Every time we travel to China we return a few pounds lighter despite eating our way through most of the trip with a typical dinner including five or six different dishes. We also feel physically better after a few weeks of Chinese food and, although we try many unusual ingredients, we have never once experienced a bad stomach during our travels there.
I’m convinced that the reason we feel so good on the food is that there is a much higher ratio of vegetables to meat or fish in the dishes. Rice or noodles are served with each meal but almost as an afterthought to mop up any remaining sauces. Groundnut or vegetable oil is used for cooking. There is virtually no dairy in the diet and only the occasional pinch of added sugar.
Chinese cooks don’t count calories or use recipes. They use their senses – sight, taste, smell, texture – and a lot of heart in their cooking. They know instinctively if a dish is healthy by the range of colours on the plate. They tend to eat until they are about 70% full and you never leave a Chinese table with that leaden feeling of having too much meat in your stomach. Yet may find a few Chinese who prefer Vegetarian Meal that something with meat.
Building on our Chinese experience, I have been trying to have two days a week, over recent months, where we eat very lightly, a variation of the 5:2 fast diet which we are following as much for its health benefits as to lose a bit of weight. My daughter Claire in Australia introduced me to The Ultimate 5:2 Recipe Book by Kate Harrison. This is a great little book, with recipes that pack a punch of flavour, are satisfying to eat and a feast for the eyes as well as the taste buds.
There are at least 11 recipes in the book that I return to again and again and, in many cases, the only concession to a “diet” in the recipe is the use of Fry-light one-cal spray instead of groundnut oil. I’ve discovered to my surprise that this spray works really well in a wok and for roasting vegetables in the oven and now it is often my first choice for cooking. Apart from that, the balance and range of ingredients in the recipes is very similar to the type of main course dish Shan or her MaMa would rustle up at home in Beijing using whatever ingredients are to hand.
The recipe below is one of our favourites and an easy one to prepare on a weekday evening after a busy day’s work. It is described as Indonesian but it’s flavours are very similar to those of the southern Chinese province of Yunnan. For those who care about these things the calories per serving are just 204. Try it out and feel free to vary the vegetables or substitute chicken or tofu for the pork.
Sticky Indonesian Pork Stir-fry
Preparation time: 20 minutes plus 30 minutes marinating
Cooking time: 10 minutes
- 400g lean pork steak diced into small cubes
- 2 tbs ketjap manis (Indonesian sweet soy sauce)
- 1 tbs light soy sauce
- juice of half lime plus remainder in wedges to serve
- 1 clove garlic finely chopped
- thumb of root ginger finely chopped
- one-cal cooking spray or groundnut oil
- 1 red and 1 yellow pepper, de-seeded and cut into wedges
- 1 red chilli, thinly sliced
- 4 spring onions, thinly sliced
- 225g tin of bamboo shoots, drained
- 8 baby pak choi, leaves separated or two pak choi, roughly chopped
- chopped fresh coriander to garnish (optional)
- Mix the ketjap manis, soy sauce, lime juice, garlic and ginger in a bowl. Add the pork, mix well and marinate for 30 minutes.
- Spray a wok with a little one-cal cooking spray or heat about 1 tbs oil. Remove the pork from the marinade and cook for about 3 minutes until browned all over.
- Add the peppers, chilli and spring onions and the remainder of the marinade. Fry for 2 to 3 minutes until the pork is cooked through.
- Add the bamboo shoots and pak choi and heat through for 1 – 2 minutes until the pak choi has wilted. Add a splash of boiling water to help steam the vegetables if you feel the wok is getting too dry.
- Stir through the coriander, if using and, if you wish, serve with steamed rice (calories not included!).