“When you are a martial artist”, the great kung fu master and movie star Bruce Lee once said, “you only eat what you require and don’t touch foods that don’t benefit you”.
This focused approach to food as little more than fuel underlines Lee’s whole attitude to his discipline. Everything was put to the service of the martial art he developed – jeet kune do – which promoted an all-encompassing approach to living life to its full potential and, as he put it, the art of expressing the human body.
Lee would start his day with a bowl of wholegrain muesli with nuts and dried fruit; at lunch he would have a modest meal and a larger dinner would follow in the evening (homemade spaghetti Bolognese served with a leafy green salad was a regular favourite). Between meals, Lee would also snack on lighter but still nutritious dishes.
Central to these smaller meals was a dish that he would often get his wife Linda to make for him: liver congee. This rice dish, which can be found throughout Asia in varying forms, is made by boiling rice until it reaches a soup-like consistency. Linda would then throw in liver or other offal cuts such as kidney, brains or heart. “Bruce was fond of steak,” she recalls in a book about his training methods, “and for a while we even made a practice of having liver once a week”.
In addition to congee, Lee had a penchant for beef in oyster sauce and generally preferred Asian food to western dishes because of the variety of flavours and ingredients that could be found at a single meal. He also favoured the balance of meat to vegetables in eastern dishes.
Bruce Lee was born in San Francisco on 27 November 1940 (in the hour of the Dragon ((between 7am and 9am)) in the year of the Dragon, naturally) but grew up in Hong Kong where he began his martial arts training aged 13. At 18 Lee returned to the US to study philosophy at the University of Washington in Seattle, where he met Linda. There he also began training students in the art of Chinese gung fu (aka kung fu).
Lee believed in Confucius’s view that “In teaching there should be no class distinctions.” He wanted to instruct both Chinese and western students, a view that brought him into dispute with kung fu elders in the US, and in the winter of 1964/5 he had to fight – literally – for the right to teach beyond his Chinese community. He won the bout in just three minutes and went on to train the likes of Hollywood stars Steve McQueen and James Coburn. During this period he also developed his own form of the art – in around 1967 he coined the term jeet kune do to describe it (loose translation: “way of the intercepting fist”).
Around this time Lee’s abilities began to be noticed by Hollywood. His first movie was 1966’s The Green Hornet, and during filming his movements were so fast that the camera failed to capture them properly and he was asked to slow down. This marked the start of a film career that peaked with a string of classic kung fu movies: The Big Boss (1971), Fist of Fury (1972), Way of the Dragon (1972) – which was directed and written by Lee – Enter the Dragon (1973) and The Game of Death (1978).
His work not only established him as a bona fide celebrity, but also promoted martial arts in the west, leading to a boom in people wanting to learn about kung fu and its health benefits. Lee’s diet and nutrition were a key part of his training process. He was 5ft 7in and weighed 135 pound (by the time he made Enter the Dragon his weight was down to 125 pounds), and he trained constantly. But Lee himself did not have time to study nutrition or give it even the scantest thought; that role fell to Linda.
“I was the one who did more research in the field of nutrition because, truthfully, Bruce couldn’t boil water – nor did he care to learn,” she said. “He didn’t have that interest or the time to put into that. When I was cooking, he was working out, so I just tried my best to provide well-balanced meals that were both healthy and nutritious.”
In addition to his balanced diet and the between-meal snacks of liver congee lovingly boiled up by Linda, Lee also enjoyed drinking tea (coffee was another matter – he hated the taste and never drank it). When he was filming in Hong Kong in the early 1970s, Linda would make him up a strong flask of tea with a tablespoon of honey stirred in to sip between scenes. He would also drink liberal amounts of lei cha, Chinese milk tea.
Lee was also ahead of the trend for juicing. Well before electric blenders and juicers were in fashion, the Lee family had a juicer that saw heavy work. Lee would consume a couple of protein drinks a day, or supplement one with a juice. This could be made with rich, leafy dark greens sweetened with carrot juice, or – his favourite – a combination of carrot, apple and celery. Carrots would make up the lion’s share of the drink, apples would provide a third and then a little celery and often some parsley was added for a hit of flavour.
The protein shakes, meanwhile, were made from powdered milk, water, ice, eggs, peanut butter, wheat germ, bananas and brewer’s yeast. This concoction would be added to protein powder bought from a shop in Santa Monica. Lee would usually drink two a day.
But if he really wanted to boost his protein intake, Lee had his own special recipe: “Add peanuts, eggs (with shells) and bananas into the powder with milk and mix them in a blender. If you really want faster results use half-and-half instead of ordinary milk.” As shakes go, it packs a punch. But as his films prove in vivid Technicolor, so did Lee.