16 July 2008

What to eat at a Chinese restaurant

Chinese cuisine is healthy, right? Nope, not if you're ordering your meal outside of mainland China. Westernised restaurants can be bad news for your heart and waistline.

Chinese food appeals to many of us because it's tasty and relatively inexpensive. We're also under the impression that Chinese cuisine is healthy as it includes large portions of vegetables and low amounts of fat.

That’s true when the dishes are prepared in the traditional Chinese way. But westernised Chinese restaurants have modified their food for our tastes and as a result, meals aren't as healthy.

Western Chinese restaurants offer appetisers, fried rice, meat rolled in butter and sweet sauces among their “goodies”. And to top it all, the portions are much larger than the ones served in mainland China.

So, if you want to eat healthily at a Chinese restaurant, you have to choose wisely.

1. Start by choosing a good restaurant
When you're in the mood for Chinese food, avoid Chinese restaurants where you can eat as much as you want for a fixed price. Chances are you may not want to leave the restaurant until you feel you got your money’s worth.

Unfortunately, if you do so, the restaurant will get your money, but you will get the kilojoules. This is not a win-win situation. Instead, go to a restaurant where the waiter takes your order.

2. Start with a soup
A smart move when eating at a Chinese restaurant is to order soup. This has two advantages: first, less overall fat in your meal and second, the soup broth will fill you up. This translates into eating less when the waiter brings the main course.

By starting your meal with an appetiser you may ruin your goal of cutting down on kilojoules, carbohydrates, fat etc. Pork ribs, egg rolls, fried wonton and any other fried foods are high in fat, sugar and kilojoules.

If the waitress brings Chinese fried noodles to keep you busy until the food is served, put them aside or ask her to remove them from the table. Instead, you can kill time while you wait for the food by drinking Chinese tea. It contains no kilojoules – unless you add sugar, of course.

3. Choosing the main course
When choosing the main course, look for dishes that contain a lot of vegetables and a small portion of meat. You can reduce kilojoules by choosing seafood or chicken instead of beef, pork, lamb or duck. You can also order two dishes: one that has meat as the base and one that is mainly vegetables, such as green beans or spinach, and mix them.

4. Avoid fatty dishes
Read the menu carefully and avoid the fattiest dishes. Some words will give you a clue: "rolled in butter or breadcrumbs", "crunchy", "deep-fried" etc. Find out if the meat was fried before being sautéed with the vegetables. If that's the case, ask if they can sauté the meat you've chosen instead of frying it.

5. Be careful with the rice
You know that you're going to be served a big bowl of rice. Avoid fried rice and regular soy sauce to flavour it, or else you'll end up with a lot of fat and sodium in your meal. If possible, ask for brown rice, which is rich in fibre. And make sure you stick to one portion of rice only: a ball the size of your fist.

6. Reduce the salt
Order dishes with light sauces. If you need soy sauce, ask for the low-sodium version and mix it with steamed brown rice, and not with fried rice. To add flavour to your meal, you can add hot sauce – it has less sodium and less kilojoules.

7. Share the dishes
If you have company, order one main dish, a soup or aperitif and some rice. Then share it.

8. Eat with chopsticks
Eat your meal with chopsticks. If you're as skilful with them as I am, they may slow you down. But don’t worry, because as with everything in life, it has a positive side: you'll probably eat less.

9. And for dessert…
As for dessert, order fruit. Steer clear of the ice cream with sugared walnuts, which I know from experience is hard to resist. But if you've followed the above recommendations, you'll feel pretty good about having eaten a healthy meal. So, why ruin it?

- (Emilia Klapp, July 2008)

About the Author:
Emilia Klapp has a bachelor in Nutrition Science, is certified as a registered dietician by the American Dietetic Association and author of “Your Heart Needs the Mediterranean Diet”. For more information about the author and the book, and to get a FREE list of the 10 Top Mediterranean Curative Foods, go to:


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