Thursday, 30 December 2010

My Golden Rules

1. No processed foods

What is ammonium hydrogen carbonate and soya lecithin (just some of the ingredients I randomly read off a Belvita "healthy" breakfast bar) doing in your food?? It's funny how people industriously scour the packaging for the calorie count, and I do the same, but for the ingredients list. It's simple, if I see any of the bad guys I mention below, or things I can't pronounce without sounding like a chemistry teacher (I really don't like chemistry), I don't want to have anything to do with it. Although, it usually isn't that much of an issue because I go for real, whole foods; there isn't much in an apple except "apple" is there? And to the calorie-counters out there, calories don't matter. Our bodies don't work like machines so energy in < energy out = - energy (i.e. weight loss) is horribly over-simplified.

2. Lots of good fats

I've said the f-word, the horror! The concept of fat has become almost dirty these days. But fat is good for you, yes, including the saturated fat that you peel off your meat or dab off your food. Our ancestors ate their fats and stayed healthy and strong, and it's also about eating real foods, in their whole state. The chicken comes with the skin (and the bones), and the egg comes with the white and the yolk. (I mean seriously, where's the joy in egg white omelettes?) The new vegetable oils are really not great (not all things veggie = healthy), because they undergo radical chemical changes to be produced.

I like: (grassfed) Butter, Ghee, Lard and all the other animal fats, (unrefined) Palm oil, Coconut Oil, (extra virgin) Olive Oil, Groundnut/ Peanut oil, Sesame oil (some people are against these nut/seed oils because of the high omega 6 content, but it's been traditionally used in Chinese cooking and I trust my ah-ma and I think it's alright as long as you have a generally balanced diet that doesn't involve vegan nut bars and nut milks for breakfast lunch and dinner)

I don't like: All vegetable oils except those mentioned above, yes including the "healthier" rapeseed or canola oil. Or corn oil. Or sunflower oil.

3. Healthy animals

What does it matter? They all die anyway right? Well, we all die anyway too, but we do care what happens to us before we die, don't we? Similarly, how happy and stress-free these animals were before matter. Or from a selfish standpoint, the health of the animals affect the quality and nutrition of their meat and produce. Do you expect to get the same vitamins and minerals from an egg that is laid by a chicken forced into a cage with hundred others, eating genetically-modified corn, vs a chicken that's been free to forage for food from nature? Just crack open a pastured egg vs an egg laid by a battery hen and you'll see the difference. I know better meat often seems expensive, but hey, I'm a poor student living on a budget and I know it's possible if you go for the cheap, unpopular cuts. I'd much rather have an outdoor bred pig's tail than an intensive factory-farmed pork tenderloin. Or get bones (usually free from a butcher) and make stock. You get so much minerals and collagen and benefits, in fact, my mum (who still makes bone broths every day in a claypot over a charcoal stove) always made sure we drank up the broth, the ingredients were secondary.

Milk and cheese should preferably be raw and from grassfed cows, and I can get raw milk from the farmers' market some weeks, and it's quite easy to find raw cheese. But I'm not anal, I'll get pasteurised organic milk/yogurt for cooking, but always whole (full-fat), and unhomogenised so you see that lovely thick layer of fat cream on top sometimes.

4. Seasonal, local fruits and vegetables

I work at the Pimlico farmers' market on Saturdays. I love it. I get produce that's cheaper, that's fresher, and I get to talk to the producers and find out what new things are popping out soon. I know cooking with cabbages and root vegetables throughout winter seems like a bore, but there's no fun in having an unripe tomato from Spain then. Food should be simply what's available. From a traditional chinese medicine point of view, eating with the seasons also nourishes your body in the right way for the current environment. Anyway, the wait makes the first asparagus of spring or the first strawberries from summer so much more exciting, and meanwhile, I'm forced to get creative. I love my fruit and veg, maybe even more than a vegetarian, and those cartons of super sweet fruit juices and smoothies that add up to "2 of your 5 a day" don't count, so often, that portion of vegetables you see on my photos are like, a third of my actual veggie fix.

5. Grains

This is controversial. So many people are against grains now, there's people e.g. on the paleo diet, saying humans didn't eat grains until recently in history and that our bodies can't deal with grains, so fruit and underground vegetables are the only safe carbs. But I've dabbled with that before and it didn't work out, maybe because I'm Asian. I've grown up on rice and noodles and so have my ancestors. I don't know how far back in history you're supposed to go when you talk about eating like your ancestors, but the Chinese, the Japanese, the Thai, the Indians etc have all thrived on rice and grains, and heck even the ancient Western societies didn't only have potatoes as staple, they had bread and come on, look at the Italians with their pasta and pizza. (That loaf of white Kingsmill that can happily sit on the shelf for a week doesn't count though.) And now comes another biggie.

