A conversation with Nina

Q. Could you briefly explain the idea behind “A Spoonful of Ginger” and why it’s more than just a cookbook?

A. From the moment I went to live in Taiwan at nineteen to study Chinese food, language and culture, I noticed the Chinese belief in “food as medicine”. I was living with a Chinese family and was fascinated by the fact that they ate certain foods and herbs at particular times of the month and different foods as remedies to treat particular ailments.

It was such an interesting concept that I vowed to learn more about it and through the years, I spoke to Asian women and doctors about their ancient traditions and dishes. I wrote articles and then decided that I wanted to write a book that would include a collection of delicious Asian recipes and firsthand information about the traditions of Chinese food as medicine. So I spent 7 years traveling around the world seeking out “food as medicine” healers who were doctors, cooks, and researchers.

A Spoonful of Ginger is a chronicle of my journey: I introduce the reader to the experts I met  during my travels: I distill most of the knowledge I learned in a readable fashion and I offer recipes for many of the delicious dishes I tasted and created, inspired by my experiences.

Q. Explain the concept of yin and yang and how/why it figures so prominently in the book? How can people figure out if they are yin or yang and what can one do to create a balance between the two?

A. Yin and yang is the foundation of Chinese culture and philosophy and represents the opposing, yet complementary forces of the universe. Together they make up the whole. Every object or action can be classified as either yin or yang and everything is influenced by their constant ebb or flow.

We all have both yin and yang characteristics, but most of us have a predisposition towards one or the other. The best way to definitively find out whether you are yin or yang is to be diagnosed by a qualified Chinese doctor, but there are certain clues and I give them in the “Are You Yin or Yang?” section of the book ( page 8 ) which my Chinese mentor, Dr. Chun-Han Zhu, help me put together.

This idea of yin and yang even applies to food, which may have a yin, yang or neutral energy. In brief, yin foods have a cooling effect on the body, while yang foods have a heating effect, neutral foods are balanced.

Generally, yang foods which include eggs, fatty meats, and pungent spices, are strong, rich, and spicy, while yin foods, such as raw fruits and vegetables, and many types of seafood, are bitter, salty, and light. Neutral foods such as rice, peanuts, and bread provide balance.

Q. What are some easy ways that the concepts found in “A Spoonful of Ginger” can be incorporated in to a hectic lifestyle?

A. A Spoonful of Ginger introduces readers to the basic Chinese belief that “Disease occurs when there is an imbalance in the system”. One of the easiest ways to correct that imbalance is to find out whether you tend to be yin or yang and to correct that imbalance by eating certain foods and dishes. For instance, if you are yin, you eat yang foods, and if you tend to be yang, you eat yin. Our bodies sometimes have a natural inclination to eat what’s right: For instance, in the summer, when it is hot, we crave yin dishes like salads, and seafood, among others which are cooling. During the cooler weather or winter (a yin time), we want to eat richer, heartier dishes like meats, spicy seasonings, and root vegetables.

Another easy tip is if your internal energy is yin and you are feeling sluggish or tired, if you eat yang foods, they will help stimulate the body and increase energy. Conversely, when you are feeling restless and impatient, which are yang characteristics, yin foods can help since they have a cooling or calming effect.

Q. For the Chinese, “Food is a nurturing, benevolent friend that maintains and restores health.”  How is that different from how Americans look at food?

A. I think Americans’ attitude has slightly improved since I wrote the book, but sadly still too many Americans view food as an enemy, rather than a friend. Most Western diets promote the idea of deprivation, which if taken to an extreme, is not healthy at all. Deprivation leads to overindulgence which can, in some cases, help create a binge and purge condition.  Asians embrace the idea of balance, which is something I have learned and now practice in my everyday life. On the whole, I eat healthy, satisfying foods, but every now and then I allow myself indulgences like a sumptuous dessert or a soda.

Q. What are the most widely used Asian spices/ingredients?  What should I have in my refrigerator/cabinet if I want to make recipes from “A Spoonful of Ginger”?

A. Well, fresh ginger** is one I keep in a basket on my counter along with my garlic and onions. Ginger and garlic are widely used in Asian cooking.  Additionally, a bottle of medium-grade or all purpose soy sauce is pretty essential. As well as toasted sesame oil, sake or rice wine. For certain recipes, you might use hot chili paste, hoisin sauce, or oyster sauce.

Fortunately all of these ingredients, in addition to other Asian provisions, like certain vegetables, tofu, etc. are now available at mainstream supermarkets. Thankfully, the days of needing to drive to an Asian specialty market to prepare Asian recipes are over.  .

