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Nutrition Smarts

Choosing Chinese

Chinese food is the most popular ethnic cuisine in the United States, according to the National Restaurant Association. Nearly 10 percent of all full-service restaurants here are Chinese; in fact, there is one Chinese restaurant for every 9,400 people!

The large variety of entrees, appetizers and, well, tastes on a Chinese menu is what attracts so many diners, who have made Chinese food popular both at the restaurant table and to go. While some traditional dishes are high in fat and salt, Chinese menus also feature lots of vegetables and grains—all good choices as centerpieces of a dish. And like many others, Chinese restaurateurs are beginning to respond to growing public interest in healthier, more nutritious food.

One of those is Larry T. La, the owner of Meiwah Restaurants in Washington, D.C. and Chevy Chase, Maryland. "Our customers have told us they want less oil, less batter and less deep frying," says La. "They also want brown rice as an option. And they really like our vegetables, which we get fresh at the market every day." Meiwah has worked to meet these requests, and La has other suggestions for low-fat and low-sodium eating at his restaurants. At a recent meal, he showed us how.

Think Appetizers. Skip the eggrolls and go for plainer fare. A calamari, or squid, salad featured marinated and boiled fish mixed only with slivers of vegetables. The dipping sauce was on the side. A poached Cornish hen was sliced and served, again, with the sesame sauce on the side. Meiwah is developing a garden roll, lighter than the traditional eggroll, to add to its menu. A diner could make a meal of appetizers, said La.

Go for the Vegetables. "Vegetables are the most important thing in a Chinese menu," says La. And the Chinese are used to experimenting with them. A tofu dish could feature dried bean curd, soft bean curd and bean sprouts, for example. The seasonality of fresh vegetables also offers opportunities for a variety of dishes. La recommends choosing vegetable-heavy dishes, like Hunan Chicken which, he says, has many vegetables and flavors.

Take It on the Side. This is always an option, and often expected in Chinese restaurants. Steamed rice comes separately. Sauces can be served on the side. Or you can order "sides" of fresh vegetables and make a meal of them.

Share Your Dish. It's the Chinese tradition, and it's great for portion control, which reduces fat and calories. Order family style, try others' dishes, and take leftovers with you for tomorrow's lunch or dinner.

Chinese restaurants across the country are finding ways to cut the fat and increase fresh vegetables and whole grains. And they are making sure consumers know it, with menus that advertise "Batter-Free," "Not Deep Fried," "Atkins-Friendly" and "Brown Rice Upon Request," to name a few. In addition, more restaurants are offering seasonal specials, such as a recent weekly menu at Meiwah featuring asparagus dishes.


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