The latest food guidelines all promote wholegrains, but I don't agree. We all know wholegrains retain fibre and minerals and all that good stuff, but they also retain the bad stuff, anti-nutrients that prevent us from digesting and absorbing the nutrients from not just the grains, but other foods we eat. To prepare wholegrains (and nuts and seeds and beans), the traditional way is to soak/ferment them (this ebook compiled by Katie from ks explains how), and of course, there's sourdough, my favourite method. But I don't know, I've been thinking a lot about all these traditional cultures and honestly, most of the time, they just eat white rice, or bake or make pasta from white wheat flour. My mum hates brown rice, she finds it hard to digest, even after soaking. I'm a bit (ok a lot) of a nerd when it comes to food, and I guess I'm just really curious, so I've read up on grains in TCM and Ayurvedic medicine. They don't differentiate between the grains in terms of fibre or vitamin content, that's the scientific Western way of doing things. They see grains in terms of energy and the effect they have on our bodies. Brown rice, for instance, is more warming in nature and nourishing but at the same time it's hard to digest and drying and is not suitable for daily consumption. So, yes, I've gone back to the sweet fragrant white rice. I still sourdough whole grain flour for bread and baking etc, because I love the tangy flavour of sourdough, and when I do have wholegrains or cook with beans I'll soak them overnight the traditional way. It's stupid being anal about the in-depth nutritional profiles of food, overlooking flavour and forgetting to enjoy and savour food.

6. Fermented/ preserved foods

Just thought I'll add this since I've just been talking about rice and easy digestion and realised my mum always made me and my sisters white rice congee, eaten simply with pickled cai xin when we had stomach upsets. Just rice and preserved vegetables. Fermented foods aid digestion and boost the nutritive qualities of the food in its original state and besides pickled/preserved/fermented vegetables (think kimchi, sauerkraut), there's also yogurt, and the asian staples, soy sauce and miso/taucheo and even fermented shrimp paste belachan. Oh and of course, my precious sourdough baby.

7. Sugar and Salt

Nothing wrong with them, I've learnt from TCM that it's all about balance, and even in traditional cooking, say, Thai cooking, it's all about the balance of spicy sour sweet and salty.

But instead of the highly refined sugars, I try to use natural sweeteners instead.

I like: Raw honey, Unrefined cane sugar (rapadura), Unrefined palm sugar (gula melaka, a Southeast Asian favourite I grew up with), Molasses (blackstrap, for added nutrients), Fruits!

I don't like: High fructose corn syrup (used extensively in processed food because it's super cheap. but it's 100x worse than white sugar. fructose does not = fruit, corn does not = natural.), and Artifical sweeteners e.g. aspartame (Coke Zero. Doesn't it scare you that something that tastes so sweet has zero sugar, and hence the "all-important" zero calories? I'll rather suffer the effects of sugar overload than those hormone altering chemicals.)

Salt actually contains essential minerals that is required for our body to function, and I read somewhere that one of the signs of a bad chef is an unwillingess to salt his food. Salt is flavour.

I like: Good sea salt (e.g. celtic, maldon, cornish), or Himalayan rock salt, Soy Sauce (that's traditionally fermented and naturally brewed, no msg should be required!)

I think that's all. That more or less covers my health notes, definitely more than less, actually hah.


  1. love this article! well I love all your articles but this one is great!
    BTW, back in our way, rapeseed oil is actually the most used traditional cooking oil. It wasn't as refined those days and you actually need to heat it till it smokes (so-called cooking the oil) before using it for stir-frying. It gives the veg a lovely unique smoky taste. Nowadays the rapeseed oil sold in China are generally refined. Corn-oil and "veg oil"is a big no no to me, others are fine. I actually use sunflower oil a lot especially if I'm making delicate stir-fries such as Long Jing Tea prawns. Back home, a lot of our cooking is quite “clean” in taste so a bland oil with high smoking point works. I don't tend to buy groundnut oil very often probably because we don't use it back home. :)

    1. Thanks so much!

      I've always thought groundnut oil was the traditional oil used. Rapeseed and sunflower oil from what I hear is quite the modern invention and not the best for our health as it's been subjected to much processing in order to squeeze those oils out. I do need to dig up my sources again, but can share them with you if you like (:


  2. ok i'm now officially a fan :)

    1. Hurrah! I have relaxed a lot on these rules recently, not because I don';t believe in any of the things I've said here anymore, but because I feel health is so much beyond diet, and that stressing about unhealthy food is probably doing more harm to your body than just eating the damn thing AND ENJOYING IT, preferably with good friends around and good weather. See "How to eat" page :)

  3. good read.. you have just emphasized how intelligent our ancestors were!!

    1. thanks so much!! yes, I believe it's all about common sense really, and learning from our mums:)

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