My first taste of Chinese cuisine came in the form of chop suey my mom made using ground beef, canned chop suey vegetables, and cream of mushroom soup. I’m 90 percent sure the recipe came from the back of the can of chow mein noodles we sprinkled generously on top, the whole meal likely a marketing ploy by the La Choy company to bring quick, “exotic” foods to the tables of bored middle class Americans. And it worked, at least for my family. If you’d asked me back when I was a kid in the late 70s if I liked Chinese food, I’d have given you a cool thumbs up just thinking about those water chestnuts smothered in gravy.
Later, after I left for college, a Chinese buffet moved into a nearby town, and I’d occasionally eat there with family when I was home on breaks. We’d pay our $8.95, then load up on sticky sweet and sour pork, spicy General Tso’s chicken, and greasy egg rolls. Vegetables and fruits appeared mostly in supporting roles: pineapple alongside breaded and deep-fried meat, broccoli soaked in beef gravy, tiny bits of carrot and peas nestled among white rice and pork. Occasionally, as I shoveled forkfuls of fried rice in my mouth, I laughed about the “fake” Chinese food from my childhood days now that I knew what “real” Chinese food was.
Then, in 2010 I found myself in China. By that time, I’d had far more authentic Chinese food when I visited Chicago’s Chinatown or dined with a Chinese friend who made her mother’s recipes from the kitchen of her small Chicago apartment. I’d even sampled beef tripe (the lining of the small intestine) at a Taiwanese Dim Sum restaurant, though I’d probably never have tried it if I’d actually known what it was before popping it in my mouth.
But seated around a table in remote Southwest China, eating home-cooked food in bowls with chopsticks, I suddenly realized how wrong I’d been all along about “Chinese” food. Sure, what I’d been eating my whole life was inspired by the flavors and ingredients of some dishes available in China. But it was made using the highly processed, commercially packaged foods loaded with salt, sugar, fat, and preservatives that the industrial age brought us. The Chinese food I’d been eating wasn’t healthy, and it wasn’t really Chinese. But here, in a part of China less influenced by the industrial world, I wasn’t eating “Chinese food” either. I was simply eating whole foods made with locally grown ingredients, based on the traditions and tastes of the people who were serving it: mostly vegetables like stir-fried lotus root, carrots, and eggplant. A little sautéed pork and chicken and occasionally other meats. And always rice—a little at the end of the meal—after we’d had our fill of the other dishes.
According to physician, professor, and author Daphne Miller, the food I ate in Guiyang was part of an indigenous diet, “born when a group of people use their traditional knowledge to make a complete diet using local foods.” In her book The Jungle Effect: The Healthiest Diets from around the World—Why They Work and How to Make Them Work for You, Miller talks about several such indigenous diets and how they keep people healthy and protect them from many of the modern chronic diseases that plague most of the industrialized world.
Oddly enough, my experiences with Chinese food represent the history of food in most cultures around the world … only in reverse. We don’t have to go too far back into our own family history—many of us only a generation or two—to find our ancestors eating a healthier, indigenous diet, guided by basic food-selection instincts, categorized by University of Pennsylvania psychologist Paul Rozin, PhD, as imitative, sensory, and post-ingestive. Basically, this means that throughout time, people have always eaten what others before them ate; what looked, smelled, and tasted good to them; and what didn’t make them sick. In a premodern world, these instincts “almost uniformly worked in our favor,” leading to the healthiest diets each locale had to offer, similar to the foods I enjoyed in Guiyang. In a post-industrial modern culture, however, these same instincts produce the opposite effect.
Imitation now leads us to mass marketing campaigns instead of our local elders. Our sensory instincts have fallen prey to processed foods that have much higher concentrations of salt, sugar, and fat and an exponentially higher caloric density. And foods that make us sick do so over long periods of time, essentially “outwitting our biological alarm system.”
In a nutshell, our food-selection instincts “seem to have turned against us as we have transitioned into a modern way of life,” Miller writes.
My childhood meal of highly processed chop suey, or even my high calorie trips to the Chinese buffet in young adulthood, are classic examples of food-selection instincts gone wrong. Whereas the simple and nutritious meals I had when I was in China not only tasted better, they would be better for me. Miller believes that kind of reversal back to a simpler, preindustrial way of eating is the key to returning to good health. And we’ll spend three weeks learning more about how to do that as we discuss The Jungle Effect for our next Tweetspeak book club.
Want to join us? Here’s a schedule for reading and discussing:
Week 1 (January 22): Introduction through Chapter 4 – POST: The Basics of Indigenous Diets and How They Work
Week 2 (January 29): Chapters 5-9 – POST: Specific Indigenous Diets and What They Have in Common
Week 3 (February 5): Chapter 10 through Appendice G – POST: How to Find an Indigenous Diet that Works for You