Feng shui's life-affirming premise is amazingly simple: "All food has chi, or energy," says Miami-based feng-shui expert Jami Lin. "When you consume foods that are 'alive,' or close to their original form, their life-sustaining energy is passed on to you." For this reason, an ear of corn is preferable to a can of corn, Lin explains.
But what makes feng shui (pronounced "fung-schway") such a natural concept for achieving a healthy weight? For starters, this diet relies on quick, easy low-fat cooking methods. With the dog days of summer approaching, there's never been a better time to master the cool (translation: no oven required) techniques used in feng-shui cooking, all of which inject sizzle, steam and zing into your meals without making you sweat over a hot stove.
Because feng-shui cooking relies on low-fat, filling vegetables, fruits and spices, it's a perfect eating plan for summer -- when farmers markets are bursting with just-picked produce and spices and your body naturally craves light, fresh fare.
Finally, because feng-shui cooking uses exotic fruits, vegetables and seductively flavorful Asian condiments, your taste buds will never get bored. As well as feeding your body, feng shui feeds your soul and visual palate with foods that are so beautiful and emotionally satisfying, you may be less likely to binge or overeat to soothe your psyche.
We'll show you how to eat well and lose excess weight by incorporating balance and feng-shui concepts, including rearranging your kitchen and dining room to enhance chi, or energy flow; stocking your kitchen and pantry with ingredients, spices and tools that make feng-shui cooking easy and fun; and tips for creating beautiful meals that satisfy your visual and physical hungers.
Losing weight the feng-shui way
Feng-shui eating combined with an active lifestyle is as common in rural China as fast food and television are in America and remains a major reason the rural Chinese stay slim. They eat 30 percent more calories than we do, according to The Cornell-China-Oxford Project, an ongoing study that compares the dietary habits of Americans with those of rural Chinese.
The Chinese also eat three times more fiber than Americans do, and less than half the fat (14 percent calories from fat vs. 36 percent for Americans). And they have a much lower rate of breast cancer and other diseases.
The study adds that few people in China are obese. But when Chinese used to eating the feng-shui way adopt a rich American diet and sedentary lifestyle, the results are disastrous. Besides gaining weight, they are also more likely to develop diabetes, says Kathryn Sucher, Sc.D., R.D., a professor of nutrition and food science at San Jose State University in California, who has been tracking the increasing rate of diabetes in Chinese immigrants. "Even with small amounts of weight gain, they're at risk for type II diabetes," she says.
Another study, of second- and third-generation Japanese-American mothers and daughters recently published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition (August 2000), found that the third-generation daughters had practically abandoned the disease-fighting high-veggie Japanese diet their mothers grew up eating in favor of a Westernized diet high in fat, junk food, soft drinks and alcohol.
In fact, the study advised medical professionals working with young Japanese-Americans to inform them of the nutritional benefits of their ancestors' diet. Of course, you don't have to be of Asian ancestry to benefit from the feng-shui way of eating. For a body that's more bodacious and less Buddhalike, follow these five principles.
Five principles of leaner eating
1. Use meat as a complement, not the main course. You won't find a big fat, juicy burger on Chinese dinner tables. "Asians don't eat a lot of protein," explains Ming Tsai, chef-owner of Boston's Blue Ginger restaurant, cookbook author and star of the Food Network's "East Meets West."
In fact, the Chinese diet comprises less than 20 percent animal foods (as opposed to Americans' 60-80 percent), mostly due to the high cost of meat in most of Asia and a distaste for dairy products. This ingredient restriction is a blessing in disguise. It's what makes Asian cuisine so much lower in saturated fat than ours.
Asian cooks use small amounts of meats to flavor dishes made up mainly of vegetables. Asians get the bulk of their protein calories from legumes like peanuts, mung beans and soybeans that are also high in complex carbs. Soy milk, tofu and tempeh, loaded with disease-busting phytochemicals, stand in for meat and dairy.
2. Load up on fiber. Rural Chinese eat three times more fiber than Americans do, according to the Cornell study. How do they do it? From broccoli to bok choy, long beans to soybeans, they make vegetables and fruits (for dessert) the mainstay of their meals.
3. Experiment with exotic fat-free flavors. While Americans tend to rely on gobs of butter, mayo and salad dressing to add flavor and interest to our meals, Asian cooks have hundreds of zesty, zero-fat condiments, herbs and spices at their disposal. Soy sauce, fish sauce, oyster sauce, black bean sauce, miso (fermented Japanese bean paste) and seaweed add depth and saltiness to dishes. Chilies, wasabi (Japanese horseradish paste), kimchi (a Korean condiment made from pickled cabbage), curries (favored in Thailand), garlic and scallions add heat, while ginger, lemon grass, basil, cilantro and a multitude of pickles provide refreshing flavor bursts.
