From My Wok to Yours - Taking the Mystery Out of Everyday Dining and Meals!!

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Healthy Dining, Again


There is an old Chinese saying that states: Above earth there is heaven, below there is Su Hong. Even though heaven above is very pretty, on earth there are few places that are as beautiful as Su(zhou) and Hong(zhou).

In the old days, when the emperors of China got tired of the long Beijing winter, they would travel to the Su Hong area for a long winter break. This trip, made by horse drawn wagon, was about one thousand miles in length and would begin over land from Beijing to Tientsin. Then at Tientsin, they would board barges for the rest of the journey along the Grand Canal. These barges were drawn by horses, and in this manner, they traveled in leisure and comfort for nine hundred more miles going south on the Grand Canal.

The Grand Canal starts at Tientsin and ends in Hangzhou; it was built mainly for the purpose of travel by the emperor. It crosses five provinces, two major river systems (the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers), and numerous valleys and lakes. It was built more than one thousand years ago and was a major engineering feat especially when one considers that in those days there was no electricity, no power tools, nothing but manual labor. All the locks that control differences in water levels of the canal had to be operated hydraulically or mechanically. The three cities, Wushi, Suzhou and Hangzhou, which in the Tai Lake area is at the end of this long trip, were considered to be the Emperors’ winter playground.

In China today, this is the only north-south waterway for commerce. In 1972, when President Nixon went to China to re-establish diplomatic relations after tough negotiations, Premier Chou En Lai invited him to Hangzhou for some R & R (rest and relaxation). There they signed the Shanghai Communiqué. That document was the understanding that normalized China-United States relations, a first since the communists took over China.

The beautiful Su-Hong area is one of the most important centers of China's culture. Many famous scholars and poets have come from this area. This bed of Chinese culture, an area full of historic events of the past and things to come, is very rich agriculturally. It truly is a land of rice and fish. With culture comes culinary art and related activities, and they have thrived here.

Suzhou has a network of canals that criss-cross the city and so it is known as the Venice of China. The area, with numerous lakes, canals, waterways, and mild weather, produces most of the vegetables that supplies the big cities of the Jiangsu and Zhejiang Provinces. The most famous products of the region include Dragon Well tea from Hongzhou, hams of Jinghua, pressed ducks of Nanjing, fish and eels from Tai Lake, and famous fresh-water hairy crabs from Hungtze Lake. These delicious products are a mere hint of the many available delicacies of the region.

Foods produced here are consumed by the populations of the big cities along the Shanghai-Nanjing corridor. They also are used by other cities along the banks of the Yangtze River. Chinese chefs, regardless of region, demand the freshest produce to prepare their local and regional fare. With so much available to them, the cities of this area became and are famous for their own specialties, their own distinctive cuisine.

In America today, we benefit from availability of Asian food products, some from this region. Whether it be a new vegetable, a dried food, or a condiment, many are crossing the ocean and finding their way to our shores and our markets. Of course, most of them are still only available in Asian grocery stores. However, one by one they are slowly making their way into mainstream markets. For instance, Chinese spinach, smaller, more tender, and more delicately flavored than the spinach offered in most local supermarkets first came from China, now it is grown in the United States. The Chinese adore eating its red root because it is so sweet and nutritious.

Other examples include the so-called Japanese eggplant. It is thin and slender, much smaller than the large ones found in most supermarkets. It crossed the ocean, too, and is now enjoyed here. It is more tender, superior in taste, less watery, too, especially when cooked in the garlic-flavored "fish sauce" style.

The sweat pea pod, called snow pea, is such a popular vegetable, so beloved everywhere, that it has already found its way into most major supermarkets and even some small stores, as well. Canned waterchestnuts are in most markets, but the fresh ones are also only available in places with large Chinese populations. Hopefully, they will make a similar mainstream move in the not too distant future. I prefer to use them because of their superior flavor and texture; and I do even though they require extra time to prepare them.

With healthy eating now becoming a more popular option for the general public, many of us have been using it as a tool in maintaining good health.  This precaution has given many people a secondary option to taking medicine.  Simply put, people are choosing to eat and choose foods that will help them avoid diseases and the curative medicines that accompany it.  Doctors continue to recommend increasing the intake of vegetables so to ward off common diseases. 

Diners who partake of authentic Chinese food on a regular basis are more likely to meet the suggested 5 servings of vegetables, most especially because they are more likely to have different colored vegetables for the full variety of vitamins and minerals.

Spices also play an important role in Chinese food, and they are loaded with medicinal properties.  Garlic, ginger, red chilies, coriander and other popular spices are known for making the food tastier but more than that, the spices have the ability to cure you of many diseases as well.  So… when enjoying your meal next time, think of the health benefits you may be gaining from it as well.

Until then, Good Eating, Friends…

Braised Tofu and Mushrooms

1 package (about 14 ounces) firm tofu
2/3 cup vegetable broth
2 teaspoons black bean garlic sauce
2 teaspoons oyster sauce
1/2 teaspoon sesame oil
1 teaspoon sugar
2 Tablespoons cooking oil
1/2 pound small white mushrooms
1/4 pound oyster mushrooms
6 fresh medium-size shiitake mushrooms
1 and 1/2 teaspoons cornstarch mixed with
1 Tablespoon water
Preparation:1. Cut the tofu in half horizontally, then using a biscuit cutter, make two inch circles from each half; should yield twelve circles (squares are fine, too, but not as pretty).
2. Combine broth, black bean and oyster sauces and sesame oil and sugar. Set this sauce mixture aside.
3. Place a large fry pan on medium heat until hot. Add 1 Tablespoon oil and add the tofu and cook until brown, about 2 minutes per side. Remove tofu and set aside.
4. Add remaining open Tablespoon of oil and all the mushrooms; stir-fry them one minute then add sauce, reduce heat to low and simmer until the mushrooms are tender (about five minutes).
5. Add cornstarch mixture and cook until sauce boils, thickens and clears.
6. Arrange tofu in a circle around the edge of a serving plate. Place mushroom mixture in center and serve.
Makes four to six servings.

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