On ‘Clean’ Chinese Food
Updated: Jun 4, 2019
Open less than six months, Lucky Lee’s has gotten off to a rough start. The decision of the owners, Lee and Arielle Haspel, to market “clean” Chinese food made headlines. The internet furor has been so intense that Yelp no longer accepts comments.
In response to the uproar, the Haspels have clarified what they meant by clean: “‘Clean’ Chinese-American food will actually make [diners] feel good.” This is clean in Gwyneth Paltrow’s GOOPian sense of the word: no refined sugars, processed meat, dairy, or gluten. Whole foods that not only make you alert, but also ensure that you look right: a diet that gives you an unblemished complexion and svelte figure.
It may be news to the owners of Lucky Lee’s, but China already has a long tradition of clean eating. Ancient Chinese blamed grains for their wrinkles and grays. They thought that fermented mare’s milk was the key to long life. They also practiced yoga and deep breathing.
Later writers build on these foundations. Like modern people, they took a dim view of wheat, treating it as poison. To purge their bodies of the toxins in their noodles, they drank cleansing juices with ginseng and China Root. The same writers also preached against poor food combinations. Cow’s milk and sashimi did not mix.
Some of their proposals make sense. Chinese writers urged moderate consumption of animal protein and small servings of tofu. (Soy was also poison in medieval China). They encouraged readers to follow protocol: chew thoroughly and avoid eating before bedtime. These writers also recommended sticking to fresh meat and vegetables. Go easy on the seasoning, grease, and caffeine, and no alcohol. These things bloat you.
The roots of this philosophy lay in dietary excess. While peasants struggled to get enough to eat, the Chinese elite gorged themselves on buttery pastries and red meats. This tradition peaked in the sixteenth century. As New
World silver flowed into the Chinese economy, banqueting became a life style for the rich and powerful.
Feasting began promptly at noon, lasting until the early hours of the morning. Surviving menus confirm that hosts exercised little portion control. They treated their guests not only to loads of food, but also the fattiest cuts of meat and made a point of serving pricey items like bird’s nest and shark’s fin. The rounds of distilled spirits kept the party going.
The constant feasting contributed to far more than bad health. It led to banquet fatigue. Rich men began craving lighter fare. Before long, experts in gastronomy joined doctors in composing treatises on healthy eating. Late in the sixteenth century, a merchant’s son discovered the pleasure of leafy vegetables.
Clean eating is poised to make a comeback in China. For several decades, the Chinese elite marked the end of rationing with over-eating. The celebrations have come at a familiar cost: expanding waistlines, increasing levels of cardiovascular disease, and a diabetes epidemic. Five years ago, my friends greeted the government crackdown on banqueting with relief.
I too experienced banquet exhaustion on my last trip to China. After twelve courses and a night of toasting, I ached for simple fare. The hours of vomiting also helped me find clarity.
Chinese consumers are receptive to American versions of clean eating. Worried about the toxins lurking in their meals, many of them now buy organic and avoid refined starches. You can even get a juice cleanse in Beijing before heading off to yoga. It would not surprise me if a version of Lucky Lee’s popped up in a Chinese city soon.
The Chinese are already used to clean eating.