If you're not sure how to use these products, start with just one or two (see "Your Feng-Shui Pantry") in a simple dish, like a stir-fry. Add a little at a time and taste, taste, taste. To learn more about Asian flavors, watch the Food Network's "East Meets West," or buy a cookbook or two. Your local Asian restaurant or Asian grocer should also be happy to offer advice.
4. Make meals mindful. Forget about gobbling dinner in front of the tube if you want to stay healthy and slim the feng-shui way. "In Asia, the evening's entertainment is the meal," says Kathryn Sucher of San Jose State University. "It's all about really appreciating the food and the taste of the food. Americans often eat just to fill their stomachs," she adds. "Unfortunately, they don't experience the meal or the food." That can lead to overeating or, worse, bingeing.
Learning to eat mindfully is a cinch if you focus on putting yourself into a yin perspective -- a quieting, nurturing point of view, Lin says. That means no dining in front of the computer or TV, no loud music and no eating out of takeout containers. "Think of what it feels like when you drink a cup of warm tea, how you can feel it go through your system," Lin says. "In order to approach eating the Asian way, look, taste and appreciate what is before you. Feel it as it goes down, supporting your entire body."
5. Use quick, low-fat cooking techniques. Asian cooks love to grill, steam, boil and stir-fry foods -- healthy techniques that require minimal fat. A holdover from the days when fuel was at a premium, these preparation methods are easy, fast and adaptable to modern life.
Try traditional steaming (often done over herb-scented water) in a multilayered bamboo basket. You can whip up several different fat-free dishes in one pot (less hassle and cleanup) in about 10-15 minutes. As a bonus, veggies, fish and other foods retain their shape, texture, flavors and nutrition. Lightning fast, stir-frying also requires minimal equipment. A large pan is all you need. Add vegetables cut up into uniform pieces, a few teaspoons of heart-healthy peanut oil, stir briskly over high heat, and presto! Dinner's ready.
Your feng-shui kitchen
To bring more harmony into your kitchen and cooking (so you'll want to spend more time there creating fun, healthful dishes), try incorporating a few simple feng-shui principles from Miami-based feng-shui expert Jami Lin. (For more tips, visit her Web site at jamilin.com.)
* Make sure your kitchen has good lighting and a neat, clean, well-organized space to help facilitate energy flow.
* Your mood while preparing meals impacts food's chi. If you're feeling yang (high-energy), shift into a yin (introspective) mood by saying a little prayer or positive affirmation. "This will help you deal with your problems in a positive way rather than bringing them into your cooking and eating," Lin says.
* Enjoy your meal seated at a round table. This enhances chi because round is a limitless space.
* Avoid dining in tight corners or spaces or anywhere where the flow of energy is constricted.
* Avoid bright, garish colors (orange, red, lime green, etc.) and decors that are too yang and opt for soothing, muted tones instead.
* Banish items that are ugly or have negative associations. If your ex gave you dishware and you still resent him, ditch it! "Food should be a celebration and a gift," Lin says.
* Never cook with your back to the door, the idea being you don't want to be startled when you cook. (According to Lin, the negative or nervous energy will go into your food.) If you must, put a mirror on the wall so you can see the door.
* If your kitchen and dining room have terminal feng-shui problems, don't panic. Lin says you can easily change a room's energy by placing mirrors, installing wind chimes and hanging rainbow crystals to catch the sun. If the dining room has harsh edges, soften them with drapes and/or plants.
Your feng-shui pantry
With the right ingredients, you can turn veggies and a little fish or meat into an Asian-inspired feast. The products listed below can be found easily in ethnic shops or groceries in major U.S. cities. Or you can order by phone or online from mingspantry.com (866-646-4266) or pacificrim-gourmet.com (800-618-7575).
* Rice and noodles The variety of starches used in Asian cooking is astounding. Stock at least two of these: jasmine rice, sushi rice, sweet rice, cellophane noodles (made from mung bean starch), rice stick noodles (made from rice flour), udon noodles (wheat) and soba noodles (buckwheat).
* Rice wine vinegar Milder than most Western vinegars, it adds a hint of sweetness to marinades, salad dressings and sushi rice.
* Soy sauce A dark, salty sauce made by fermenting boiled soybeans and roasted wheat or barley. Used as a condiment and to flavor soups, sauces, marinades, meat, fish and veggies. Low-sodium versions are available.
