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!
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.
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.
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.
For the past two months I have been taking a weekly TCM class. I picked this class because it is fairly low-key ( read: no tests or assigned reading) and it focuses on the use of food in traditional Chinese medicine. Something I was hoping to finally understand after so many years of hearing about it and, I must admit, not really believing it.
The class ends in two weeks and I can’t say I have grasped all the concepts but I am more of a believer and I will tell you why (you knew I would!). In a nutshell keeping the qi flowing and the yin and yang balanced keeps your body in harmony( read: healthy). Naturally there will be things that can upset the body’s harmony and disrupt the qi , including your environment, your lifestyle and your diet. The wording may be different but often the recommendations from TCM to address health issues and restore balance mirror those given by western medicine.
For example to maintain good digestion and appetite TCM recommends that you should walk for 30 mins after your meal. Western medicine has said recently that sitting for long periods is bad for our health. Think about how you feel when you do manage to take a walk after dinner? Thirty minutes sounds daunting? Do 10, 15 or 20 minutes. Every little bit will help you in both the eastern and western worlds!
And when your Qi is weak, the TCM doctor will recommend more sleep, more exercise and a regimen of ginseng and wolf berries ( aka goji berries). Generally speaking western medical experts will say most people don’t get enough sleep or exercise. Just about everyday dietitians and nutritionists recommend that we eat foods, such a wolf berries, that are high in anti-oxidants to help reduce inflammation and improve our health. And ginseng? While ginseng has been used for hundreds of years in TCM as an energy booster, western medicine has yet to give it a seal of approval because clinical studies on ginseng in the general population are inconclusive.
Feel great already? Traditional Chinese medicine diet recommendations for general good health include eating sunflower seeds, figs, almonds, white/black fungus and olives. Does this sound familiar ? These are the same super foods that make up the Mediterranean diet, now considered by western medical researchers as the best way to maintain a healthy heart.
TCM is far more involved and the dietary prescriptions more complicated then these few examples and I respect the deep history of this approach to health. What I like best about TCM is the belief in the power of food to strengthen and restore health. And I think food is always a good place to start.
I am sure you will agree that shopping day in Shanghai is often full of surprises. The other day, while perusing the shelves for brown sugar I was drawn to this very pink package of ORGANIC brown sugar. What fascinated me more than the big ORGANIC letters was the smaller print saying “For Women”. Now this is interesting…
According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, brown sugar is a warming food ( yang energy) nourishing for blood and helps to reinforce Qi (energy). Brown sugar will also reduce gastrointestinal pain, promote blood circulation and production and fight blood stagnation. All of which sounds very positive for a weary body.
TCM specifically recommends brown sugar tea for women with painful monthly cramping, women who have just given birth and the weak and the elderly. Plenty of candidates for nourishment on that list.
Apparently drinking brown sugar tea for menstrual cramps is something every Chinese woman knows. And from my anecdotal survey the prevailing opinion is that it works. Thanks for letting your western sisters in on the secret, ladies.
Back to the ORGANIC brown sugar. Brown sugar in China is processed in a way that does not use any artificial additives or colors. The sugar cane is boiled for 5 -6 hours which gives the sugar the rich brown color. It is most often sold in cakes. For the package I found the cake had been ground. Of course just because they don’t add artificial stuff does not make it organic. To get the organic seal the brown sugar must be made from organically grown sugar cane.
It does not appear that this brown sugar, even though it is marked “For Women”, contains any thing other than brown sugar. According to TCM, the magic ingredient is the brown sugar. From what I can tell, any Chinese brown sugar will do for a nice hot cup of the pick-me-up tea. Perhaps this pink packaging was just a not so subtle reminder to women to grab a bag for next month. It definitely caught my eye.