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Healthier Chinese Food

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Want some Sodium with your MSG?

In terms of gastronomy, Americans can learn a lot from the Chinese. The traditional Chinese diet consists mainly of unprocessed foods, with an emphasis on the veggies. Meat is used sparingly, and they consume very little dairy. Unfortunately, what we call “Chinese” food—overflowing with MSG, sodium, and oil—hardly resembles true Chinese fare.  The entire time I lived in China, I saw not one mention of general tso’s chicken, orange sesame beef, or deep-fried crab rangoon.

Yesterday, I was hit with a Chinese-food craving. But rather than run to my nearest Wok-n-Roll (where everything is deep-fried and nothing is vegan), I decided to make my own. Later, I made my own dessert as well. It wasn’t Chinese in the slightest:

vegan cookie dough balls

Gingerbread Cookie Dough Balls

Then again, fortune cookies aren’t really Chinese, either. In actuality, these cookies hail from San Francisco! And my lunch, a few hours earlier? It hailed from Texas:

healthy stir fry

CCK Ginger Stir Fry

(I didn’t measure anything, so I’ll just give you the gist)

  • Broccoli
  • Red Peppers
  • Zucchini
  • Onion
  • Pineapple
  • Water Chestnuts
  • Tamari, Garlic, and Fresh Ginger (or dry)
  • You can also add cashews!

Steam broccoli in a covered wok (with a little water), until it turns bright green. Add other ingredients (except pineapple) and stir-fry. (You could also add a little sweetener if desired, and if you want a thicker “sauce” heat the soy sauce in a little dish, then mix with cornstarch.) At the very end, add the pineapple. As seems to be the case with most ethnic foods, this tastes better the day after it’s cooked.

vegan stir fry

Can’t have a Chinese meal without rice, right?

organic brown rice

I took the lazy route and pulled this box from my freezer, where it’d been forgotten for months. Usually, I’m not a rice girl. But every now and then, my cravings surprise me. Today, they said, “Eat rice!” So I did.

I ate my pseudo-Chinese with chopsticks.

healthy chinese

Grandma and Grandpa (or, rather, Obaasan and Ojiisan) joined the luncheon. Continuing with the theme of the post, they’re not Chinese either; we bought them in Japan!

What are your favorite Chinese Foods?
And do you ever make your own stir fries, fried rice, or other Chinese fare?

Writing this post reminded me about my Healthier Lo Mein. I haven’t made it in ages! Other American-Chinese dishes I like to make include fried rice (or bulgur) and the ubiquitous stir fry. Also, does anyone else love water chestnuts? I do, but I always forget to cook with them!

Katie is the baker, photographer, and author of the popular blog Chocolate-Covered Katie. Her favorite food is chocolate, and she believes in eating a balanced diet that includes dessert every single day. More about Katie—> 
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  1. My favorite chinese food to make is cold sesame noodles, and I use kelp noodles to make it a little healthier.

    1. Hela says:

      I LOVE sesame noodles, too :)

  2. Brrr,,, pineapple! sorry, not for me ;).. but you’re spot on about chinese dietary patterns though!

  3. Albizia says:

    Even if I make something Chinese, I don’t know it is Chinese. I love spicy stir fries in general and I am also a big fan of emperor’s rice. But eating black rice with surimi isn’t very Chinese either, is it? :)

    1. Mmmm you know what’s good? Black rice with coconut milk. I had some kind of black rice pudding in Thailand, and it was sooooo good!

  4. Jennifer JCD says:

    I always wonder what REAL ethic foods would be, not the Americanised stuff we see too often in restaurants. Thus, I cannot say I’ve made many Chinese foods lately because I don’t really know what traditional/typical Chinese foods would be. We did, however, make steamed veggies with a soy-ginger sauce the other day and served it over quinoa. Yum.

    What would you say is a typical Chinese day of food? Breakfast, lunch, supper/tea, snacks, etc.?

    1. LOL I can’t say for sure, since I never spent the whole day in the home of a Chinese person. But I found this link for you: http://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20080722145703AAwiu3G
      When we lived there, our housekeeper would sometimes make us dinner. There’d be at least three different veggie dishes (one of which was always a dark-leaft green), and then another dish with veggies plus some meat (which I didn’t eat, since I was already a vegetarian by then). And there was ALWAYS rice!

  5. Panda Express’s Orange Chicken is basically my guilty pleasure. I know that it is the unhealthiest food out there, but it is so good!!! I make a lot of rice bowls at school. ANd they are much healthier than the Panda fare :)

    1. Lisa C. says:

      That was my favorite too, before I went vegan! In fact, it was the ONLY Chinese food I’d eat. I was a very picky little eater lol!

