Is Chinese Food Unhealthy?

According to a new study from the Center for Science in the Public Interest, food served in Chinese restaurants has unacceptable levels of fat and sodium for the average American diner who is trying to follow a healthy diet. This report has hit the Associated Press and has traveled all over the press and the net over the past few days, so it seems inevitable that I should stand up and say -something- since much of what I write about revolves around Chinese food.

What can I say about this report other than, “Well, duh!”

Chinese restaurant cooking has never been particularly healthy, and unless there is consumer demand for it to change, it will not ever be healthy.

Why is this?

In part it has to do with the tastes of the average American diner which tends toward liking overly sweet, overly salty sauces and dishes that include deep fried nuggets of meat drowned in said sauces. These dishes are also often served with fried rice which includes another unhealthy dollop of fat and salt in the form of lots of cooking oil (to keep the rice from sticking) and thick soy sauce, which gives the rice its characteristic and expected savory brown color. In this sense, the typical Chinese-American restaurateur is giving the public what it wants and expects: lots of fat, salt, sugar and starch on a plate.

The other reason, one which is not mentioned in most reports of this study, is that the way in which Chinese restaurant chefs typically cook is not how Chinese home cooks cook. Thus, even dishes that are supposedly “stir-fried” are going to contain more oil and fat in a restaurant than when they are cooked at home. Stir-frying and dry-frying are two techniques that typically require very little oil, and when cooked at home, dishes made in this way are generally extremely flavorful, and healthy.

However, it isn’t just deep-fried dishes that need to be avoided in Chinese restaurants–one has to be aware that in most Chinese restaurants, even stir-fried or dry-fried dishes are not necessarily cooked with a minimum of oil.

Most Chinese restaurant chefs cook at much higher heats than home cooks can muster, and because they are dealing in volume and speed is of the essence, and they want to create food that has a splendid flavor and texture, they often resort to the technique of “oil-blanching” all meats in deep, boiling oil, before pouring out most of the oil and continuing with a my typical stir-fry. However, even though they pour off “most” of the oil, there is still a good deal more than the typical 2-5 tablespoons of oil that is used in home-based stir frying–there is often twice as much oil (or more) as would be found in a typical home cooked stir fry.

Dry-fried foods such as Sichuan crispy beef or green beans are also deep-fried in boiling oil rather than the low-oil technique that home cooks use. Why is this? Well, proper dry frying can take up to twenty minutes, whereas the same dishes can be executed in a restaurant by using deep frying oil in about three minutes. It is a matter of time, but of course, the restaurant patron ends up with extremely oily food that they believe to be healthier than it actually is.

Why oil blanch foods for stir frying? It is simple: it saves time in a restaurant kitchen, and it produces very tender meats if it is done quickly. (The longer you deep fry an unbattered piece of meat, the drier and chewier it becomes–as in the cause of Sichuan dry fried beef. A briefer dip in oil as in oil blanching results in a deliciously tender, juicy piece of meat because it cooks instantly.)

So, while the Center of Science in the Public Interest is right to warn diners away from the breaded, deep-fried dishes in American Chinese restaurants, they really should make mention of the fact that the stir-fried dishes really aren’t as healthy as most Americans expect them to be, because they still contain more oil than is necessary for a real stir fried dish.

This is no surprise to most Chinese-Americans, by the way. The tradition of Chinese restaurant food has always been that it is richer and heavier than food cooked and eaten at home. Most Chinese Americans are under no illusions about Chinese restaurant meals being healthy, and if they eat out in them often, many will make the request that the food be cooked “in very little oil.”

Also, many Chinese restaurants have two different menus–they have the usual one that caters to American tastes, and then they have one that is geared more toward the traditional tastes of the Chinese and Chinese-American clientele. The dishes on the latter menu, tend to include many more braised, steamed and traditionally stir-fried dishes which use much less oil.

In my experience, I have never been refused when I have asked for the Chinese menu, nor have I had trouble ordering fantastic food from one that was by far, much more healthy and tasty than the usual fare. In addition, I have never had a problem asking the waiter to tell the cook to use very little oil in a stir fry or to use a light hand with the soy sauce.

If you are polite and friendly, most folks at Chinese restaurants are quite willing to customize their foods to your request.

However, if you are looking for the healthiest, tastiest Chinese food available–do what I do, and make it yourself.

That way, you know exactly what went into it, how it was cooked and you can ensure that you are making the best possible dinner for you and your family.

So, yeah, Chinese restaurant food is generally not too good for you.

But Chinese home food is not only healthy, but delicious.

So, break out the wok and steamer and cook up some great food!


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  1. We are very lucky here in SF that we have tons of good Chinese restaurants that don’t cook like that. I’ve also been very lucky in chosing food from the “Chinese” only menu. The only time that it wasn’t tasty as when I got some sort of pig’s nose and that pig had been rooting around in something nasty.

    Comment by Nancy — March 24, 2007 #

  2. Hmm, no, not a surprising bit of news at all! Any idea whether the restaurant version of hot and sour soup (especially without the bits of mystery meat added) is any good nutritionally? Or where I might be able to find out? It’s one of my favorite comfort foods. Then again, maybe it’ll be more comforting to NOT know, right?
    Thanks for your many informative posts!

    Comment by Stacey — March 24, 2007 #

  3. So if you ask for the Chinese menu, how do you know what to order?

    Comment by Diane — March 25, 2007 #

  4. I will note that a typical Chinese restaurant can and regularly does give you food that is healthier than standard fast food. Go for plain rice instead of fried rice, veggie laden dishes over meat heavy ones, and tea or water instead of soda. Even if there’s no “Chinese” menu, you’re still better off than with the hamburger. Good solid choice if you need food *now* and a restaurant is the only option.

