Valuing African-American food

African-American food, sometimes called soul food, combines the food preferences and cooking methods of the African slaves with the available ingredients and available fuel found in the United States. Slow cooking with lots of vegetables and meats, eating lots of greens, combining fruits and meats in main dishes, and deep-frying meats and vegetables were cooking traditions brought to the United States. At the time, their foods, which contained too much fat, cholesterol, sugar and salt, did not hurt the overworked abused slaves because their daily energy needs were so great. Today, the more sedentary African-American population suffers from one of the highest incidences of obesity and diabetes, not to mention high blood pressure and the consequences of those diseases. As their energy needs fell, African-Americans didn’t reduce their calorie intake.

The term soul food also points to the central place of eating in the African-American population. In the slave quarters, the preparation and sharing of good food helped the slaves to maintain their humanity, helping those even less fortunate than themselves, who might have had no other material possessions, food became the one symbol of wealth that wasn’t taken from them. It also served as the focus of the creativity and artistic expression of the female slave.

But people don’t have to abandon soul food. African-American cooks at home and chefs in the restaurants have learned to use all the healthful ingredients, such as fruits, vegetables, and grains, with much smaller amounts of fat, sugar and salt. They use spices in place of salt in very creative ways to bring out the taste of their fresh ingredients. The meats afre leaner, and they use egg whites instead of the whole egg. They also avoid deep-frying as much as possible.

A new book published in March 2009 called Vegan Soul Kitchen by Bryant Terry (Da Capo Press) shows that you can make great soul food without animal protein or dairy.

The psychological implications of food in the African-American means that changing from less healthy to more healthy food requires a change in mindset. African-American cooks can be just as creative or even more so with healthful ingredients. The use of less fat, less salt, and less sugar is essential, but other ingredients have to take their place. Quantities of food must be modified, and this may be the most difficult change, given the importance of food both as a symbol of wealth and for sharing. People must eat fewer cakes, pies, and cookies and find ways to creatively prepare fruit to take the place of sweet baked goods.

Appreciating Chinese food

When you think of Chinese food, you think rice. But China is such a huge place, and rice can’t be grown everywhere. In the north, millet is used to make cereal. About 1500 BC, wheat was introduced from West Asia. Vegetables such as soybeans and cucumbers were added to the rice occzasionally a little bit of chicken or beef was added. Ginger became a favorite flavouring because it was so readily available.

The Thais gave chicken to China, and pork was already there, while Westerners brought sheep and cattle. The Chinese, mostly peasants, had little fuel and little cooking oil. Consequently, they learned to cut their food into very small pieces so it would cook rapidly, using little oil for their stir-frying.

Around 1000 AD, because Buddhists, who made up a large part of the population, wouldn’t eat meat, tofu or bean curd was introduced. The Chinese also learned to make long noodles from wheat and rice.

Chinese cuisine is generally healthful. It includes lots of vegetables, fruits and seafood, while keeping sugar and desserts to a minimum. People with diabetes need to avoid eating too much rice. Chinese restaurants offer wonderful vegetable dishes, many with tofu as a protein source. You can go into any Chinese restaurant and find numerous dishes that have only vegetables with tofu and protein source.

When you cook Chinese food, use as little sugar and fat as possible, and steer clear of making deep-fried dishes.

Welcoming French food

French food is always associated with the term “haute cuisine,” which means fine food prepared by highly skilled chefs. This kind of cooking derives from Italy and was introduced to France by Catherine deMedici. The French added their own subtle techniques to the methods of the Italians from Florence, adopting their use of truffles and mushrooms and preparing lighter sauces.

The French gave the world the technique of serving a series of dishes, one after the other, instead of a large buffet where people helped themselves at everything at once.

France has several distinct culinary regions:

The north: Abundant forests provide game, and streams provide dish.

The central area: The red wines provide the basis for much of the cooking.

The south: Goose liver, truffles, and Roquerfort cheese combine with Mediterranean olive oil, garlic, and tomatoes to produce the distinctive cuisines that is loved throughout the Western world, especially in its new lighter form.

You can go to Paris and find plenty of vegetarian restaurants. French chefs-some of the best in the world-are geniuses at using whatever ingredients are at hand to make delicious meals.

Enjoying Italian food

Italian food reflects the history of Italy. Until 1870, Italy was divided into many different regions, with each one developing its own cuisine. Therefore, there is no one Italian food, but there are some common trends.

The food of northern Italy features more wild game, such as deer and rabbits, along with some farm animals, such as beef, chickens and goats. Seasonings include garlic, onions, rosemary, and bay leaves.

In the south, much closer to the sea, seafood receieved much more emphasis. Southerners also developed some of the famous cheeses like ricotta and percorino. It was here where the Italian staple, the artichoke, was first discovered and cultivated.

The invasion of Arabs from North Africa in southern Italy around 800 AD brought some of the foods that are now most typically thought of as Italian, things like melons, dates, rice, and lemons, but their major contribution was pasta. The Spanish gave the tomato to Italy, but the Italians took it over and made it their own.

Today, northern Italian cooking emphasizes cream and meat sauces. Rice dishes like risotto and polenta made from yellow corn are enjoyed along with gnocci, a dumpling contributed by Germany.

As you move south, the olive becomes part of many dishes, along with wine for cooking. In southern Italy, the tomato is the basis of most cooking, particular in its use in pasta dishes. The cheeses mentioned earlier also are featured. The closeness of all parts of the region to the sea, as well as the islands off the western coast, means that fish will be found in many meals.