  6. Ohmygosh, those little people are so cute 😀

    I love your chinese! I like making my own, too. I especially like adding some chopped peanuts-makes everything better!

    I’m not a big chinese fast food fan, but I really like the soups. Any kind, really.

  7. I LOVE WATER CHESTNUTS!
    whenever my mother and me get Chinese take-out, i always roll with the sauteed broccoli. keepin’ it simple, and delicious!

    1. Mmmm I like the garlic-ginger broccoli. Oh heck, you can’t go wrong with broccoli, can ya? 😉

  8. VeggieGirl says:

    Yep! Looove stir-fries.

  9. I do make Chinese style stir fries pretty often. I love them bc they are so quick and loaded with veggies! Yours looks really good!

  10. i love making a soy/ginger stir fry!! yum

  11. Camille says:

    Next time you find yourself in San Francisco, you should go to the fortune cookie factory! It is a tiny little store tucked away in a back alley of Chinatown, but it is soooo cool!

    1. Sheesh, San Fran just has the coolest factories/museums/etc. No fair to the rest of the world! When we last visited, my favorite was the Barbie Museum. In my defense, though, I was ten. :)

  12. Melissa says:

    I LOVE water chestnuts.
    I always pick the Moo Goo Gai Pan at our local SUPER vegan friendly chinese place (yes, Moo Goo is so so americanized but I love it) due to it being packed full of veggies, including my beloved water chestnuts. I never forget them and get pissy if we’re out of stock at work. I’ll actually put off making stir fry if we don’t have any on the shelf! Hah.

    Also, my rattie kid, Daniel, thanks you for the banana coconut butter recipe.
    He’s on antibiotics currently and they are ucky and bitter tasting – he’s been getting them mixed into the butter since that post, though, and now he thinks he’s the LUCKIEST rat in the world. And I have to have my SO help me keep his cagemates from coming and stealing the little spoon of meds from him! We do a lot of blocking little thieves faces and holding down little grabby paws. 😉

    1. Oh my word lol you fed the coconut banana butter to your rat? Too cute. Molly and Henry WISH they were so lucky. They’d like to know if you’ll be their mommy ;).

      1. Melissa says:

        I’ll give them anything to get them to take their Baytril! Usually it’s soyatoo or jam – but I’ve resorted to soy ice cream and pudding in the past. Hah. That stuff is icky even when it’s compounded. This time the vet didn’t compound it with anything (so the dose is tiny – .04 cc!) so it *really* needs something good to mask it. I was doing pumpkin, which they love normally, but Daniel strongly opposed after a few doses. Hah.

        Of course, I always nip a couple bites of the butter before doling out Daniel’s little bit. Rat serving size is pretty small so I don’t have to get too selfish. LOL.

  13. Kathleen says:

    I love Chinese, but I don’t eat it very often. I need to try this out! :)

  14. Yum! I forget how good stir fries are. Do you have any tips for making sure that the broc stays edible, though? It always goes soggy and gross when I cook it. I don’t use a wok – could that be it!?

    1. Hmmm… soggy? Like overcooked? I like it soft, but not overcooked/brown. More like, falling-apart-soft-and-buttery, if that makes sense. So usually I steam it first, like I wrote in my directions in this post. Make sure to cover the lid, though, or it’ll get tough and gross!

      1. oh ok thanks! i missed that bit *sheepish face*! i like my broc like they do it in thai restaurants – i’ll keep experimenting! thanks :)

      2. Melissa says:

        I start with the veg that needs to cook the longest (or can cook the longest) first. Your bamboo shoots, water chestnuts, carrots, edamame, mushrooms, etc. and then add the more delicate stuff later. I do broccoli towards the middle since it’s pretty tough but easy enough to overcook. Bok choy white bits go in near the end as do red peppers, bok choy leafy bits dead last.

        I still overcook stuff sometimes, especially if I’m lazy and using bagged frozen stir fry blends. And I HATE that. I like my veggies to have some crisp bite still. It’s all timing. Sometimes you get it, sometimes it’s total fail. 😉

      3. thanks Melissa! I am putting this into practice as we speak :)

      4. What? You mean you don’t read every single word of every single blog every single day? Shame on you ;). I’m with you; there’s nothing worse than overcooked broccoli!

