us who are seeking to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

There always seems to be a new fad diet, supplement or super food on the market that is “guaranteed” to increase energy levels.  We are constantly bombarded with the latest discovery – this week it’s “red berry juice from a newly discovered ancient rainforest, guaranteed to melt fat even while you jam hot dogs into your mouth!” 😉  All we can do is ignore these insidious adverts and instead strive to keep to a healthy, plant based diet, low in glucose spiking sugars and stimulants.  It really is a guaranteed long term solution for better health and energy levels throughout the day.

There is a direct link between the food we eat and the energy production processes in our bodies.  For example, dietary carbohydrates provide glucose that can be used by our cells for energy, stored by the liver and muscles as glycogen, or converted into fat if the intake exceeds the need.  All the cells in our bodies depend on glucose; those of the central nervous system are particularly dependent.

High glycemic foods will cause our body to release energy more quickly, feel hungry sooner, and eat more.  Low glycemic foods will release energy more slowly, make us feel fuller for longer and help us to eat less.  Lowering the glycemic index of our diet can help prevent insulin resistance, improve blood lipids and reduce the risk of heart disease. Examples of high glycemic foods are white bread, corn flakes, cola and baked potato.  Examples of low glycemic foods are beans, berries (strawberries, blueberries and raspberries), sweet potatoes, olives and nuts.

We may reduce our glycemic index by balancing high carb meals with fiber and fats.  They help to slow down the digestion and adsorption of carbs so that glucose enters the blood more gradually.  The glycemic index isn’t a perfect system, but is a useful tool.  Some knowledge of nutrition is needed when following it.  For example, ice cream has a lower GI than watermelon, but ice cream is not the better dietary choice!

Oh Sugar!

Refined carbohydrates are rapidly absorbed into the blood stream and should be avoided when possible. Sugar should be limited to no more than 6 to 9 teaspoons of added sugar a day (roughly equivalent to one can of coke).  However, the average adult consumes around 22 teaspoons of added sugar a day! [American Heart Association]  This is equivalent to around 350 calories; which is almost 20 % of our daily calorie requirements.  These empty calories; as well as piling on the pounds, may cause us to miss out on important vitamins and minerals.

Being somewhat of a sugar addict myself, I am taking part in the week-long ‘Sugarfree’ challenge by Better Bentos (see links below).  I am adding to the challenge by adding alcohol to the mix of ‘forbidden’ items!  I am also testing out a new vegan menu and will let you know how it goes in my next blog.

Until the next time – Eat Well Shanghai! 🙂

Jessica W.

Better Bentos

Sugarfree x Better Bentos (July ’17)