Today is the first day of the year 4686, the year of the dragon, and tonight many Washingtonians, whether Chinese or not, will celebrate by feasting on the popular and largely healthful Chinese cuisine.
Not that Chinese food is the perfect health food, even with its emphasis on fresh ingredients. It is often high in sodium, sometimes high in fat. And, because Americans tend to eat more of the meat and seafood and less of the rice, their version of Chinese food can be long on cholesterol and short on carbohydrates.
However, all is not lost. There are ways for both restaurant goers and home cooks to bring its healthfulness more in line with its image. After all, the cuisine is healthful in concept. The low-cholesterol, high-carbohydrate diet that developed in China out of necessity is today's standard prescription for long life.
Quick stir-frying in a little oil over high heat seals meats and vegetables so they retain their flavors and vitamins. Virtually no dairy products are used -- eliminating some of the highest-cholesterol offenders. And because of meat's traditional scarcity and costliness in China, it has always been regarded as a savory condiment (in small portions) meant to help large amounts of bland carbohydrates "go down." Noodles in the wheat-growing north and rice in the south make people feel full while only a few ounces of meat make them feel satisfied.
Freshness in food is practically a Chinese fetish, and unprocessed foods are, of course, a cornerstone of healthful eating. The food-health connection is another centuries-old Chinese tradition; people value herbs and plant roots such as ginger and ginseng for their restorative properties. While most Americans are not ready to think of food as medicine, we are concerned about nutrition, especially salt and fat control. So here are some tips for the different health concerns of Chinese food fanciers.
The MSG Problem
The well-known "Chinese restaurant syndrome" -- a mixture of transient symptoms that may include skin tingling, nausea and dizziness, stomach cramps, headache, rapid heart beat and malaise -- is usually blamed on MSG (monosodium glutamate). MSG is one of the oldest, most widely studied food additives -- and the most ubiquitous.
Though scientists have not substantiated it as the cause of the "syndrome," why take a chance when the flavor enhancer won't be missed anyway? Besides, the "S" in MSG stands for sodium, another reason for doing without it.
At home just leave it out when a recipe calls for MSG. Use shaoxing rice wine or dry sherry to heighten flavor, but avoid cooking wines because they contain salt. The water used to rehydrate dried mushrooms is another flavor enhancer. Or add a little homemade, defatted chicken stock to a dish to intensify flavor.
In restaurants just tell the waiter "no MSG." Chinese chefs say they get a lot of these requests, and a few restaurants boast that they never use MSG. Others can leave it out of main dishes that are cooked at the last minute, while sweet-and-sour dishes rarely contain MSG to start with. To be on the safe side, don't order soup, egg rolls, dumplings or other appetizers that are prepared ahead since they probably contain the additive. Or choose soups that serve several people since they are likely to be put together at the last minute -- but ask if the stock is MSG-free.
Pass on Salt, Please
Omitting salt in recipes and using low-salt soy sauce are at-home options, but the real key to success in reducing the salt content is to cultivate a taste for dishes prepared without soy sauce. While soy sauce is considered essential to most beef and pork dishes, many fish and chicken dishes don't require it. Clay pot casseroles, steamed foods and clear-simmered foods are particularly suited to home cooking and have no soy sauce. Dip foods in Chikiang (black) vinegar -- which tastes like balsamic vinegar -- to perk up the flavor. And since sugar is usually added to counteract saltiness, dishes cooked without soy sauce also contain less sugar.
A cook-at-the-table hot pot with ingredients you order individually is a perfect restaurant dish for the no-soy sauce diner. Other traditional dishes without soy sauce are chicken velvet, steamed fish with ginger and spring onion, chicken with black mushrooms and green vegetables, fish in wine sauce, steamed chicken wrapped in lotus leaf, tea smoked chicken, boiled pork with lotus root, stir-fried squid with broccoli and boiled prawns.
Fat and Cholesterol Countdown
Most restaurants use soybean oil, while cookbooks suggest peanut oil; both are cholesterol free and relatively high in polyunsaturates. Most cooks don't like the flavor of olive oil in Chinese food, but dishes frequently receive a flavor boost from a few drops of rich, dark oriental sesame oil.