      5. haha well i know it must be annoying when people ask questions that are answered in the text! i don’t want to incur your wrath and then be bereft of chocolate recipes forever or something horrific like that. lol :)

  15. Yum!! Chinese food is my favorite “healthy unhealthy food” because if you stay away from the fried stuff and heavy sauces, there are actually a ton of healthy choices! Of course, I like the Chinese buffets with Chinese food, sushi, and fortune cookies. That way there’s China, Japan, and San Fran all in one mix! 😉 haha

    1. Lisa C. says:

      I love the fortune cookies too. Don’t actually like the taste, but I love those stupid fortunes that aren’t really fortunes at all. :)

  16. Katie, you really went “balls to the wall” with this one!! haha. you know what im thinking i might try when my cold starts going away and i can get back to being kitchen creative? im thinking of creating a combo version of your 3 ingredient peanut butter balls WITH gingerbread cookie dough balls! seriously, how yummy would that be!!! mmm should i attempt it?

    xoxo

    1. Oh yes, please do it!! I went to try it one day… but then I got lazy and just omitted the crushed oats. But I’m still super-curious as to how it’d turn out.
      P.S. Feel better right now!!

  17. i honestly think its been about 2 years since ive had chinese food.. im MORE than embarrassed, but its becuz i can never get healthy kind! PROBLEM AVERTED

    1. See, this is another reason you need to visit my house. I will cook for you and make you Chinese and pizzerts. In return, all I ask is that you bring along fudgies :).

      1. girl, I am SO THERE! when’s the next flight? 😛

      2. Unfortunately probably not for a while… it’s supposed to ice :(

  18. Jos says:

    Favorite Chinese food – too many to choose..hehe..but in general I love stir fries and could make any combos of it- last time I made Stir fry mixed veggies with seaweed and jicama…soooo delicious!

    I make stir fries very often as it’s healthiest, simplest and fastest to make in a pinch…basically just throw in a bunch of stuff that you have in your pantry..no need exact measurement etc.

    1. oh I never know what to do with jicama! I’ll have to try your idea! :)

      1. Thanks a ton! I’ll definitely check it out :).

  19. Namaste Gurl says:

    I make my own healthier fare of all types of ethnic food whether it be italian, japanese, thai, mexican, and even classic american. All the crap that’s out there is wrecked by those who process and demolish the true being of food in it’s natural state. Sad what society does to food these days….

  20. I definitely appreciate a healthy version of Chinese food. Like you said- Chinese food isn’t naturally unhealthy, but American restaurants make it so!

  21. Disturbed says:

    My favorite chinese type food thing is stir-fried vegetables usually with some teriyaki sauce over some brown rice. So amazing.
    I make something like that when I am home, except I use no-fat balsamic vinaigrette dressing instead of terriyaki.
    And I love *love* water chestnuts.
    I make this thing sometimes that is Italian green beans and water chestnuts with a little bit of shredded carrots all cooked together with a little spices-so good.

  22. I think it is actually quite laughable how “Americanized” we make other countries’ foods! :) I love stirfries and I actually haven’t had one in a while. Next week it is! 😉

  23. lian says:

    hi katie !
    i’m sending you an e-hug for this post and your clarification that *real* chinese food is not the takeout we find at Panda Express (i’m chinese, and i love real chinese food :D)
    anyway, i actually don’t really like water chestnuts 😛
    but this recipe looks delicious 😀

    <3 stay warm !

    1. Aww thanks, Lian! And thanks for the warm wishes too… it’s so cold here :-?!

  24. I’ve written about this some on my blog, too – Chinese food in China is so different! Unfortunately, it is changing and becoming less healthy, and Chinese people are becoming sicker for it as they adapt to some Western ideas (like a lot more meat, and the emergence of dairy into the diet). I had one friend who refused to eat MSG so whenever we would go to a restaurant or the school cafeteria he would say, “Bu yao weijing!” and it would annoy the cooks like crazy!

    My favorite Chinese food stateside is Mu Shu Vegetable, which I never saw in China. In China I loved jiaozi (dumplings), and Beijing makes some mean noodles. But I wasn’t vegan when I lived there, so I’d really like to go back and see what kind of vegan options I could find! Obviously there’s plenty of tofu and veggies, and I even went to a vegan restaurant there without knowing it (a Buddhist one), the only problem is the whole “meat as flavoring” thing, and that people wouldn’t really recognize that as a problem for vegans/vegetarians.

    1. Yeah, the meat as flavoring thing was HARD! Like chicken or beef stock in pretty much all the veggie dishes. Or shrimp paste. But Shanghai had the BEST veg restaurant, so I ate there a lot. The rest of my family (not vegetarians) always wanted to go there too! They had this amazing carrot sauce… *swoons* :).