In this day and age, some of the most important ingredients or foods that you should regularly consume are those that strengthen your immune system and help you fight disease. Obviously, lots of different colored vegetables, which contain a wealth of vitamins and anti-oxidants are essential, but greens and members of the brassica family are especially important. This includes broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kale, and different cabbages, Chinese and otherwise. Edadame or soybeans and tofu products are recommended, as well as shiitake and other wild mushrooms that contain the component lentinan. And seasonings and herbs like garlic and ginger, which are anti-bacterial, and chili peppers which contain high amounts of vitamin A and C are especially good for flavor and health.

For this book, I tried to streamline traditional recipes to make them more accessible to busy, contemporary cooks

**A nice tip: To prolong the life of fresh ginger, bury it in a pot of sand or soil and leave it on the counter. It will keep for ages.

Q. When you were writing “A Spoonful of Ginger”, you studied with Chinese doctors and cooks.   Are there foods for some conditions or illnesses that the Chinese believe can help alleviate them?

A. I believe that you should take an integrative approach towards health and wellness, meaning that diet and lifestyle are critically important in maintaining good health. Obviously if you have a medical condition, you should see and consult a Western doctor, but there are some foods and dishes that have been shown to help. For instance:

Flu: For symptoms that include high fever, headache, and congestion of the eyes and throat: Cooked daikon radish with rice congee or porridge; peppermint -licorice root tea; and soybeans cooked with coriander are recommended.
Constipation: Honey tea; papaya; bananas with toasted black sesame seeds; Chinese cabbage juice; and rice congee with pine nuts, walnuts, and Chinese almonds.
Hypertension: Celery juice with Chinese dates; rice congee cooked with chrysanthemum flowers and rock sugar; and ingredients like wood ears, mung beans, fuzzy melon, kelp, and bitter gourd.
Help retard Aging: Reishi tea; white fungus soup; and ingredients like American ginseng, pine nuts, Chinese yams, walnuts, and wolfberries.

Q. What inspired you to write this book?  I hear it started with a stomach ache..

A. Yes, when I first went to live in Taiwan, I developed a horrible stomachache.  My surrogate Chinese mother suggested that I see her favorite doctor, who, as it turned out, was trained in Western and Traditional Chinese medicine.

Dr. Lin examined my belly and prodded different areas. He also took my pulses which are located around both wrists. He asked to see my tongue and then he asked me to list everything that I had eaten in the last 24 hours. I noticed that he made two lists, one for yin, the other for yang. Each time I mentioned a food, he would put it in the proper category. Finally, he told me that the stomachache was the result of eating too many yin foods and since I was already predisposed to being very yin, I now needed to counteract the condition by taking herbs and eating some yang dishes. But first he recommended that I eat rice congee, which is neutral and easy to digest to soothe my aching stomach.

Q. What was one of the most memorable experiences you had during the 7 years it took to write the book?  How much of that time did you spend traveling and researching?

A. I spent 7 years traveling, researching, and testing recipes for the book. During that time, I traveled to Asia at least 7 or 8 times, met extraordinary and wonderful people, and ate fabulous food so there were so many memorable experiences, but one of the highlights and another experience that inspired my writing the book was my first visit to the Imperial Herbal Restaurant in Singapore. As I recount in the first chapter:

“I was seated in front of Mr. Li Lian Xing, a Chinese herbalist who was trying to diagnose my malady. I complained that I had no appetite and that I was constantly cold. He checked the pulse of my right hand; it was weak and slow. He inspected my tongue and noticed it was pale and slightly white. He made his diagnosis: “You are too yin” he solemnly pronounced, and prescribed an order of baked lamb with Chinese wolfberries and a pot of “double-boiled” chicken soup (two yang dishes)

This was no ordinary herbalist’s office, although I was surrounded by Chinese herbs. We were seated at the front of the Imperial Herbal restaurant in Singapore where Mr. Li is the resident herbalist. From the day it first opened, eleven years ago, the Imperial Herbal had drawn praise from its local and international clientele for its masterful marriage of herbs and haute Chinese cuisine. And Mr. Li had acquired a devoted following of customers who came to the restaurant for treatment. I had come to be treated for a minor ailment and to sample the legendary food.”

Q. It’s been 11 years since the book was written. Why is it still relevant and how has the book been received over the past 11 years?

A. The book is perhaps even more relevant today than it was 11 years ago because more people are open to accepting the health-giving powers of food than ever before. Notice I use the term health-giving, rather than healing. I think it’s an important distinction.

