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Chinese people are famous for the love for food, and delicious food plays an important part of our daily lives. A lot of times, a family gathering or social occasion is considered complete with a grand Chinese banquet. When we choose the dishes, however, our concern should not be limited to picking the food with the right appearance, aroma and taste. We should also adopt a healthy approach and bear in mind the importance of a balanced diet.
Principles of choosing healthy Chinese dishes:
- Number of courses and portion sizes
When ordering, aim for a suitable amount of food according to the number of people attending the feast and their appetite. Order food to satisfy our hunger but not our taste buds, and do not attempt to show our hospitality by the number and portion of the courses. Instead, we should order fewer dishes for a start, and place additional orders of rice, noodles or other dishes later on when needed. We can also ask for the advice on the number of courses from the waiter to avoid ordering more than what is needed, which may cause overeating.
- Choice of ingredients and food combination
When choosing what to eat, we often take personal preference and the taste and appearance of food into account, but a balanced combination of food should be a more important factor to consider. Many people focus on ordering meat and fresh or dried seafood as the main courses, but tend to ignore vegetables and grains when dining out. However, whether it is Chinese or Western meal, the Healthy Eating Food Pyramid should be the principle to refer to when ordering food, i.e. vegetables and grains should be the main ingredients of the dishes ordered. For example, a third to half of the ingredients of all dishes should be vegetables (e.g. leafy vegetables, sprouts, gourds, root vegetables and tubers, mushrooms and seaweeds, as well as beans), with the rest being protein-rich food such as meat, poultry, fish, seafood, legumes and bean products. We should also remember to consume an adequate amount of grains, such as rice and noodles. It would be ideal if the meal is completed with fruit.
When selecting the dishes, we should reduce the use of ingredients that are high in fat, cholesterol, salt or sugar. We should also pay attention to the following principles.
- Meat: We should choose fresh lean meat, fish or seafood. Poultry should be skinned before eating. Limit the intake of fatty meat (e.g., roast pork, stewed fatty pork, pork belly, spare ribs, Chinese ham, pork feet and pig’s ears), poultry with skin (e.g., roast duck, chicken claw, chicken wings and goose feet), offals (e.g., pig’s brain, liver, kidney and large intestine, chicken gizzard, fish roe, shrimp paste and crab paste) and preserved meat (e.g., barbecued meat, salted or smoked meat, salted fish and salted eggs). Seafood that is rich in cholesterol, such as abalone, cuttlefish, squid and hairy crab should only be eaten in moderation.
- Bean products: Choose dry beans and bean curds which are lower in fat content, and try to reduce the use of deep-fried or preserved bean products, such as fried bean curds, fried bean curd stick, fried bean curd sheets and fried gluten.
- Vegetables: Most of the vegetables are naturally high in dietary fibre, low in fat and cholesterol-free. However, preserved vegetables should be limited, e.g., fermented cabbage, preserved mustard green and pickles.
- Soups: Soups with vegetables, lean meat or fish as ingredients are generally healthier choices than those with fatty meat and pork bones. Light broths are usually lower in carbohydrates, fat and energy when compared with chowders and thick soups.
- Grains: Limit consumption of fried grains, such as E-fu noodles, oily noodles, fried rice, fried noddles and fried glutinous rice. Better choices include white rice and noodles or rice vermicelli in soup.
- Cooking method
The dishes should largely be prepared with low-fat cooking methods. Boiling, steaming, stewing, baking and simmering are some of the better ways to process the food. Try to eat less dishes with deep-frying food (e.g., sweet and sour pork, deep-fried crab claws and deep-fried chicken) and dishes added with a lot of condiments (e.g., spare ribs in sweetened vinegar, stir-fried beef in sweetened soy sauce). Also watch out for keywords like ‘fried’, ‘deep-fried’ ‘with spicy salt’, ‘salted crispy’, ‘roasted with sauce’, ‘fried or sautéed in sauce’ etc. These words often indicate the excessive use of oil or salt during the preparation.
Try to reduce fried or deep-fried desserts (e.g., deep-fried doughnuts or pastry with red bean paste, deep-fried mango rolls), as well as desserts that are made with ingredients rich in saturated fat (e.g., coconut milk, coconut shreds and ingredients with animal fat added, such as lotus seed paste, red bean paste, yolk butter and puff pastry). Alternatives with less fat include sweet soup of papaya and white fungus, bean curd stick in sweet soup, red bean soup and mung bean soup. As for sesame soup, walnut soup and almond soup, they contain less saturated fat which is adversely affect the heart health, but generally speaking, they are still high in fat and should only be consumed in moderation.
Having said so, as most of the desserts are prepared with excessive amount of sugar, the healthiest way will be using fresh fruit as the desserts after a feast.
As for drinks, try to avoid alcohol (including spirits, wines and beers) and keep high-sugar drinks (e.g., soft drinks and concentrated fruit juice) to a minimum. Instead, water, tea, clear soup or other low-sugar drinks (e.g., diet soft drinks, low-sugar green tea, low-sugar chrysanthemum tea and low-sugar soy milk) are good choices of beverages.
- Number of courses and portion sizes
Other tips on healthy Chinese dining
- Limit intake of snacks with high fat or salt content, such as roasted salted peanuts and pickles.
- Request the chef to cook with less oil, soy sauce and condiments, and have the dishes and their sauces to be served separately.
- Ask the waiter to serve vegetables, soup, rice, noodles or dishes cooked with less oil first. This will increase our sense of fullness before eating food that is higher in fat, thereby reducing the consumption of such.
- When holding a banquet, arrange for one to two vegetarian dishes to meet the taste of different guests and encourage everyone to eat more vegetables.
- Reduce the condiments available on the table, such as salt, soy sauce, oyster sauce, chilli sauce and chilli oil.
Sample Chinese banquet menus
Sample 1: For general occasion (serves 8-10 persons)
- Stir-fried scallops, celery and fresh lily bulbs
- Stuffed hairy gourds with minced dace
- Grass carp soup with papaya and white fungus
- Steamed garoupa fillets in lotus leaf wrap
- Simmered vegetables and mushroom in fish soup
- Braised pork and bean curds with mixed vegetables and white fungus
- Dumplings in broth
- Braised rice noodles with white cabbage and chicken
- Sweet soup of aloe and water chestnuts
- Fruit platter
- (Beverages: Chinese tea and sugar cane drink with no added sugar
Sample 2: Business dinner (serves 8-10 persons)
- Steamed chicken and jelly fish platter
- Abalone slices with sea cucumber and lettuce
- Steamed soup of vegetables and seafood in wax gourd
- Braised bamboo fungus with mushrooms and vegetables
- Steamed garoupa
- Crab meat and pea sprouts with garlic
- Shrimp wontons with noodles
- Steamed rice with asparagus and egg white in lotus leaf wrap
- Sweet soup of white fungus, red dates and lotus seeds
- Fruit platter
- (Beverages: Chinese tea and fresh orange juice)