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One of the basic tenets of a healthy diet is variation and balance, and we can learn a lot from the Chinese. For them, food means a variety of dishes providing a harmonious blend of color, texture, flavor and aroma. Vegetables are a central part of the meal, adding texture, flavor and, above all, valuable vitamins and minerals. Traditional dishes are steamed and braised, which are much healthier than fried or battered dishes.

Underlying all Chinese cooking is the ancient food-science theory of yin and yang, which is closely related to Chinese beliefs about health: balance is the great regulator of life. All foods are divided into three groups: yin for cooling foods; yang for heating foods; and yin-yang for neutral foods. Most Chinese are taught the yin-yang principle from an early age, and use it to construct a diet to achieve the right balance or harmony.

Whatever the cuisine, if it's prepared in the true Chinese way, it will be healthy. Perhaps this is because the Chinese diet is basically semi-vegetarian. On average, Chinese dishes have a three-to-one vegetable to meat ratio. The traditional Chinese diet is nutritious. There is also plenty of fresh seafood and low-fat tofu (bean curd), lots of rice or noodles (providing important starchy carbohydrates); and the common use of quick stir-frying - a cooking method that preserves vitamins. For home stir-frying use peanut oil, as it is relatively bland and doesn't easily degrade or smoke unhealthily at very high temperatures. To minimize the amount of oil needed in stir-frying, ensure the wok is very hot before adding the oil. Don't add the food until the oil is sizzling hot - this reduces absorption by the food.

Authentic regional cuisines, such as Cantonese (Southern), Peking (Northern) and Szechwan (Western), when prepared in the true Chinese way, are nutritious. Cantonese cooking is regarded by many as the finest in China. The area is famous for its sweet and sour dishes, for its dim sum (hot hors d'oeuvres of pastry cases stuffed with a mixture of delicacies) and for its widespread use of soy, hoisin and oyster sauces. While chillies are the essential hot ingredients of spicy Szechwan cuisine, a whole spectrum of tastes can be experienced: salty, sweet, vinegary and hot. Chillies, however, far from irritating the stomach, may help to heal peptic ulcers.

Essential ingredients in authentic Chinese recipes also include garlic, spring onions, fresh ginger, Chinese dried mushrooms, bean curd, soy sauce, bean sprouts, fresh coriander, black beans, skinless chicken and pork in moderation, bamboo shoots, and spice powder. These ingredients are available fresh or tinned from Chinese grocers and health food shops. Chopped garlic is usually the first thing into the wok. It should sizzle and turn a golden color. Eating garlic regularly is thought to help keep cholesterol levels low, and contribute towards maintaining a healthy heart and circulation. Both the green and white parts of spring onions are used, but the green parts are added after the white, as they need less cooking. Spring onions contain vitamin C, folic acid and some beta-carotene. Fresh ginger provides a wonderful flavor and also helps counteract strong odour from other ingredients. It's thought to be helpful in stimulating the circulation and can also soothe an upset stomach. Chinese dried mushrooms are available in many varieties, and add flavor and aroma to a meal. They need to be reconstituted in hot water for half an hour before use. Bead curd (tofu) is made from yellow soybeans, which are soaked, ground, mixed with water and then cooked before being solidified. Bean curd is high in protein and low in fat. A high consumption of Soya-based products is also linked with a lower risk of breast cancer. Soy sauce is made from a mixture of soybeans, flour and water. It is naturally fermented and aged for months. Light soy sauce is best for cooking. Dark soy sauce is aged longer, and is heavier and blacker - ideal for stews and as a dipping sauce. Soy sauce is generally salty, but light soy is less so than the dark variety. Fresh coriander is used as a garnish and seasoning and has a very distinctive musky, citrus-like flavour. This herb provides vitamin C and some essential minerals. Black beans are small black soybeans that are preserved by fermentation in salt and spices. They are used as seasoning, often in conjunction with garlic or ginger. They are salty and may need to be avoided by people on low-sodium diets. Bamboo shoots, available tinned, are the young edible shoots of some kinds of bamboo, used to add a crunchy texture to food. Five-spice powder is a liquorice-tasting powder, which includes star anise that is similar to common aniseed. It is often used sparingly in marinades and imparts a rich taste and fragrance. Bean sprouts are a good source of vitamin C. While chicken cooked in water reduces the fat content, it contains iron and zinc, plus the B vitamin Pyridoxine, that is essential for metabolism of amino acids and starch.