Chinese Fare

Chinese cuisine is complex and highly developed, offering significant contributions to the world's food experiences. With its focus on vegetables, rice, and noodles, Asian-style cooking also has earned its place as a nutritious option in a healthful eating pattern.

Chinese cuisine reflects the different cooking styles, ingredients, and flavorings of China's many regions. Restaurants may specialize in foods from Canton, Hunan, Peking (Beijing), Shanghai, or Szechuan, for example. Cantonese-style cooking is the most popular in the United States, largely due to the number of Cantonese immigrants in the mid-1800s who brought their cooking styles with them. Cantonese cuisine of southeastern China features roasted and grilled meat, steamed dishes, stir-fried dishes, and mild flavors. Szechuan and Hunan foods tend to be hot and spicy, and perhaps higher in fat. Peking cuisine of northeastern China is noted for skillful, subtle uses of seasonings. Shanghai-style has more seafood. The term "Mandarin" on menus usually refers to aristocratic cuisine, featuring the finest aspects of all regional cuisines.

Chinese meals emphasize rice or noodles, and vegetables, with their contribution of starches. Vegetables are good sources of fiber, beta carotene (which forms vitamin A) and vitamin C, and phytonutrients, too. Meat, poultry, and seafood are served in small portions, often sliced and cooked with vegetables. Tofu, or soybean curd, is a common, high-protein, low-fat, cholesterol-free ingredient, too. Many Chinese dishes are roasted, simmered, steamed, or stir-fried, so they're likely to be low in fat.

From a nutritional standpoint, the areas of caution in Chinese dining are the fat and the sodium content. Deep-fat frying is a common cooking technique for many menu items. Sometimes foods are stir-fried in large amounts of oil. For those who are sodium-sensitive, know that two ingredients with more sodium—monosodium glutamate (MSG) and soy sauce—often are used to flavor foods. MSG, however, has a third the sodium of table salt. See "MSG— Another Flavor Enhancer " in chapter 7.

Calcium-rich foods are limited on Chinese menus since milk, cheese, and yogurt aren't part of the tradi tional cuisine. Most calcium comes from fish with edible bones and from vegetables such as broccoli and greens, although the amount of calcium per half cup portion is much lower than in eight ounces of milk.

Whether you eat in or carry out, keep these ordering tips in mind at a Chinese restaurant:

  • Enjoy the flavorful soups as a starter or a main dish. Many are made with clear broth with small amounts of meat and vegetables. Made by cooking eggs in the broth, egg drop soup and hot-and-sour soup are higher in cholesterol; the amount, however, is small since there's not much egg in a single serving.
  • Go easy on fried appetizers. Fried wontons, crab rangoon, and many egg rolls are deep-fat fried. As an option, order steamed spring rolls or egg rolls.
  • Enjoy the vegetable variety in Chinese dishes! Besides the familiar bell peppers, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, chile peppers, green onions, mushrooms, and bean sprouts, Chinese dishes feature bamboo shoots, bok choy, lily pods, napa, snow peas, and other vegetables. Flip to the vegetarian section of the menu, for dishes featuring tofu and legumes.
  • For less fat look for dishes that are braised, roasted, simmered, steamed, and stir-fried. Ask that stir-fried dishes be cooked in just a small amount of oil.
  • Order plain rice and noodles rather than fried versions. Plain rice and noodles usually are lower in sodium, too, than fried versions, which are flavored with soy sauce. Crispy skin on poultry dishes such as Peking duck is high in fat.
  • Be aware that the meat, poultry, or fish in sweet-and-sour dishes is typically breaded and deep-fat fried. Instead, ask for roasted or grilled meat with sweet-and-sour sauce to cut down on fat.
  • For less sodium, go easy on foods prepared with MSG, soy sauce, or high-sodium sauces such as black bean, Hoisin, and oyster sauce. Ask to have your dish prepared to order without high-sodium seasonings or sauces. You might ask for light or reduced-sodium soy sauce to add yourself. Or instead, choose dishes prepared with hot-mustard, sweet-and-sour, plum, or "duck" sauce, which have less sodium.
  • For a small bite, enjoy dim sum. Translated as "little heart," these small portions include steamed dumplings and steamed spring rolls. Go easy on fried dim sum dishes. To order dim sum, you choose your dishes from a server, who passes your table with one dish after another. As a result, you can easily overeat!
  • Enjoy your fortune cookie—and the fortune inside! A single cookie has just 15 calories and 0 fat gram. Typically, Chinese meals don't give much attention to sweet desserts. Usually you'll have ice cream, fresh fruit, or almond cookies.
  • Control the urge to overeat. In Chinese restaurants portions are often quite ample. For a sit-down meal order the amount you need, not necessarily a meal special with several courses. Ask for half a portion if you can. Plan to share a dish; perhaps order two or three dishes to serve four people. Or take leftovers home with you. Skip popular Chinese buffets, or go easy.

From the Chinese Menu

Enjoy more often:

Wonton soup

Hot-and-sour soup

Steamed spring rolls

Chicken, scallops, or shrimp with vegetables

Whole steamed fish

Steamed rice

Steamed dumplings and other dim sum

Soft noodles

Stir-fried dishes*

Steamed and simmered dishes


Fortune cookies

Chinese Fare: Fitting within the Food Groups



Grains: Fortune cookies Dumplings (potstickers, others) Noodles Rice

Rice noodles, rice sticks Rice congee (rice soup) Wonton or eggroll wrappers

Fruits Guava Kumquat Lychee

Orange, mandarin oranges



Pummelo (large citrus fruit)

Vegetables Asparagus Baby corn Bamboo shoots Bean sprouts Bell peppers Bok choy Broccoli Carrots Chives Long beans

Mushrooms (straw, wood ear, others)

Napa cabbage Pea pods Tofu*

Water chestnuts

Milk Milk

Soy cheese (calcium-fortified) Soy beverage (calcium-fortified)

Meat and Beans Beef

Cashews Chicken Eggs Fish

Mung beans



Shellfish (shrimp, crab, lobster, scallops, octopus)

Oils Peanut oil Sesame oil

Vegetable (soybean) oil Healthy oils from cashews, fatty fish

Enjoy less often:

  • Fried wontons
  • Fried egg rolls or spring rolls
  • Peking duck
  • Fried fish with lobster sauce
  • Fried rice
  • Fried dim sum
  • Fried noodles
  • Fried "crispy" dishes, sweet-and sour dishes with breaded, deep-fried ingredients
  • If cooked in just small amounts of oil, they can be quite low in fat. Stir-fry dishes, however, can be quite oily (e.g., lo mein).
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