“Nature is the best guide for healthy eating,” says Lan Thai (aka Chef Lando), the owner and head chef of Enclave Adventurous Superfood in Scripps Ranch. The fast-casual dining concept offers food as natural, delicious medicine. “Just look at fruit. You know when it’s in season because it tastes amazing and makes you feel amazing. Is there anything more seasonal than citrus and radicchio in winter? And those ingredients have been shown to boost your immune system.”
Only recently has food as medicine become a more mainstream approach in the West, though the importance of balance has been a vital part of wellness in the East for thousands of years.
“My parents were refugees from Vietnam, and before they came here, they lived off the land. We grew or raised everything we ate, and everything was seasonal. They didn’t know the science behind why they were doing it, but the knowledge was passed down to help them survive.”
The idea of balance is key to Thai’s philosophy. “Everyone now knows we should ‘eat the rainbow’ to make sure we are getting the right variety of nutrients, but I believe we need to taste it, too.”
Where colors offer visual cues as to whether or not your diet is balanced, Thai believes that the five flavor components tell us even more about what we might be missing or eating too much of.
“The five flavors are bitter, sweet, salty, sour, and umami, right? If you are eating a slice of pizza, you’re getting salt and umami, but nothing else. If you eat ice cream, you’re just getting sweet. A balanced meal should incorporate all five. Nature is the perfect guide.”
Thai puts this philosophy into practice with her lemongrass chicken. “This is a very savory, umami chicken,” she says, as she sautés kaffir lime, chile, turmeric, ginger, and sweet onion in a non-GMO rice bran oil. “Topping it with a citrus beet slaw with jalapeño and mint brings in the sweet and tart, and a little bitterness comes from the kale. The surprise of the tart flavor keeps you interested, and you’ll want to eat more.”
As we move into the bounty of spring, it’s easier than ever to build meals with a perfect balance of colors, textures, and flavors.
“I love green garlic and this is the only time it’s in season,” says Thai. “That and fruit. Fresh berries—I just eat them. I don’t like to mess with nature too much. For the garlic, I just grill it with olive oil and put it on fish.”
Using the five flavor elements as a base, fresh herbs provide an opportunity to add a layer of complexity and balance.
“Spring is a transitional period; we can still borrow the end-of-season citrus and marry it with all the things coming out of hibernation. Beets grow through winter, but spring is when they are at peak flavor. Same with mint and young garlic and other fresh herbs. We are also coming out of the cold, ready to jump-start into a new season.”
Too salty? Try adding plain rice or another starch. Balance bitter flavors with sweet or tart or salty ingredients. That balance will make you feel satisfied. If you’ve done all that and still feel like your dish is missing something, it’s probably fresh herbs.
“Vietnamese cuisine is all about balance, even balance in terms of temperature,” she says. “That lettuce next to your spring roll? Those herbs on your pho? They’re not a garnish! Eat it!”