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Chinese Diets Can Follow Both Banting and Atkins

by Donald Jenner

Food as Herbs, Health, and Medicine

Fall Volume: 2003 Issue: 10(3) page(s): 21, 22, and 35

Heress the problem: I like to eat and I like to cook — but I have no desire to assure Messrs. Lee and Chu (tailors extraordinaire of Baxter Street) an overly-comfortable old age. I have no room for two sets of clothing ('short' and 'portly short') anyway. Dieting is a problem. Most diets are utterly unrewarding. Weight loss is difficult to achieve and more difficult to recover, after the inevitable relapse. Frankly, it includes meals that range from boring to downright unappetizing.

The answer appears to be a low-carbohydrate diet. Currently fashionable is The Atkins Diet, a low-carbohydrate approach to weight-loss that is far from new. William Banting (1796 - 1878) beat him to the punch. I became interested in the Atkins diet because I watched Rich Hasselbach, who number-one’s for the president of the college where I hang my mortarboard. Many there and elsewhere try to lose a recognizable amount of tonnage. However, I am generally not convinced about dieting programs even though people there and elsewhere have been nagging about my corpulence for decades. I have tried various programs and they simply have not achieved the requisite result. Rich is a guy I know fighting the same fight I do for reasons that seems similar to mine, so what does he and they know that I need to?

The pop-science crowd, a demonic organization whose medical affiliate is named 'Legion,' has begun discussing corpulence as a 'metabolic syndrome.' This language is congruent with the Atkins crew’s approach. So what is behind it all?

A LITTLE HISTORY, A LITTLE SCIENCE: I looked the Atkins diet up on the web. The Atkins establishment maintains a substantial web presence at www.atkinscenter.com. The late Dr. Atkins and his colleagues have decided not to be greedy; the basics of the program are all there, along with supporting documentation for the ‘how-it-works’ part. The best for me: All the things I like to cook (stuff my wife tells me has to be unhealthy, it tastes so good) fits right into the program.

There are sacrifices, to be sure: I am more than mildly fond of crusty breads, crépes filled with currant jelly, pasta with various sauces (my wife — a Chinese — makes a pesto sauce that surpasses most stuff I ever had in Europe). This diet even allows an occasional sin--and tells how to fit it in.

But: A nice hamburger de luxe (cut in a little kosher salt, some freshly ground pepper and some minced shallot and grill) with a dollop of sauce béarnaise is compensation. So was the seventeen pounds shed with relatively little pain in a matter of weeks, without culinary or taste boredom.

The diet works. How about nutrition? It turns out--I got this directly from Dr. Newman, whose dietetic credentials extend beyond the merely academic--there is excellent evidence from other than Atkins sources that this can be a nutritionally acceptable regimen after the first two weeks. After the almost no carbohydrate start, this regimen has a long history of nutritional respectability. First, there is its earliest provenance (cf: http://www.lowcarbing.com/llc/banting.htm for Banting’s own account, also Barry Grove’s article, at http://www.second-opinions.co.uk/banting.html) The view is distinctly ‘minority opinion'--that just makes it more interesting.

What of the majority view that this is an undesirable fad diet? First, consider the source: Physicians. Sorry, guys: An M.D. (or equivalent) is not a scientific credential. The medical perspective just is not the same as that of science; on prima facie grounds, the received opinion of the medical fraternity is suspect. Second, beyond anecdotal evidence, there is very good empirical data--what physicians call 'clinical studies'--to support the idea that this is actually a very healthy diet. For some people, me included, cholesterol drops, and 'good cholesterol' rises relative to 'bad cholesterol.' There seem to be other plus factors such as lowered blood-pressure; you can read them for yourself.

Are there problems? Sure. The Atkins Center crew itself acknowledges this, and has a variety of answers for them--e.g.: People whose response to the program is not ideal, or whose attendant medical conditions dictate different approaches. This is no one-size-fits-all program. That in itself suggests this is not a bad medical practice, including as it does, the skills of the artful medical practitioner in the mix.

