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When I first started cooking Chinese 25 years ago, I loved the food and thought it was healthy - but was it really fit?  I was surprised what I learned...
I got tips from restaurants on preparation and learned to cook food according to some traditional techniques but much of what I was cooking with healthy meats and vegetables was also loaded with fat and sodium. It was many years later when I had a Mongolian Beef recipe cameo in a San Francisco paper where they published the nutrition information that I was shocked at the fat and sodium in the recipe. The cause? I was using the techniques I had learned to cook great (but often unhealthy) Chinese food.

I also recall an article I read a few years back where the Chinese "take away" (as they call "take out" in the UK) was analyzed from a health standpoint and they found a particular meal contained a wine glass full of lard in a meal for just one person (appetizer and main course)! That original recipe I cooked in a local paper that was a family favorite, was actually beef deep-fried in two cups of oil at 375 degrees and then drained. It was then followed by a sauce that had way too much salt. Since then that recipe - and all of of my less healthy Chinese recipes - have been transformed and overhauled with an eye toward healther techniques and healthier ingredients to maintain the same great flavors but with far healthier results.

Although many Chinese cooking techniques such as steaming and boiling are very healthy, the reality is that many popular dishes use traditional techniques and ingredients that destroy the health of the dish: Lean chicken breast
coated and deep fried is a great example. And the great sheen you see on my restaurant dishes? - it's the result of lard that is often used in Chinese restaurants. Throw in some sodium and what starts out as "great fit ingredients" can be transformed into a good tasting but unhealthy mess.

So let's get to it! Some tips for cooking healthy Chinese that I use every week...
Tips on Ingredients
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  1. Keep Sodium Low. Check out low sodium soy sauce; when buying hoisin sauce check the labels as some contain far less sodium.  Same rule applies to other flavorings you will find in the Asian section of your grocery such as black bean sauces, garlic chili sauce, etc. 
  2. Look to low fat, high quality proteins. Chicken breast or pork tenderloin are two super-high quality proteins with low fat.  If using beef, look for round steak and trim off any fat pieces - eye of the round works particularly well here.
  3. Turn up the Vegetables! Use a few extra vegetables in your recipes and the more colors the better as peppers, celery, scallions, etc are all great sources of vitamins, antioxidants and other phytonutrients. Garlic is loaded with Allicin (see my blog post on "Health Benefits of Indian Food" for more on Allicin). And when you increase the vegetables, cut back on the meat a bit for a change.
  4. Replace fat with flavorings. Increase the use of some ingredients in your marinades depending on your mood - a little extra ginger, garlic or other flavorings like a hot Serrano pepper chopped; this helps counter the little fat you will be using. But when using flavorings like sesame oil that are high in fat, don't add back more fat than you are removing!  Let's face it fat does add flavor but you can also add flavor back in with other items.
  5. Watch Portions. Eat too much of anything and if the calories are excess, even the purest protein (e.g.eggwhite) the body will convert to fat.  I still regularly pile my plate too high with some of my favorite Chinese meals when I am really hungry (e.g. day after a hardcore workout or run) and I need to remind myself not to be swayed by the vegetables and lean chicken breast as an excuse to pile it on. Pile it on your plate and you will pile it on your waist (or elsewhere)!
  6. Get Spicy! Throw in some spice in to boost metabolism and burn fat - try hot serranos with the seeds, hot dried red peppers, or a nice hot oriental mustard at the table. Although not traditional I often grate some black pepper over some vegetables before stir frying - a different type of heat than the peppers used tradtionally and I just like it.  Studies have shown that hot spicy food can boost your metabolism by 10% so spice it up to burn some extra body fat! 

Tips on Techniques
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  1. Lower fat in stir-frying. For stir frying or what is often called "wok hei" or "chao" in Chinese cooking: although my wok over very high heat yields the best tasting food, I often now typically cook with my large non-stick saute pan over med-high for stir frying. This allows me to cut oil in half. The flavor is nearly as good but not quite as good as high heat just works best to "explode" the flavor out of chopped garlic. But the non sticks don't like high heat (hard on finish) and you can modify by using a garlic press to still bring out the garlic flavor. Cut oil in half and get flavor almost as good via non stick for many dishes.
  2. Watch the deep fry! Avoid wherever possible deep fat frying with lard or oil that is the basis of many Chinese recipes.
  3. Go beyond stir frying to Steaming and Boiling.  It's a great way to cook with very little fat. One of my kids favorite dishes is a rice powder ginger steamed beef - great way to have a lower fat form of beef with no added fat. And also serve super healthy vegetables. You can get really creative with a steamer!  You can also cook with no added fat by poaching marinated meat. I do a lean pork tenderloin with vegetables that has the meat marinaded, poached and then mixed with stir-fryed vegetables with very little fat. I also do a simple Chinese Hot Pot with lean chicken, all kinds of vegetables and herbs like mint and cilantro and some other items like serranos and scallions and rice noodles. Boiling can be very healthy.
  4. "Velvet" your Chicken.  Velvet chicken breast with pure protein in egg white for great soft texture. The velveting techniqe is something I will include in my recipes section or a separate blog as it takes more explanation.

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So enjoy all the great flavors of China; although I cook Chinese every week the culture and food is so diverse every day could be a new dish. And while enjoying it, use the ingredients and techniques that will taste great but stilll keep your body super-fit and healthy.  I'm hungry.... 

 


Comments

Vijai Shankar
06/10/2011 12:17pm

This is a great article and very informative. Though I love Chinese food, I must agree there is a marked difference having food from not so great restaurants to take-outs. Definitely I do think the nicer restaurants take care in cooking and are healthier than the take-out places.

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    Every Day Fit GourmetTM 
    Ingredients, Cooking, Fitness

    A high tech marketing guy with no time who loves gourmet food from around the world, eats it every day, and cares about staying fit and healthy.