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Interview: Ching-He Huang

Chinese fusion chef Ching-He Huang talks about how eastern values relating to food could help explain the lower incidences of obesity in south east Asia

With an increasingly 'westernised lifestyle' and the spread of the fast food culture being blamed for the global epidemic in obesity, Taiwanese born British food writer and TV chef Ching-He Huang, known as Ching in the media, talks to Nursing in Practice about elements of Eastern cultural values about food, such as a close connection with the food source and a balance in food energies, which lend to healthy eating practices.

While growing incidences of obesity are indicative of a culture obsessed with food, Ching, who launched her culinary career with a very hands on role in producing a line of fresh foods for retail chains, feels that ironically, it is due to an increasing removal from the processes from which food is made that is the root cause of the problem.

Commenting on how the surge in incidences of obesity in the last two decades correlates with modern day practices of mass manufacturing and the expansion of supermarkets and hypermarkets, where food magically appears all packaged and ready, Ching said, “Our connection to food is lacking. We used to grow more of our own food…these days, we're not aware of how long it's taken for an animal to be reared, how long it's taken for a plant to be harvested.”

Ching observes that obesity is a reflection of the achievement of instant oral gratification as and when the urge arises, which is so reflective of modern day culture, where everything is literally readily available at our fingertips through the internet.

Processed foods, which are prime examples of a range of products designed to cater for the modern day need for time efficiency, is an important factor in obesity. Laden with saturated fats, salt and sugar - anything to appeal to the palette - the processed food export trade has seen a rapid global expansion in recent years, lending to the steady ascent of obesity in urbanised areas of developing countries.

“We are time poor. We live in a fast growing modern society where we are trying to catch up every day… the majority of people are not spending enough time thinking about where their food has come from. Not taking the time to think about the quality of the food. Food is to nourish and sustain us, and therefore we should spend a bit more time thinking about what we eat,” Ching-He said.

Pointing out that the last decade has seen an emerging group of people, mostly the middle and upper middle class, who are increasingly conscious of what they put into their bodies, Ching-He said that with regards to eating attitudes, there are two distinct groups - those who live to eat and those who eat to live. 

Support for the existence of the first group comes in the form of a poll commissioned by City of London last year, which shows that one in six Britons are now growing their own food, believing it to be healthier. 

As for the other group, with substantial research showing that in developed countries, obesity is more prevalent among those living in more impoverish areas, it suggests a group whose socio-economic circumstances prevent them from giving any further consideration to food, other than as a means of sustenance.

Likening the Chinese to the first group, Ching says that in traditional Chinese cooking, there is an emphasis on obtaining 

fresh ingredients in the preparation of everyday meals, which increases awareness about our food source, maintaining that fundamental link. “In my parents' generation, people would go to the market at least once if not up to three times a day to obtain fresh ingredients,” she said. “In Chinese cuisine, as with any type of cuisine, fresh ingredients are the key to making dishes taste good.”

Indeed, even today, open air markets are a common feature of local landscapes in many countries in south east Asia, with vendors setting up shop early each morning, armoured with a range of household goods, vegetables and livestock including poultry, prawns and fish. 

Ching also broaches on a fundamental concept in Chinese philosophy and culture, 'qi' (energy flow), pronounced 'chi', which is thought to be the key constituent of all living matter. With this key concept of flow of energy translating to how the Chinese view food, Ching feels that this affects how food is conceptualised at a fundamental level, leading to more awareness about how food can affect the body.

“Chinese cooking is about a balance of 'yin' and 'yang' elements in dishes, and most dishes contain both. Most vegetables and fruits are 'yin' elements and meat, garlic, ginger and chilli are 'yang' elements, which balance out the yin.”

Traditionally, 'yin' elements are thought of as 'cooling' energies and 'yang' elements are 'hot' energies, with a balance of both required to maintain a healthy constitution. 

“When you think about food in this way, you are constantly monitoring the effects of food on your body and thinking about what you put in your body which leads to more mindful eating.”    

Ching also believes that people on a health quest who eat salads a large proportion of the time might find themselves feeling cold a lot of the time because of all the cooling 'yin' elements of vegetables, and that chilli, ginger and garlic which are 'yang' elements could be added to help warm the body up.

Ching describes her experiences of filming in Sichuan where it was so cold that the only way for the crew to keep warm was to chew on the Sichuan chillis which have made Sichuan cuisine so famous worldwide, since even warm baths failed to do the trick. Ching said that at the time it was about three degrees celcius, but with it being very humid there, the damp made it seem more like sub-zero temperatures.

The emphasis on energy balances in Chinese food means that traditionally, food has been seen as almost medicine for the body, which goes towards creating a more healthy relationship with food. 

Chinese diet therapy, which is based on combining the 'qi' (energies) of different foods taken at specific times, is a key branch of traditional Chinese medicine and has been tightly intertwined with people's day-to-day lives, where a case of an upset tummy might be construed in terms of eating too many 'yin' foods leading to the stomach 'catching cold.' 

Similarly, faced with a case of ulcers, which is thought to be related to an 'over-heated' constitution, a suggestion might be to down a cup of 'grass jelly tea,' a popular cooling drink in the east.

Commenting about the challenges facing the obesity problem, Ching thinks that education about the nutritional value and sourcing of food is a crucial factor and that labelling of products could be broken down so that everyone understands what it means at the basic level.

“What is saturated fat? Just say it's fat derived from cheese, meat and dairy products, bar exceptions from plant sources like cococuts” Ching said, adding that colour coding would greatly increase clarity in labels. 

In a welcome move, the government launched a hybrid labelling scheme last month with the aim of putting an end to years of confusion caused by different labelling systems. 

The front-of-pack labelling system will be a cross between traffic lights colour coding and guidelines for recommended daily intake for fat, sugar, salt and calories, allowing shoppers to compare products directly. 

Although the system is voluntary, 60% of major retailers have signed up to it including Waitrose and ASDA.

With governmental beliefs linking unhealthy eating practices to a lack of good food education, from 2014, the requirements of food education for both primary and secondary school students will also be strengthened. 

All primary school pupils will learn the principles of healthy eating and where food comes from as well as basic cooking techniques and how to cook a variety of savoury dishes. In secondary schools, food education will be compulsory at Key Stage 3 for the first time ever, with pupils being taught about the importance of nutrition, a balanced diet, the characteristics of a broad range of ingredients as well as how to cook a repertoire of savoury meals.

Ching has recently launched 'click and cook' which is a video library where subscribers can see step-by-step demonstrations by Ching of how each dish is cooked. 

Stressing that homemade meals are key to a healthy diet, Ching-He says, “My grandma used to say if you're cooking for yourself, it's going to be a lot better for you because you know what's gone into it…So pick up that pan and get cooking!”