OK, so here is a program that works. But for me, Chinese food is a favorite. I live in New York, about a ten minute walk from Chinatown-—and I did say, Mrs. Jenner is Chinese. Can one eat a good range of Chinese dishes if following this low carbohydrate dietary regimen?

After careful consideration--including substantial risk to my now-somewhat-reduced waistline (about two inches thus far…) in the experimental phase, it seems that many of my favorites fall right in line. Those that do not--well, one cannot appreciate virtue without sinning occasionally. [This seems consistent with the low-carb regimen. Its 19th century exponent, William Banting, adored peas--a low-carb no-no. He indulged anyway, during the season--and shed the couple pounds gained after.]

RESTAURANT DINING: It is not possible to live in the United States without going to a Chinese restaurant. Even as a lad, in a form of exile (my father took a job in Minneapolis), my mother considered it essential that we go from time to time for what passed as Chinese food in Minnesota. Live in New York, and one would be foolish not to 'eat Chinese' often; even the Chinese think the food here is good.

Cantonese restaurants offer a wide range of dishes that are ideal for low-carb devotees. Early on in the process, I went to our favorite Manhattan Chinese restaurant, the Pacifica in the Downtown Holiday Inn at 138 Lafayette Street at Howard Street; actually went there for a business luncheon. I ordered a half salt-baked chicken, two different preparations of pork ribs (one was braised, the other in black pepper sauce--this from the restaurant’s luncheon dim sum menu), some meat balls with cress, and Pu Erh tea to wash it all down. This made a nice luncheon for three. What did I sacrifice? Rice. Fond as I am of a nice fragrant bowl of rice, I hardly felt deprived without it. I might easily have had a lovely fish steamed with ginger and soy sauce or a duckling (no buns, perhaps, or maybe only one portion with the bun…).

What about Shanghainese cooking? That is currently quite popular. I confess, this is harder for me because I am fond of soup buns and scallion pancakes. But places like Yeah Shanghai Deluxe, New Green Bo (both on Baxter near Elizabeth, and Goody’s (right at Chatham Square) have lovely versions of braised belly pork served in a rich brown sauce (sort of a poor man’s Tung Po Pork), for example. This is a hearty and satisfyingly rich dish--and no great violation of the low-carb regimen.

[Careful, though: Mrs. Jenner and I went recently to a charmingly appointed, popular restaurant in Chinatown featuring Shanghai cooking and were disappointed. I sinned and ordered scallion pancakes; they looked store-bought and were not at all well-cooked. We had the braised pork belly; the sauce looked to be out of a can and sweetened. Two sins where I expected one--and both of them disappointing. The Devil surely chuckled.]

One of the delights of Shanghai-style restaurants is the cold hors d’oeuvres--sliced cooked beef, drunken chicken and so on. Allowing for the fact that some sugar is used in each of these, still, a small portion is not a great sin. Many restaurants will do two or three such goodies on a single plate, and one gets a taste of each without overly upsetting the dietary regimen.

Some folks budget does not extend to the twenty-bucks-for-two on a restaurant tab. They can try one of the four-dishes-four-dollars places. We like the one on Center Street, opposite the end of Henry Street. Skip the rice and get five dishes for four dollars. Add a can of diet soda if their seaweed soup is not your beverage of choice for another dollar. Clearly, one has to be careful there. Fried gluten in sweet-and-sour sauce is not a good choice. That still leaves several kinds of fish, several variations using chicken, and some pork dishes to choose from (often including a surprisingly tasty braised belly-pork). Unlike many places with steam tables, this restaurant has sufficient business that food is usually very fresh from the kitchen. Things get replenished every ten minutes or so during peak periods, so far as I can tell. The budget conscious need to know that later in the day, when things wind down, the restaurant reduces the price to three dollars, and the food is still fresh and tasty.