When I first became interested in  “food as medicine” I could only talk to older Asian women about their home maladies. Not long after I was able to meet Chinese doctors and herbalists who believed in the traditional concepts and practiced them. There were few in the U.S, but many acupuncturists. Fortunately, I was introduced to Dr. Chun Han Zhu, a third-generation Chinese doctor who lives near Boston. He agreed to teach me about the basic principals of Traditional Chinese Medicine and herbs and food, but my other mentors were mainly in Singapore, Hong Kong, and China. Soon more Chinese doctors and Western doctors became interested in the subject as research proved its validity. I’ve watched the idea come full circle as the NIH approved research for western doctors and their research into the importance of a healthy diet and lifestyle as well as studying the health-giving qualities of foods.

Q. I hear you worked with the legendary editor, Judith Jones, who also edited Julia Child,, John Updike, and Fannie Farmer author Marion Cunningham. What was that like?

A. I was both honored and flattered when my agent told me that Judith Jones  was bidding on my book, but I also wanted to make sure that Judith understood  and agreed on the type of book that I wanted to write. I flew to New York to meet her before accepting Knopf’s offer and we talked for hours. I was thrilled by her enthusiasm. She is a brilliant, but demanding editor

Judith believes in pushing writers to do their best work, but she also loves food and is a wonderful cook. So she often would go home and make the recipes for her own curiosity and to see if they worked and tasted good.

We became even closer when she traveled to Asia with my husband, who took all of the photos for the book. Judith was a great traveling companion and was up for anything. More importantly, she was as fascinated by the people we met and as excited about the book as I was. It was/is a rare and wonderful thing to have an editor who shares your passion and pushes you to do your best so it has been a privilege to work with her. She also is very strong-willed, but so am I so we had our clashes, but in the end, it made “Spoonful” a better book.

Q. Could you talk about your background? How did you come to be fluent in Mandarin and become an award- winning author of Chinese and Asian cookbooks and an award-winning children’s book?

A. I grew up in a small town in New England which I hated, but it was good for two reasons: 1. I was able to study Mandarin in high school which was pretty unusual in the late sixties and 2. Since I disliked it so much, it compelled me to leave as soon as I could. I went to the University of Wisconsin at Madison for a year and dropped out since I decided I wanted to go to Paris to study food, language, and culture. As you can imagine, my parents were hardly thrilled.

I wrote to Julia Child to ask where to study. She promptly wrote back and said that at that time there was no really serious professional cooking school in Paris that she could recommend and instead, she suggested that I should go to Lausanne Switzerland. I had no desire to live or study in Switzerland so I decided that I should go to China and study food, language, and culture.

Unfortunately, at that time, China was in the midst of their Cultural Revolution so they were not allowing foreign students in – least of all to study classic Chinese cuisine, so I decided to go to Taiwan.

My parents were really upset that I had dropped out of school and they thought it was crazy for me to go live in Asia so they told me they wouldn’t pay for it, thinking that would stop me. They underestimated me because I was determined to go and so I hunted for a job, cooking to earn money for a ticket.

During the course of my job hunt, I ran into a classmate from Madison who had lived in Taiwan.  She gave me the name of a woman she had met and encouraged me to write to her. I did and explained what I hoped to do. After several months, I heard back from her. Fatefully, she was a famous cook, with a cooking school in Taipei where some of the best chefs in the city taught during the afternoon when their restaurants weren’t busy. Coincidentally, she had just compiled a book of their recipes and needed someone to help her translate it from Chinese to English so she said “You sound like a good friend, welcome to Taiwan”.  She invited me to live with her and help her translate her book.

It took me over a year and a half to earn enough money, but finally I bought a one-way ticket and traveled to Taipei. I was nineteen and didn’t know anyone so it was rather difficult at first, but I enrolled in courses in Mandarin, started studying Chinese cooking at the cooking school, and helping Huang Su Huei, who would become a friend and my surrogate Chinese mother.  I not only helped her translate and write the English edition for the book, but I lived there for 3 years, became fluent in Mandarin, worked and apprenticed in several superb Chinese restaurants, and helped write and translate two more Chinese cookbooks.

I returned to the U.S. reconnected with Julia and she introduced me to her friend, Anne Willan, a British cooking teacher and author, who had just opened a French cooking school in Paris. Julia suggested that I work at the school, assisting the chefs, translating their commentary, and teach Chinese cooking. So I worked a little more to earn money for a ticket and I went to Paris to study French cooking. I studied, and worked there for a year and received a Grande Diplome in classic French cooking.  And the rest is history!

Disclaimer: Herbs, foods, and other natural remedies are not substitutes for professional medical care.
For a specific health problem, consult a qualified health-care giver for guidance.