The Balanced Meal

November 11, 2015

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A balanced meal: mushroom broth, jasmine rice (starch) w/ginger, sweet & sour pickled radishes, fermented tofu (protein), stir-fried chrysanthemum greens.

What constitutes a balanced meal? Believe it or not, I’ve been asked on many occasions. This question generally takes me back to my Asian upbringing, where balance is key to living a good life. Yin and yang—opposite forces that complement each other to form a whole—is what Asian cooks aspire to when creating meals, whether at home or in a restaurant setting. For us, it is a guiding principle from the time we are born and given our first solid meal. And because Yin and Yang is not just a principle practiced in the kitchen, but applied to everything in life, it is deeply ingrained in our psyche.

In Asia, breakfast, lunch and dinner hold the same importance and include the same components, a starch, a protein, vegetables, and often times broth for sipping and cleansing the palate between bites. At the end of the meal, fresh fruit and loose leaf tea are enjoyed to aid digestion. It’s a very simple concept. Eat a little of everything, whether vegetarian or not.

A balanced meal is not only about making sure all the food groups are present, but about developing flavors to satisfy our taste buds. Sweet, sour, salty, spicy, bitter— tastes sensations in food— is a combination used as a measuring tool for balance and what we look for in our meals, whether aware or not. Umame is yet another one of these sensations uniquely present in monosodium glutamate, which is naturally occurring in many leafy greens. Though the taste is hard to describe, and somewhat different from yet similar to salt, it is present to gently tickle the senses and awaken your taste buds. In Asia all these taste sensations are present throughout the meal, so much so that dessert such as cake or ice cream is considered unnecessary and never part of the meal, our palates already satisfied by the sweet element we’ve been enjoying all along.

The pressing question still remains. How do we get all of these tastes in a single meal? It’s really quite simple. If making a marinade combining salty soy sauce with sweet sugar, bitter garlic, spicy chilies, and sour rice vinegar for any protein you might enjoy, you’re half way there. A bowl of rice provides a canvas upon which all these flavors can land. Complete the meal with stir-fried leafy greens with garlic, lightly drizzle with soy sauce, and a light broth to sip on the side, and you’ve achieved your goal. A broth could be as quickly to make as a 2-minute miso soup, so don’t let that stop you in achieving balance at every meal, which can be served in 20 minutes, the time it takes rice to cook.

How can we apply Yin and Yang in the western kitchen? It’s easy. Just look for the same taste sensations when developing a meal. A salad has a vinaigrette and in it sour vinegar, spicy mustard (perhaps a touch of the ever so popular Sriracha), salty salt, bitter onion or garlic, and a touch of sweet honey. The umame is in the lettuce! That’s one example. Pasta with freshly made tomato sauce can also have these elements, the tomato itself providing the sweet and tart element, and from there the grated salty Parmesan protein, and the spicy red pepper flakes, with the bitter note from sautéed broccoli rabe on the side.

Pick a cuisine and throw in some Yin and Yang. You’ll see how easy it is to accomplish, if you put your mind to it.

Creating balance in a meal is so much more than developing that sensory experience, however. It should be aesthetically pleasing as well. Taking the time to create a visually appealing meal whether you are cooking for one, two or more, should be just as important. I’ve always been fascinated with Japanese aesthetics, particularly in the kitchen. There a simple bowl of rice is always decorated with something, from chopped scallions, to pickled daikon, freshly julienned ginger, or perhaps a sprinkling of toasted sesame seeds. Taking care to cook something beautiful requires patience and total focus and engagement. It is a meditative act that is well worth while. For one you eat visually, long before you sit down to actually taste the food. You’ll wind up needing very little food to satisfy both body and mind, allowing air (space) to do its work and aid digestion.

Last but not least, just as you need to breathe, so should you leave some white space on the plate!

Eat to live rather than live to eat. You’ll feel the difference.

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