None of the dishes I have eaten are specifically low-carb (and they surely are not low-cal). On the other hand, I do not do this three meals a day, five or seven days a week. Because a low-carb regimen allows for some carbohydrates, this is not a problem. Even a bit of the really forbidden carbohydrate--sugar--can be tolerated in small amounts without the scale remonstrating the next day.

HOME COOKING: Cooking Chinese-style is a challenge. First, my stove’s burners simply do not generate the kind of heat a Chinese cook commonly uses. My mother-in-law’s stove produces a much larger fire. New stoves seem worse than old ones, but I do like my new stove’s enamel top, it is easy to clean but takes forever to heat a pan. Second, an awful lot of Chinese cooking involves techniques that create an aerosol of oil-laden steam. There can be oil on everything, impossible to clean, absent a really good range hood with a serious exhaust fan (my mother-in-law’s old house had an exhaust fan that would do credit to some smaller restaurant kitchens in New York--but was commonplace in Taipei). Then too, there are the ingredients. We live in New York, and have a good number of large Chinese-oriented supermarkets not far away. I can get authentic ingredients more readily than some. But some of those things simply aren’t in the cards for low-carb cooking.

Finally, some of the dishes in my favorite Chinese cookbook (mere & fille Lin’s Chinese Gastronomy, in various imprints) are absurdly complicated if one is not absolutely given over to keeping an entirely Chinese kitchen--which is my case exactly.

My answer to this is, be eclectic. Say then, what I do as 'Chinese' is not entirely authentic. On the other hand, I test things not only on my palate, but that of my wife. She grew up eating my mother-in-law’s really very tasty Chinese cooking. [My ma-in-law does things with a fish that are pure heaven--and I am no fish-afficionado.]

So, some generalities: When a recipe calls for sugar, I substitute saccharin, using a bit less than the package’s specified sugar-equivalency. I find this makes things just about right, and the result seems to be correct. The hint of sweet that brings out some flavors happens just as I expect it to. Sauces have the right overtones. [I have used Equal, which is available 'bulked out' to allow for direct substitution; but the Atkins folk think ‘Equal,’ which is aspertame, interferes with the metabolic process their version of the low-carb regimen aims to engender. Since I can find no effective difference, I see no reason to pay the higher price for it. By the bye, the preferred Atkins sweetener is branded ‘Splenda.’

When a recipe calls for brown sauce or something like that, I use the demiglace I commonly make by the quart every couple weeks. Demiglace is a rich brown sauce, essentially a basic brown sauce or Espagnol, to which additional stock and red wine has been added, and the whole thing reduced again to the right consistency. It has a wonderful flavor and color. Want to perk up a hamburger sans bun? Cook the burger; take it out and de-glaze the pan with a little red wine and beef broth (use the canned kind without sugar and generally with less salt than most bouillon products), then add a quarter cup of demiglace. If anything, the resulting sauce is more robust and intense than what one commonly encounters in a Chinese restaurant, and it stands up well to Chinese palates, so it seems. My test subject is the in-house Mrs. Jenner.

If the Lin ladies of Chinese Gastronomy--who incidentally are related to Lin Yu Tang--are to be believed, it is essential to use vast quantities of corn starch to bind ingredients for meat fillings and so on. Interestingly, their favorite gastronome probably never experienced corn starch. After all, he was Yuan Mei who lived in the Chienlung period. He probably had other binding agents such as water chestnut powder, or lotus root powder, both of which seem stickier to me. I find a little egg (white only, if one wants to avoid the yolk flavor) works well. When I have used corn starch, I commonly used a good deal less than Lin and Lin’s recipes call for.

Those two Lin ladies seem mighty fond of MSG. Now, that is patently absurd. MSG was synthesized only a few years before the first World War, and by the Japanese. It is neither authentic nor necessary, and it doesn’t really add anything to food that proper cooking can not accomplish more effectively.

