With countless restaurants in the gastronomic city of Hong Kong, not to mention the various cuisines from different regions of China, it’s easy to say that Chinese cuisine is a popular choice when it comes to dining out or ordering in.
The traditional (and supposedly healthy) Chinese dishes consist mainly of vegetables, seafood, and some meat that are steamed, lightly stir-fried in peanut oil or braised. However, sauces are the main Chinese food pitfall, as they can rapidly bump up a dish's sodium content - often way over the recommended daily intake level of 1500 – 2300mg (~ 1 teaspoon of table salt). Some sauces can also be high in sugar, which can turn a seemingly innocuous stir-fry into an entree-sized candy bar. On top of that, some dishes can be heavily battered, deep-fried, and coated in sugar-laden sauce. Therefore, skipping the cheeseburgers, fries, and milkshakes for dim sums and dumplings does not automatically make a meal healthy.
Here's how to dig in without blowing your diet:
For a starter, skip the fried wontons and sugary dipping sauce - the Chinese equivalent of bread and butter on the table.
Try to avoid:
1. Egg rolls: This popular appetiser is essentially deep fried dough with fried meat, eggs and a paltry amount of vegetables inside.
2. Fried rice: Rice, even when not fried, is best eaten as a side dish, as opposed to an entree. Here, fibre-void white rice takes centre stage, accompanied by hefty amounts of oil. Order steamed brown rice as a healthier alternative.
3. General Tso's chicken: Deep fried and smothered in a sweet and spicy sauce, this dish is packed with calories, sodium, and sugar—and no vegetables.
4. Lo mein: This dish offers plenty of sodium, oil, and refined carbohydrates (noodles), but is very low in fibre and protein.
5. Orange beef: Research has shown that diets high in red meat are linked to an increased risk of cancer and diabetes. If that’s not enough of a reason to steer clear of this dish, here's another: it's fried.
Try these instead:
1. Buddha's Delight: This medley of colourful vegetables and tofu cooked in soy sauce, ginger, and garlic offers plenty of vitamins, minerals, protein and fibre, which make this dish truly delightful.
2. Chop Suey: A vegetable-centric dish that consists of bean sprouts, bamboo shoots, napa cabbage, and water chestnuts stir-fried alongside your protein of choice. Order fish or shrimp as a healthier protein choice.
3. Steamed vegetable dumplings: Though the wrapper is quite starchy, vegetable dumplings are often filled with green leafy veggies. A good appetiser for sharing or eating as a meal on its own.
4. MaPo Tofu: This homey spicy dish offers a bean-based sauce with chilies, which help add flavour without a large hit of sodium. Some restaurants also include ground pork in this dish, but you can ask for a tofu-only version.
5. Any dish with light sauce / sauce on the side: Generous coatings of sauces is what turn most Chinese food dishes into sodium or sugar bombs. One way to nutri-up your dish is to ask for the sauce to be served on the side and add just enough to give the dish flavour. Alternatively, ask for the dish to be cooked with less sauce and oil.
To avoid cracking a fortune cookie that reads - "You are not fat you are eight months pregnant." try to follow my tips the next time you eat out at a Chinese restaurant.