So we've had it right all along. How gratifying. Our national dish - meat, potatoes and two veg - precisely meets ancient Chinese criteria of what constitutes a healthy, balanced meal. Meat is yang (warming), vegetables yin (cooling), and potatoes neutral.
Here and in the States, there's been a huge surge of interest in oriental philosophy; witness the enthusiasm for feng shui and the notion of energy flow. Now the trend has spread to food.
When A Spoonful of Ginger by Nina Simonds (Absolute Press, pounds 19.95) came out in the US last year it sold 75,000 copies in hardback and went on to win the James Beard award for best cookbook in its category. It is published here this month and perfectly reflects the new mood.
An American who has spent 25 years in Southeast Asia researching the subject, Simonds claims that Chinese sages knew far more about how to eat healthily than we do today. They defined every food and herb as being either yin or yang, believing that we need to consume a balanced amount of each to achieve perfect health. Simonds interviewed traditional doctors, herbalists, gourmets and cooks to come up with 200 recipes which are "balanced" for health.
Simonds's book may have struck a chord because of the current interest in the notion of functional foods. Companies are vying to sell food products which they claim will treat specific conditions such as high blood pressure, cholesterol, ulcers, etc. This is just what Chinese medicine has been doing for 5,000 years. Emperor Shen Nong established the study of the healing properties of plants in 3000BC, and in 2500BC the principles of yin and yang were set out in The Yellow Emperor's Classic of Internal Medicine. Since then Chinese medicine has developed, it seems, by trial and error. If it worked, good. If it didn't, it was chucked out.
Our own rules for healthy food are ever-evolving. And while most nutritionists would welcome a more holistic, balanced, harmonious approach, that is not the Western way. We want to nail the bad guys - fat bad, fruit and veg good.
Last year I ate at the Imperial Herbal restaurant in Singapore, one of the sources featured in A Spoonful of Ginger. The restaurant, which opened 12 years ago as a showcase for Chinese medicine, features a consulting counter and a wall of 100 drawers containing dried foods with various health-giving properties: the leaves, berries, bark and roots of every sort of tree and plant, and the dried parts of animals, birds, reptiles and insects. The menu claims to have a cure for most human ills, from constipation to cancer and boils to bad breath, bedwetting to boredom, headaches to heartache. Hmmm. But are such claims any more preposterous than those of the pots and potions in your average health-food shop?
I can't vouch for the health benefits of the food (it certainly did nothing to relieve the discomfort of eating in 90F heat plus stifling 90 per cent humidity) but the food tasted and looked outstanding. Nor can I find fault with the cooking in this book which contains tried-and-tested recipes from all parts of Southeast Asia, predominantly China, but also Nonya Malay and Korea. Simonds may not have converted me to the philosophy, but she has done a good job of illuminating the subject. Here is a taster: delicious yin- yang prawn (shown above). n
Makes 14 skewers
An attractive, tasty dish from the Imperial Herbal restaurant in Singapore, where they would also add to the sauce a Chinese medical ingredient, sachets of hawthorn. It is believed to improve digestion, dissolve cholesterol deposit and relieve blood pressure. Available in Chinatown and some …