    The biggest thing to watch out for is that a restaurant will typically give you a dish that serves 2-4, and price it as if it were an individual dish. Just because they’re giving you that much food doesn’t mean you have to eat it all. Ask for a box, or if you know the portions are huge, ask if they can do a half portion.

    Comment by Emily Cartier — March 25, 2007 #

  5. I love the Chinese restaurants of San Francisco, Nancy. Every time I visit the Bay Area, I love the fact that I am surrounded by wonderful Chinese and other Asian food. It is like a wonderland of flavor.

    Stacy–hot and sour soup is generally reasonably salty. If your Chinese restaurant uses home made chicken stock, then the sodium content is way lower than places that use a powdered broth as a base. The meat is usually chicken or pork, btw.

    The vegetables and tofu, on the other hand, are quite nutritious. The way I make it, when I make it vegetarian, it is great and low fat and lower in sodium.

    Diane–most of the Chinese menus are in both Chinese and English–because not every Chinese-American still reads Chinese anymore! (Though, the English translation and description is sometimes sketchy, I have to say….)

    I agree Emily. And, in truth, so does the CSIPI study–I mean, most of the time, Chinese restaurants do give you better food than what is available from fast food or casual dining restaurants.

    And yes–you aren’t supposed to eat the whole portion at one time! Chinese restaurants serve food meant to be shared family style, not eaten by a single diner!

    Comment by Barbara — March 25, 2007 #

  6. I was startled by the small (to my limited experience) amount of time you gave as required for dry-fried beef, which is one of my Holy Grails. I tried both methods from Henry Chung, and found the quicker version less good than the interminable one– but if I recall correctly also more than twenty minutes….

    Thanks for this post, by the way. I’ve spent at least a week telling folks that the news story is really about “Chinese” food, not Chinese food.

    Comment by Mary Ann — March 25, 2007 #

  7. I pretty much dismissed the article outright with the thought that it’s about *restaurant* food, not Chinese food. This happens to every fast-food-ized cuisine.

    For what it’s worth, there are some fast-food Asian restaurants around here where they cook the food in front of you, and I can see that they’re just putting raw vegetables in a drizzle of heated oil and cooking it quickly over high heat.

    Comment by Indefatigable — March 25, 2007 #

  8. Great things in life always have a price. We know that it’s unhealthy because of the way it is cooked but some like it so much. It’s only a matter on how we like it. We have to eat moderately to stay healthy

    Comment by Vic — March 26, 2007 #

  9. I pretty much dismissed the article outright with the thought that it’s about *restaurant* food, not Chinese food. This happens to every fast-food-ized cuisine.

    Would have to agree, and I feel like we’ve heard this before about Chinese restaurant food – although I’m sure people can stand to be reminded every few years. I do think the article could have clearer from the get-go that this is about Chinese restaurant food, not Chinese food generally.

    And I agree with the second part of your statement as well. The food my Nana makes bears little resemblance to the Olive Garden’s. And I wouldn’t buy that Italian food is generally unhealthy because what you get at Macaroni Grill is unhealthy.

    I’m really lucky in DC that there’s a Chinese takeout place that offers steamed dishes, nice crunchy veggies, brown rice, sauce on the side, etc. I’m amazed at how little sauce I need when I add it myself.

    Comment by Bomboniera — March 26, 2007 #

  10. That’s always the problem of getting things done fast. If we want to be sure that the food we eat is safe, we must take time in doing it.

    Comment by Oscar — March 26, 2007 #

  11. The last few comments made me thing about how in engineering we call this the quality triangle imagine a triangle, at each of its points you have either good, fast, or cheap
    and the theory goes that you can have any 2 points, but never 3 or lie somewhere in the middle. Good & Fast, but you’ll have to pay. Fast & Cheap, but probably not good. Good & Cheap, but never quick enough.
    I’d never thought about it in relation to food and restaurants, but now I think it totally applies.

    – Kerrie

    Comment by KCatGU — March 27, 2007 #

  12. If I stand on my roof, on a clear day, I can see all those fancy Chinese restaurants in San Francisco. But getting there? Egads, not today pally boy.

    The boys and I recently found a local Chinese restaurant that they absolutely love. Notice the use of “They”. Well, okay I love it as well, but not for the food.

    It’s located in an old American diner that must be over 40 years old. Odd peaked roof, sparkly cottage cheese ceiling, large wooden rafters sticking out everywhere, black vinyl booths that Tom Jones would love and a staff with hearts as large as the moon. Everyone that enters the doors are welcomed and sometimes called by name. Everything is hot, served quickly and you’re looked after all through your meal.

    That being said, the food is so odd. While I can’t confirm it, most of the stir frys and soups are all brown. Okay, I know what you’re thinking, soy sauce ya bone!

    No, it tastes like that brown gravy powder. It’s like, Wonton Soup with brown gravy on top. The chicken chow fun has the same undertones. And the potstickers are mostly steamed with no searing and are quite sloppy and wiggly. Not a firm dim among the sum.

    But it’s close enough to walk to, the boys love it and I enjoy the “architecture”. Ahhh, the joys of Richmond.


    Comment by Guy Prince — March 27, 2007 #

  13. I agree. People get this misconception that all Asian food is unhealthy, based on Westernised Chinese restaurants.

    Perhaps the noodle soups would be a healthier option at restaurants?

    Comment by Kym — October 8, 2008 #

  14. […] Americans, that means cutting down on fried fatty foods. You know what I’m talking about. Sichuan crispy beef, pad thai, samosas, dim sum. The key is to educate yourself on your diet and watch what you […]

    Pingback by Diabetes & Asian Americans, Part I: Asian Americans More Likely to Have Diabetes | Health | — January 31, 2011 #

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