These mouthwatering dishes are not denied to the person with diabetes. The Mediterranean diet, with its emphasis on olive oil, has been shown to be healthy for your heart. One of the key changes you may need to make, however, is to reduce the amount of fat in your ingredients. Olive oil is a fat, and as you add more of it to your dishes, the calories climb rapidly. When Italians worked hard in the fields all day or travelled long distances to hunt or fish, they needed those extra calories to sustain them. But when was the last time you lifted a shovel or bagged a deer?

A second important step is reducing the size of your portion of pasta or risotto, whether you eat it at home or in the wonderful Italian restaurants. None of the recipes give you more than a cup of pasta or 2/3 cup of rice. Compare that with the usual 3 cups of pasta at a restaurant, and you quickly discover what changes you need to make.

On the other hand, the great fresh fruits and vegetables in Italian cooking are just what the doctor ordered, like the tomato, the artichoke, and the beans. These fit perfectly into the new emphasis of the federal food guidelines on fiber and reduction of fat. They also are the reason that Italian food is one of the easiest to convert to vegetarian.

Top off your meal with a glass of Chianti from Tuscany. But skip the rich Italian desserts or share a dessert with three other people. We don’t think these changes will be a hardship. They take nothing away from the glory of Italian cooking.

Feasting on Mexican food

Mexican food comes from the Mayan Indians of the southeastern part of the country. They were hunters and fisherman, so their main sources of food were wild game, such as rabbit and turkey and fish. Their diet also included beans and corn. The Aztecs later added chocolate, vanilla, honey, and chilli peppers. After Spain conquered the country in 1521, the Spanish diet began to influence Mexican food. The Spanish brought livestock like cows and pigs and taught the Mexicans to make cheese and bread.

The type of Mexican food that has become so popular in the United States, the burrito is a stuffed wheat tortilla. The Spanish brought in the wheat, so the burrito isn’t exactly an indigenous food of Mexico. The Mexican tortilla is made of cornmeal,not wheat.

Mexico has been influenced by other colonial powers, including France, Portugal, all of the surrounding islands in the Caribbean, West Africa, and South America.

As a result of the influences of other countries, Mexican food can be much more complex than the burrito. If you buy a small burrito, you get a fairly good combination of beans, chicken or beef, rice and salsa, but you also may get your daily dose of salt in this single food. When you make your own, however, you can control the amount of salt.

The ingredients in a burrito, minus the high salt content, can make a nice meal in a hurry. When you make burritos, be sure to avoid cheese and excessive rice and watch out, especiallly, for the hot pepper. Leave out the chicken or beef and you can enjoy a delicious vegetarian burrito.

Savouring Thai food

Thai food is a good choice for people with diabetes. It is cooked with little fat because stir-frying is the method of choice. Thai cooking keeps the meat, fish, and poultry to small quantitites, thus providing taste rather than bulk, as in a Western diet. The dipping sauces have strong tastes, so they’re used in very small quantitites, minimizing the salt and sugar in the diet. Vegetables are eaten in large quantities. At the end of the meal Thai enjoy fruits like mango, pineapple, guava, and papaya, which provide fiber, vitamins and minerals. Therefore, it’s easy to convert to vegetarian eating when you eat Thai food. Just leave out the meat, fish or poultry.

Thai food, like Italian food, is also the product of many influences. Westerners introduced milk into Thai cooking, and because coconut milk is so readily available, this became a staple of Thai dishes. The Chinese coming down from the north brought stir-frying with them, as well as noodles. Thanks to the Chinese, the five basic flavors of Asian cuisine – bitter, salt, sour, hot and sweet – were established, and Thai meals use them as their basis for a balance of flavors. Dishes made with soy and ginger are a good example.

India brought curry dishes to Thailand, with coconut milk serving as an antidote to the hot spices in some of the curry dishes. The Thais have put their own delicious stamp on their curries, using a lot of green chili pepper, also given to them originally by Westerners.

Southern Thai food is usually hot and spicy, and fish is a major ingredient because the area is so close to the sea. However, you can always get dishes that aren’t so spicy, and the subtle tastes of good Thai cooking have made it tremendously popular in the United States and throughout the world wherever Thais are found. Rice generally is part of the meal.

Most Thai dishes have garlic, a condiment that grows all over Thailand. Coconut milk, actually a combination of the coconut flesh and the liquid inside the coconut, is added to Thai curries and soups. Fish sauce, made by fermenting shrimp, salt and water together, takes the place of soy sauce in Thai cooking.

In American Thai restaurants, a dish called pad thai has become a favourite entree. It means “Thai-style stir-fried noodles” and was brought to Thailand by the Chinese. When employment was low in Thailand after world war II, the government promoted noodle shops and stalls as a way of getting people back to work, and pad thai noodles became popular throughout the country. Thai immigrants brought the dish to the United States. It is not exactly representative of the finest Thai cuisine, but it’s eaten so frequently in the United States that it must be considered when the diabetic has Thai food, particularily because the sauce often contains a lot of sugar. A small portion of pad thai is fine for the person with diabetes, but leave at least half of the serving for another day.

Thai food is so nutritious that there is little about it to warn the person with diabetes. As always, avoid large portions and too much rice. And be careful of the hot spices.

Eating the rest of the world’s cuisine

Covering all the world’s wonderful cuisines in detail isn’t possible in this book. We tried to cover the most popular foods in the English-speaking world, but we could devote an entire book to every type of cuisine. But we hope that you will come away with a few general tips about these foods from around the world.

 You don’t have to give up the foods you love because you have diabetes.

Food is also love, sharing, social status, wealth (which is represented for slaves), and a lot more.

You can avoid the empty calories in fatty, sugary desserts.

  • from the book, Diabetes Cookbook for Dummies, by Alan L. Rubin, MD, and Cait James, MS

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