To keep down the fat, store away your wok and buy a super-size, no-stick frying pan for stir-frying at home. Lightly oil the bottom, and cook food in small batches over high heat to avoid steaming it. Or forego the oil and pour in some defatted stock. Heat it to boiling, add food, stir to coat and cook quickly until just done.
Since food stir-fried at home never tastes as good as in restaurants because home stoves -- especially electric cooktops -- cannot produce the extreme high heat of commercial gas wok burners, switch to steeping, steaming, braising without soy sauce or red stewing with a small amount of soy sauce. Cook the food ahead to simplify removal of fat. At home or in restaurants, vegetables such as spinach, watercress, bok choy, chinese cabbage, ong choi (water spinach) and romaine lettuce can be steamed instead of stir-fried, then topped with a little oyster sauce.
Kitchens in China often have no ovens, so roasted and barbecued foods are purchased ready-cooked. Roasting in the average American kitchen is no problem, and roasted foods require no additional oil. For the crispest outside, put meat directly on the oven rack in the middle of the oven, and place a water-filled pan on the bottom to catch the drippings and prevent them from burning. Even though roasted foods are a good choice at home, watch out for peking duck and barbecued spareribs in restaurants. They start out roasted, but to crisp and heat them, chefs deep fry them when you place your order. Grilling and broiling are not typically Chinese, but the techniques can be adapted. Marinate meats and fish in hoisin, plum or other sauce to insure a crisp exterior without additional fat.
Using less meat is the best way to reduce the amount of cholesterol in meals. Select lean cuts and trim all visible fat. Though it's a little more expensive, consider buying pre-sliced pork in the Chinese grocery. Usually well trimmed of fat and gristle, it's so thin that a little goes a long way. Most fish are good choices for a low-cholesterol diet, shellfish is low in fat and chicken in Chinese cooking is usually white meat skinned and cut up. Duck has more fat and is best saved for special occasions. Organ meats are the highest of all in cholesterol.
Egg-drop soup is okay if it is made with egg whites only, since the yolks contain the cholesterol. Skip the fried noodles that restaurants serve with the soup, and order a crunchy cold cabbage appetizer to nibble on instead. And, deep-fried dishes should be reserved for special occasions, or never at all. At home, cook over very high heat in fresh oil to keep down the amount of oil the food absorbs. At a dim sum brunch avoid flaky buns -- the kind filled with curried meat, red dates or lotus seed paste -- because they are often prepared with lard or butter.
And give beancurd a try both at home and when eating out. With vegetables or a little ground pork, stuffed with ground shrimp, or eaten in broth, tofu is a good source of protein and calcium. A cup of tofu and a cup of potatoes have approximately the same number of calories, about 150.
High on Carbohydrate
"Have you eaten rice?" This typical greeting is the Chinese equivalent of our "hello." In China people eat bowls and bowls of rice, but in the United States many people ignore it completely to eat more of the meat dishes -- just the opposite of what health guidelines recommend. Traditionally, Chinese people have considered white rice more refined, but you can substitute the more nutritious brown rice, though it does take longer to cook. In restaurants avoid fried rice because of the oil, soy sauce and egg. Some dishes may come with steamed buns or other Chinese bread, and oriental groceries sell these unfilled peking buns ready-to-cook. Steamed, they add interest and bulk to a meal.
It's easy to skip the tea that appears automatically on the table in Chinese restaurants, but a hot drink is satisfying after a good meal. At home decaffeinated tea is an option, or try out caffeine-free ginger tea that you make with fresh ginger or special ground ginger powder.
Sweetness and Light
Except at banquets, fresh fruit is the Chinese idea of a great dessert. Many restaurants here have taken to serving fresh oranges with the fortune cookies, but the home cook may prefer a more exciting spiced cooked fruit. If you have the option, choose sorbet over ice cream or, better yet and if caffeine is no problem, enjoy a calorie-free cup of fragrant jasmine or litchi tea.