* Dark sesame oil Just a few drops of this fragrant oil impart a nutty flavor.
* Five-spice powder Cinnamon, cloves, fennel seed, star anise and Szechwan peppercorns come together in this traditional Chinese blend.
* Peanut oil Prized for stir-frying and perfect for salad dressings, it's also 50 percent monounsaturated, making it one of the heart-smart fats.
* Hoisin (also called Peking sauce) A thick, reddish-brown sweet and spicy sauce made from soybeans, garlic, chili peppers and spices. Used on meat, poultry and shellfish dishes. Refrigerate after opening.
* Thai chilies These hot chilies are available fresh or dried. Remove seeds and membranes to reduce their heat.
* Fish sauce (also called fish gravy) A pungent, salty liquid made from fermented fish that is used much like soy sauce.
* Fresh ginger A primary flavoring of Chinese cooking. Buy firm, glossy-skinned rhizomes, without wrinkles or fibrousness where the knobs have been broken.
5 ways to make your meals more beautiful
The same set of ingredients go from blah to wow! depending on how they're treated, says chef Ming Tsai, star of the Food Network's "East Meets West" and "Ming's Quest." (Incidentally, Tsai knows a thing or two about good looks. People magazine named him one of their 50 Most Beautiful People.) Here are his tips for creating a gorgeous dining experience.
* Set a minimalist table. Set out one beautiful unscented candle and cloth napkins. Put chopsticks in a holder and a cut rose in a clear dish of water.
* Treat the entire plate as one element rather than as individual servings of protein, starch, etc. Vegetables, especially, look forlorn when they're relegated to one corner. They're most appealing when used as a bed for protein and, as a bonus, will soak up all of its wonderful juices.
* Build visual interest by adding height on the plate. An easy way to do this is by creating a "parfait" or tower of food. Use a small, clean can with both ends cut out of it. Place the can on the plate and carefully fill it with layers of grains and vegetables. Slowly release can. Drizzle with sauce and top with finely minced peppers, herbs or other veggies.
* Give condiments their due. Give sauces and garnishes the same attention as the main course. Transfer soy sauce to a beautiful serving vessel. When dining family style, place an attractive charger underneath the main platter and present garnishes such as cilantro, peanuts, grated carrots, bean sprouts, etc., separately in neat mounds on the charger.
* Elevate fruit to star status. Make it special by cutting up an assortment in various shapes and serving it in a beautiful container, such as a martini glass. Top with a small scoop of homemade granita, a dessert ice made by freezing OJ and puréed mango.
5 tools of the trade
The right equipment makes cooking Asian-inspired meals a treat rather than a chore. Here are five must-have tools that will get you in and out of the kitchen in a flash.
1. Electric rice cooker/warmer Delivers perfect rice with minimal fuss. Just add rice and water, and the machine takes care of the rest.
2. Bamboo steamer This multilayered steamer rests in a wok and lets you cook an entire meal sans oil. Electric steamers are also available.
3. Chinese cleaver Cuts through meat, bones and veggies with equal ease. Use its flat sides to tenderize meat or crush garlic, its butt end as a pestle to pulverize spices.
4. Mandoline Hand-operated machine with various adjustable blades for thin to thick slicing and julienne cutting. Ideal for quickly prepping veggies for stir-fries, salads or sushi and for turning out dessert-worthy fruit. Available in inexpensive plastic or pricier stainless steel.
5. Wok Round-bottomed pan traditionally used for stir-frying, steaming, braising and stewing. Electric woks are also available and easier to use.
Sources: Mandoline and cleaver available through amazon.com. Steamers, woks and rice cookers are available in many department stores. Or order online by visiting pacificrim-gourmet.com or calling (800) 618-7575.
Yin-yang flavor combos
Asian tradition deems certain foods warm, or yin, and others cool, or yang. Combining yin and yang is said to bring a dish into balance. While learning which foods are "hot" and which are "cool" can be challenging, the principle that opposites attract is easily adaptable and makes for exciting and satisfying dishes that needn't rely on fat for flavor. Here are some zesty combos that will give your palate a jolt without adding a pound to your thighs.
1. Hot & sour
* Wasabi/pickled ginger
* Chilies/lemon grass|
* Five-spice powder/lime
* Curry/mango chutney
* Five-spice powder/honey
* Five-spice powder/litchi
* Fish sauce/tamarind
* Soy sauce/rice vinegar
* Miso/rice vinegar
* Miso/sweet corn
* Oyster sauce/snow peas