Steamed and Savory
Since variety is a great feature of Chinese cookery, a proper banquet will include a sample of most, if not all, the principal styles: one dish roasted, one grilled, one stewed, one stir-fried-and one steamed. A Chinese dish can be very complicated, but steaming is a triumph of simplicity. One wonders why the rest-of the world has largelyignored this art. Anything cooked by steam preserves its original flavor, yet affords a taste so distinct from any other that the Western palate instantly identifies it as “Chinese.”
Can you imagine a delicate, mouth-watering, unusual culinary triumph that takes less time and work than a hamburger sandwich? Including preparation-often nothing more than cleaning a shellfish and putting it on a platter-10 minutes is about standard running time for jeng. No sauce of dominating flavor is ever used, lest it tamper with nature. The simple flavorings are usually just scattered on the food, and the steam does all the rest.
Besides simplicity and flavor, the Chinese have a dietetic reason for favoring steam in their everyday meals. Calling on centuries of experience, they avoid roasting, grilling, deep-frying, or the
like, except on special occasions. They believe that such foods create reh chih, a term readily comprehensible to any Chinese but a puzzle to the foreigner. An eminent Chinese doctor with Western training, after long reflection,decided that the closest Western translation, “indigestion,” did not do justice to reh chih.
To a Chinese “indigestion” describes the result of swallowing food too fast or eating too much or eating what is by nature difficult to digest. Reh chih is more subtle. Like many untranslatable Chinese words it requires a paragraph to explain. It is “an acute or accumulated disagreeable effect, particularly harmful to a person during illness or in delicate health, resulting from eating things cooked through direct contact with the fire or with the oil in “frying.”
Whether reh chih has scientific validity or not, it is a fact that a Chinese feeling a bit out of sorts wants his
food steamed. And it is interesting to note that the Chinese so often look younger than their age and have
relatively few cases of obesity, high blood pressure, and heart disease.