Healthy Chinese Food. Oxymoron? Not at all.
A friend of mine left last week on her first business trip to China, nervous but excited for the experience. One thing concerned her in particular:
“How can I avoid gaining weight in China? Does healthy Chinese food even exist?”
Chinaful’s answer: Absolutely! Chinese cuisine is one of the most health-conscious, though in a more holistic sense of “health” rather than for weight loss. Garlic is in most Chinese dishes, and the benefits for skin and immunity are well known. Many fish and vegetable dishes can simply be steamed if desired, and the preference in China is for fresh ingredients (with the big exception of MSG, still a popular additive).
Your approach to less healthy Chinese food options should be similar to the ideas proposed by Mireille Guiliano in French Women Don’t Get Fat; it’s tough to moderate yourself on foods that are so tasty as dumplings, dim sum, and Beijing duck, but if you do, you won’t gain weight. (And like the women who walk in France, biking around China can be the exercise you need to stave off a few extra pounds.)
A good Chinese girlfriend gave me this advice: never eat more 菜 “cai” (dishes) than you have 饭 “fan” (rice or noodles). It can be hard when eating communally to know how much food you have consumed until you start to feel very, very full. The idea is that Chinese food is so flavorful, you often want to counteract the strong, spicy or sweet flavor with plain starch, so as you eat from the protein and vegetable dishes, your rice will disappear in proportion. To be extra careful about your weight, serve yourself less than a full bowl of rice and adjust your food intake accordingly.
A few more tips I’ve learned to stay slim and try all the dishes I can, both healthy Chinese food and not-so-healthy:
Do as the Chinese do – drink warm water. Chinese rarely drink ice-cold water like Westerners do. Instead, if you want water instead of tea, the water is served slightly less than hot. It’s an adjustment at first, but Chinese swear by warm water as a key to good health. I fought it at first, but I’ve come to love it. I find it has the same calming affect as dessert at the end of a meal, and it also makes me feel full without overeating.
Take a small amount of each dish – it’s not only healthy, it’s polite. When a dish is placed on the table at a Chinese meal, it’s expected that you won’t take a full portion right away but instead will take a spoonful portion and offer it to your neighbor (if you want to be extra polite, you should offer to your neighbor first). Use this etiquette to limit your portions and to limit your waste. You’ll want to save room to try everything, so don’t fill up early.
End your meal with fruit, not dessert. Sugary sweets are not at all popular in China – even cookies and cakes are light on sugar and have little if any butter. Most meals at traditional Chinese restaurants end with large, ornate plates of fruit. There are also some desserts that are red-bean or gelatin based, but fruit is the healthiest choice and an easy way to avoid adding calories.