As to vegetable flavorings: Onions are nice and shallots give more flavor-bang for the buck, I think. Small amounts of chives and the like (Mrs. Jenner grows them in her 'Schräbergarten') seem to be OK, they add authenticity as well as intensity to foods. What else works well? Consider that quintessential Chinese food: Dofu. I have no idea what the Atkins folks think about it, but the labeling suggests it is about as low-carb as one might want, so that in reasonable portions, doufu is acceptable. I prefer mine pressed over the usual softer types; I like the texture better (this seems to mean, I really am stuck being a Western Devil). Some (but not all) Chinese grocers have this ready pressed; one can press it oneself, but the process is both tedious and not very successful. Commonly put up in shrink-wrap packages, I think one cake is enough per person, and I get two nice dishes from that amount.

I like to make what the Lins call 'The Hill of Beans.' I sliver a cake of pressed dofu by slicing it into eighth-inch slices, then taking stacks of three or four slices and cutting them into eighth-inch slivers. I then blanch the slivers in boiling water to get any excess starch out (if the water is cloudy, there was starch so do it a couple times). I put the slivers on a plate and drizzle with a sauce made of about three tablespoons of soy sauce, a teaspoon of sesame oil and about a quarter- or a third-teaspoon of saccharin. Great for a starter, or as one of several small dishes to comprise a meal.

The Lins also recommend heating the slivers in a rich stock (their 'cream stock', they say). Make the stock their way, or make a rich Western style stock--either seems to work well. I have also heated a portion of demiglace thinned with some beef stock, then warmed the slivers in that. The sauce coats the slivers, and the slivers provide an agreeable texture and attenuation of the richness of the sauce.

DESSERT: Switch to the end of the meal. By Chinese restaurant standards, dessert is either fruit or sweet soup. Both are problems: Oodles of sugar. I have noticed, though, that Chinese are fond of mousse. Chocolate mousse. Fruit flavored mousse. And so on. So, I make a sort of simple mousse--nice texture, lots of taste and sweet enough even for this Western Devil.

First, chocolate mousse the simple way. The hard way is to whip cream and beaten egg white, and so on; too much work! Try my simpler one. I put one-third of a cup of cocoa and the equivalent of two-thirds of a cup of sugar–I use a no-cal variety--and two envelopes of unflavored gelatin in my old Waring blender. Then I add three-quarters of a cup of very hot water and pulse the blender. Next comes a cup of ice and water–but mostly ice, and I blend again, but this time thoroughly and until it is homogenous. Next, I add an eight ounce package of low fat cream cheese that I have cut into three pieces to help my aging machine. One can use a Neuchatel. I blend this completely and pour it into one big dish, or individual ones, and let it set.

Fruit-flavored mousses are easier still. I dissolve a package of no-cal fruit gelatin (lime is great, cherry is lovely, orange does get kids’ attention) in three-quarters of a cup of hot water, add the cup if ice and water, and continue on as in the chocolate mousse recipe in the paragraph above. These set better than the chocolate dessert and could be used to make fancy Chinese-bakery-style cakes. I’m working on that!

I could go on. The principles are clear, though: A low-carb Chinese diet is entirely possible. The range of possibilities is not greatly restricted. Where ingredient compromises must be made, they need not affect the resulting flavor. Simplifying tricks for a 'mixed kitchen' are eminently possible.

The Chinese will be more difficult about this than Western Devil physicians. [“Want to lose weight?” says the butcher, “eat vegetables.” He would probably add rice. Naaaaahhhhh.] Chinese mothers will be horrified at this Chinese-Banting-Atkins approach. Their ancient injunction--'Eat your rice!'--may not work for their Chinese-American offspring. But then again, most of them never were corpulent!
Donald Jenner has been writing about various things since 1980, in publications both here and abroad. The author of 'Learn Desktop Graphics & Design on the PC' published by Addison-Wesley, he is the principal of Citigraphics TM in New York. He also teaches in one of New York City’s colleges, and advises that you can reach him at djenner@citigraphics.net

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