Nutrition Column – Dining Out Healthy – Asian Style

Confucius said, "A man cannot be too serious about his eating, for food is the force that binds society together." This statement summarizes the importance of food in the Asian culture. Preparation is meticulous, and consumption is ceremonious and deliberate. Because of the emphasis on vegetables, rice and relatively little meat, Asian food tends to be very healthful. It pays, however, to know the preparation methods being used.

Here are some ordering tips to consider the next time you head out to your favorite Chinese, Japanese, Thai or Vietnamese restaurant.

Chinese cuisine

– For lower fat and calories, order steamed spring rolls or steamed egg rolls for appetizers rather than fried wontons, crab rangoon or fried egg rolls.

– As an alternative appetizer, try one of the flavorful soups. Many Chinese soups consist of clear broth with small amounts meat, vegetables or both.

– Ask for plain rice and noodles in place of fried rice and noodles to lower both your sodium and fat intake.

– Look for stir-fried or steamed dishes with a variety of vegetables, steamed rice or poached fish. Request that stir-fried dishes be prepared with a limited amount of oil.

– Know that items that contain the word jum are poached, chu means boiled and kow indicates roasted.  

– To reduce sodium intake, request that your food be prepared without salt, monosodium glutamate (MSG) or soy sauce. Ask that other salty sauces be served on the side.

Japanese cuisine

– Learn the words that indicate less fat: nimono (simmered), yaki (broiled), and yaki-mono (grilled).

– For something different, try edamame, which are fresh, steamed soybeans in the pod.

– If you are watching your fat intake, avoid battered and fried dishes such as tempura, agemono and katsu.

– Try domburi, which is a meal in a bowl that contains rice, vegetables, meat or poultry.

– Instead of rice, try Japanese noodles – uban (wheat noodles) or soba (buckwheat noodles) once in while.

– To limit sodium intake, use high-sodium sauces sparingly, such as soy sauce, miso sauce and teriyaki sauce.

Thai and Vietnamese cuisines

– Choose from the wide variety of menu selections based on the staples of Thai and Vietnamese cuisines: rice, noodles, vegetables and reasonable portions of seafood and meat.

– For something new, look for a dish that contains fruits and vegetables common in Thai and Vietnamese cuisines but less familiar in the United States, such as bamboo shoots, straw mushrooms, bitter melons, green mangoes or pomelos.

– Ask your server what type of oil is used to prepare the dish you are ordering. Request vegetable oil be substituted if lard or coconut oil is used.

– Know that Thai soups, curries and desserts are often made with coconut milk or cream, which are very in high in calories and saturated fat.

– Request little or no nam bla (a high-sodium Thai fish sauce) be added to your food.

– For people watching their sodium intake, avoid dishes made with salty condiments like salty eggs, dried shrimp and fish paste.

by Pat Kendall, Ph.D., R.D., Food Science and Human Nutrition Specialist, Colorado State University, Cooperative Extension