Ethnic Eats: How Healthy Are They?

Remember how back in the nineties, the Center for Science in the Public Interest took on Chinese food? There were headlines in all the papers exposing the fact that the kind of Chinese food Americans were eating was shockingly high in calories and fat and sodium.

So did people get mad at the Chinese restaurants for not trying to make dishes healthier? Or, did they get mad at themselves for ordering the least healthy options? No, neither of those. As I recall, they mostly got mad at CSPI for reporting on the issue at all. CSPI was accused of being a nagging whiny cranky spoilsport for dissing stuff like egg rolls, fried rice and chow mein.

And I remember thinking at the time: duh! Stupid people, don't shoot the messenger! Did you really think the presence of a few chopped up vegetables in your deep fried carbs would magically transform the whole greasy mess into something healthy? But many people thought this was unfair, because clearly they were taking the high road by going to Chinese restaurants, and eating in close proximity to vegetables. So what if they weren't actually putting many in their mouths?

(And when CSPI revisited Chinese food a couple years ago, they found more healthy options. But still, there is a shocking amount of sodium, fat and calories in a lot of these dishes. Like, sometimes 2 days worth of sodium in a single dish. Also, you can end up eating 900 calories in something that sounds light, like an order of stir fried greens.)

Anyway, so here's my problem, and it's one I hope y'all can help me with. I love Chinese food, as well as Thai, Burmese, Vietnamese, Indian, Korean, Ethiopian, Greek, Turkish, Lebanese, Italian, Mexican... and all kinds of other foods from faraway places. (Though for some reason, not a big fan of Japanese. Sorry, sushi!)

And luckily, lots of these food contain very healthy ingredients. Like fresh exotic veggies and nuts and olive oil and healthy spices like curry and a variety of whole grains I don't usually get around to eating.

But... when I go out to eat, I have the same problem I do at most "American" restaurants: it's often hard to avoid a lot of ingredients I don't want to eat much of: like sodium and white rice and white flour, butter, cured and fatty meats, and many vegetable oils that may not contain transfats but are high in Omega 6's rather than Omega 3's.

(Huh? What's wrong with corn, sunflower, safflower, soy, and cottonseed oils? The tedious explanation is back here in this Omega 3 and Omega 6 post).

So I obviously have a few options here:

1. I can go to ethnic restaurants infrequently and order very carefully;

2. I can do takeout from these restaurants a little more often if I healthify the meals a bit when I get home; or,

3. I can cook more ethnic dishes from scratch so I can control the ingredients and make it as healthy as I want, and eat it every damn day if I feel like it!

So far, I've been doing mostly #2 (and I have some suggestions I can pass along on that). But I'm figuring if there's anyone can help me on #3, it would be clever Cranky Fitness readers.

Can you help a cooking-impaired Crab with some healthy international ideas?

First, a few tricks for healthifying Ethnic Take Out:

1. Swap out White for Brown: many Asian restaurants don't offer brown rice; many Mediterranean restaurants don't offer whole grain breads, wraps or pasta; many Indian Restaurants have the white Naan but not the whole grain Roti. If this is the case at your local joint, try to remember to stock your freezer with some whole wheat pita or already cooked and frozen nukable brown rice (Trader Joe's is a good source). Or, many grocery stores now have little plastic bowls of pre-cooked brown rice that sits in your cupboard. (It's not as good as the frozen kind or the real kind but it's easier to find).

2. Spare that Sauce! Often what's wonderful about Indian or Thai or whatever are the wonderful rich spicy curries and oils and gravies. However, these are often full of sodium, drawn butter, cheese, suspicious oils, lard, or who knows what. In my opinion, life's too short to skip these! But often restaurants send you home with far more sauce than you need to douse the other ingredients. So don't mindlessly pour it all on your plate; pick out extra vegetables and meat and use the sauce more sparingly. Then you can often make another meal the next day with the addition of more nuked chopped vegetables, some more brown rice or bread, and an easy protein source like frozen cooked shrimp or tofu or leftover chicken or chickpeas or whatever the heck you keep around.

3. Be a pain in the ass when ordering! (Always fun when the person taking your order is speaking English as a second language). Sometimes, especially if you're a regular, you can get them to go easy on oil, add more of your favorite veggies and go easier on the meat, replace butter with olive oil, etc. Dr. J has a helpful post on how to do this.

4. And don't order stupid things! Sometimes people take a perfectly sensible choice about cuisine "I feel like Chinese," or "Let's do Italian" and then use that as an excuse to eat junky stuff because it's "traditional." A fried doughball is a fried doughball, whether you get it from an Indian restaurant or a Chinese restaurant or Dunkin' Donuts. And even if the "Mediterranean diet" is generally good for you, fettucine alfredo is not a health food.

Okay, so that wasn't very many tips. Whatever. Perhaps you folks have some more good ones!

But What About Cooking Ethnic Food at Home?

Here's why I don't do it enough:

Most recipes you get from American sources, especially "light" cookbooks or cooking magazines, don't end up tasting all that much like real ethnic cuisine. (Premade sauces from the grocery store are even worse). But if you find a more authentic recipe, it often calls for tons of exotic oils and herbs and vinegars and spices that are either hard to find or really expensive. Plus there's usually something Evil in there that makes it taste good, and if you try to modify that too much it doesn't taste nearly as good as it does in a restaurant.

Do you guys have any good suggestions? I suspect there might be some good healthy international type recipes that require just a few non-standard ingredients, not 87.

Like Camevil's awesome lentil salad, which besides the basic ingredients required only the purchase of garam masala. And garam masala turns out to be a lovely spice that I wouldn't have known about otherwise! (The dish turned out to be quite tasty and I'd definitely make it again. And the second day I added some chopped nuts and dried fruit to it cause I'm weird that way, and it was really good that way too.)

So what sort of ethnic/international food do you guys eat? Do you go to restaurants, modify take out, or make it from scratch?

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