21 October 2016
It’s always a good idea to set a quota for eating at banquets or buffets. Photo: HKEJ
It’s always a good idea to set a quota for eating at banquets or buffets. Photo: HKEJ

Principles of healthy eating inspired by Qing imperial feast

Contrary to what many might expect, the Lunar New Year’s Eve dinner inside the Forbidden City in imperial China was not overly extravagant.

Historical records show that ingredients for the New Year’s Eve meal for the Qianlong Emperor in the year 1784 included 65 catties of pork, 1 fat duck, 3 fat chickens, 3 pork knuckles, 2 pork tripe, 25 catties wild boar meat, 5 geese, 20 catties mutton, 15 catties venison, 6 wild chickens, 20 catties fish, 4 deer tails, and so on.

On top of the main dishes, there were side dishes such as dim sum, and staples such as rice, buns and noodles.

Based on the list above, I would say the feast was sumptuous but simple, and over the years of my research I have derived three healthy eating principles from the kitchen practices in the Qing palaces.

1. Keep cooking simple

Inside the kitchen of the Chinese imperial palace, chefs were not allowed to mix and match ingredients at random or to overuse seasoning.

They should retain the original flavor of the ingredients, so that the dishes would be tasty and healthy.

The modern meals we have today are rather unwholesome, with too much processing or artificial seasoning.

Between- or after-meals snacks such as spring rolls, steamed creamy custard buns, salted egg yolk pastries and cream cakes are rich in fat and will lead to overweight if consumed in excess.

2. Take no more than three bites

This is, in fact, ancestral wisdom.

The Qing emperor did not talk while having meals and couldn’t take more than three helpings of each dish, which would be taken off the table immediately, anyway.

The primary reason for doing so was to minimize the risk of the emperor suffering from food poisoning.

It also prevented others from figuring out what dishes the emperor loved and try to take advantage of him by pleasing him.

“Take no more than three bites” can also be applied in our daily lives.

Given the wide variety of dishes served at banquets or buffets, taking three bites of each item can fill one’s stomach sufficiently. It’s always a good idea to set a quota for eating.

3. Have a fiber-rich diet

Grains such as buckwheat, oats and barley are the main ingredients for staples.

They are also an important source of vitamins and dietary fiber.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations says the daily intake of dietary fiber should be 30-50 grams, or 50-100 g of grain equivalent.

Take action to start having more fiber in your meals.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Feb. 16.

Translation by Darlie Yiu

[Chinese version 中文版]

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