Bean Bulletin Q&A: Mary Lee Chin on Beans in Asian Cuisine

In this month’s Q&A we sat down with Mary Lee Chin, MS, RD, a registered dietitian and nutrition communications consultant with Nutrition Edge Communications. Mary Lee is a national expert and prominent voice in today’s food conversations, and is also the daughter of Chinese American immigrants. Mary Lee has great knowledge and personal interest in Chinese cuisine and culture. She was eager to share her passion for Asian cooking and insights for how beans are used in Asian cuisine.

BB (Bean Bulletin): Mary Lee, you’ve had an impressive career in the world of food and nutrition. Can you tell us a little about what led to your passion for food, flavor, and finding a career in dietetics?

Mary Lee: I am particularly interested in food production and food security, and that’s no surprise because I grew up in a very poor immigrant family. We were very food insecure. When it came time to choose a career, studying food and nutrition was natural. And as I progressed, I became very interested in food security.

My interest in food production and security transitioned from a career in clinical to the communications arena when I became a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Today, most of my work is focused around communicating about important issues in food and agriculture.

I feel very lucky to have found a career in dietetics because it’s a profession of generosity and mentorship. I’ve had so many great mentors and role models throughout my career, and I owe my success to the generosity of other dietitians who helped to shape my profession.

BB: That is wonderful. Consumers today have a great interest, almost hunger, for exotic foods, new flavors, and global cuisine. What do you think is fueling this interest?

Mary Lee: I think because we are a multicultural society we have the opportunity to be exposed to a lot of different foods. More and more people are traveling abroad and they are exposed to great cuisine and want to have it at home. Also, people who stay in this country have a great opportunity to explore cuisines from different areas. It’s much easier to experiment with exotic cuisines today. Even generalist supermarkets are carrying exotic ingredients so people can access exciting flavoring ingredients beyond salt and pepper.  It’s also undeniable that the interest in cooking is fueled by the increasing number of celebrity chefs and television shows dedicated to cooking.

BB: That is so true! Mary Lee, you have personal interest and expertise in Asian cuisine. For those who are unfamiliar, how would you describe Asian cuisine? What are the primary ingredients and flavors? Does it vary country to country in Asia?

Mary Lee: I think one of the major things to remember is that the term “Asian” food is an artificial construct, because there is nothing that really unites the countries of Asia. From language, religion, politics, and food – it’s a huge area with tremendous variation.

If you are exploring Asia from different regions, you’ll find different flavorings and ingredients. In the southwest (countries include India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Burma), they use naan and flat bread and strong flavors like cloves, black pepper, and hot chili peppers. That is the style of Asian cooking where we think of beans being a dominant part of the cuisine.

In Southeast Asia (countries include Vietnam, Thailand, and Cambodia), they have a lot of very fresh foods and many fresh herbs; more so than you find in other parts of Asia. They also use a lot of stir-frying and steaming for food preparation.

In the northeast (countries include China, Korea, and Japan), they use spices for not only food but also medicinal purposes. They also use noodles a lot in their cooking.

You can see that there’s a lot of variation across the Asian countries, but I would say the two largest commonalities amongst all Asian cuisine is the umami flavor and rice.

In traditional Asian cuisine, MSG is a key component of cuisine. In the 1960s, it went away as a popular ingredient, but the basis of the umami flavor is the glutamate (note: MSG stands for monosodium glutamate). Fermented fish, soy, and bean sauces are all high in glutamate, and that’s what gives the savory taste.

Rice is such a sustainer of life and is so critical to Asia. In my culture, one of the greetings when someone arrives at your home is “Have you had your rice yet?”  Each of the languages across Asia has many different words to say rice (raw rice, cooked rice, fermented rice, etc.). It’s a tremendously important food, and something I still eat a lot in my household.

BB: Beans have a pretty significant history and value in various parts of the world, and you mentioned the significance of rice in Asian culture. Is the same true for beans?

Mary Lee: With regards to Asian cuisine, you really look to India as the dominant area for bean use. They use beans in everything: flours, fillings, sauces, etc. I recently read a book about Indian cooking, and it discussed why you find more beans in that cooking than other cuisines. It’s because a large segment of the population is vegetarian, and of course we know that beans are a good source of protein, as well as fiber and other important nutrients like potassium. It makes sense that they would look to beans to get healthy plant-based protein.

In China, you are more likely to find beans used in sweet desserts than in savory recipes. My husband jokes that you have to be Chinese to like bean desserts. We make a sweet red bean soup with honey and sugar. If you were in the Philippines, this soup would be poured on shaved ice with condensed milk on the top.

BB: For home cooks that are inspired by Asian flavors, what ingredients would you recommend adding to the pantry to be ready to make delicious Asian dishes?

Mary Lee: Obviously soy sauce, but I would guess most Americans already have that in the kitchen. That is the basis. After that I would go into the Asian food aisle at the grocery store or an Asian food market and take a look at the rice wines, sesame oils, the variety of vinegars (rice vinegar, black vinegar). I use Shao Hsing wine in place of sherry wine in recipes. It’s made from fermented glutinous rice and millet. Shao Hsing is a city in eastern China that makes a high quality wine, so it’s called by that name. Other recipes will just call for “rice wine.”

I love experimenting with fermented sauces. They add great complexity to dishes. Asian cooking is all about building flavors – fermented black bean sauce, chili garlic sauce, hoisin sauce, sesame oil – they all build layers of flavor that are unique and combine for extraordinary flavor.

Also, take a stroll through the fresh veggie aisle at an Asian food market to find new ingredients. You’ll find so many greens – mint, cilantro, lemon grass, baby bok choy, Chinese broccoli, different squashes and gourds. Instead of buying canned water chestnuts, try buying them fresh! It’s a totally new taste and flavor sensation. 

Probably the best piece of advice I can offer is to be adventurous. Just wander and be open to trying new things.

BB: That is fantastic advice. Last question and the most important, what is your favorite bean dish?

Mary Lee: My favorite bean dish is mooncakes! They are small round cakes traditional to south China that are made with a thin crust filled with a rich filling that’s usually made with red beans, although black beans are also used.  If you go to China in the month surrounding the moon festival (in the fall) you will find beautiful packages of mooncakes that can sell for hundreds of dollars! You can also find them in Chinese bakeries where you can get a good mooncake for a few dollars. They’ve become a status symbol in China, and businesses owners will give them as gifts to their clients or colleagues.

However, I must confess that these are my absolute favorite, but the same is not true for my family. But we all love beans and eat them a lot in our household – chilis, casseroles and hummus. Our youngest son went to Tulane for college in New Orleans, so Red Beans & Rice has become a staple in our household. We make the red beans, use a little hot sausage, and put it over rice. We also make black beans and rice often, and put fresh red tomato salsa on top made with chopped tomatoes, red onion, cilantro, olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper. It’s delicious.

Thank you to Mary Lee for sharing her great wisdom in this month’s Bean Bulletin.

Mary Lee is a consultant to the food and beverage industry. Her clients include Ajinomoto, makers of MSG seasoning ingredients.