  25. That looks sooooo much better than typical americanized “chinese”!!!!!!! Thanks!

  26. I love makin’ my own stir fry!!! To me, this beats take-out any day. Because you are right… the States’ Chinese food is not quite the traditional kind…

  27. I am the same way with water chestnuts… I love that crunch but always forget to add them to meals! I want a proper wok one of these days… woks are super fun to cook in!

  28. Alyssa says:

    Asian and Mexican foods are my favorite! I LOVE water chestnuts because they add a nice crunch to the meal. I’ve never made fried rice but I’d like to try a healthy version! Most places average 1000 calories for that. Aye carumba!

  29. Katie –
    I’m so glad you posted this. I lived with a few friends in china for a year, and we were all so shocked(at the time) that our skin got so much clearer and our eyes got brighter even though we were eating at noodle houses and off street carts nearly the whole time. What I remember the most is that endless tea was served with every meal (you got one of any other beverage with no refills, lol), and meat was a SIDE dish! When I mention that to people here they look at me like I’m nuts! Also…fruit for dessert! How fantastic :)

    The ‘Chinese Food’ here is like an entire different genre of food. It’s sad!

    1. Mmmm agreed! They always had this cantaloupe-like dessert. It was so sweet. I wish we could get that over here!

  30. I love making Tofu Stir Fry and LOVE Bragg’s Liquid Aminos (healthy soy sauce alternative) I am sure you have heard of it?

    1. I read in VegNews that EVERY vegan kitchen must have Braggs. At the time, I didn’t! I felt like such a bad vegan lol!

  31. Kiki says:

    I abhor Americanized Chinese food! I try to make my own, more authentic stir fries and things for my family, but they hate them because they’re not deep fried -___-

  32. Brandie says:

    I have actually never been a fan of Chinese food. Ever. But then again, I’ve never really had REAL Chinese either, just some crap Americanized ‘fast food’ Chinese food. BUT… I LOVE LOVE LOVE Japanese food… Hm… We had a lot of exchange students when I was growing up – all Japanese – and I loved them cooking for us! It’s where I got my LOVE of all things curry actually!

    I don’t generally think of stir-fry as Chinese though. Is it? Hm. Speaking of all this makes me was Japanese food. :oD

    And Yep, love water chestnuts! Hated them when I was a kid – hated anything crunchy in my food! But as I’ve gotten older… I love the sharp snap crunch you get from it – It makes food fun!! So yep, the WC go in to the food nowadays :)

    Great post today Katie!!

    1. Mary says:

      Yum, Japanese! Now I’m craving miso soup!

      1. Brandie says:

        Mmmmm, Yeah! I had miso soup for dinner Monday!! :)

  33. I got distracted by your gingerbread balls.

    I’m working on a healthy sweet and sour recipe as I write this!

  34. I often make my own stir fries. I love one pot dinners! Pineapple is my favorite addition….so good. :-)

  35. Glad you made your own stirfry! That way you won’t get a week’s worth of sodium all in one meal like can happen if you go out restaurant stir fry’s. :)

    I always make my own stir frys. Whatever I have on hand that needs using up goes in.

    and I made gingerbread balls too. But havent in….ages. Note to self, make those :)

    I love adding citrus to my stir frys,i.e. pineapple or oranges…yum!

  36. I always make my own Chinese food! I always hated restaurant-style Chinese food (mostly because the restaurants around here are a little sketchy…) so I avoided it, even when I wasn’t veg.

    I make a lot of stir-fries and rice noodle dishes because they’re quick and easy. I also make vegetable fried rice, though I tend to use a lot of leftover quinoa as well. I LOVE tossing pineapple in my stir-fries as well as leafy greens like bok choy or spinach. I can’t stand water chestnuts, though. Eww. No thanks. I add bean sprouts or walnuts instead to get that nice crunch. I also hate baby corns. Lol.

    1. Mary says:

      I agree. I always hear horror stories about the kitchens and failing sanitation inspections. Not that it’s just Chinese restaurants that fail those, but they’re the main ones around where I live. Homemade is just better!

  37. Fi says:

    Chinese and japanese food is a regular affair in my house, home made of course :) usually rice or noodles with things like chicken, sprouts, lots of veg, pal choi, tamari, soy sauce, Ginger and garlic . Xxx

    1. Mary says:

      Bean sprouts! Yay! I was wondering if anyone else loved those :).

  38. A.Cook says:

    That looks so delicious and simple! Now I have a craving for Chinese food too…might make a stir fry tonight :)

  39. Heather says:

    I have never thought to add pineapple to a stir-fry! I can only imagine how much flavor it adds! I love making stir-fries! It’s my favorite way to load up on veggies when I don’t want to eat a cold salad. My best stir-fry was a broccoli and onion with tempeh and I served it over spaghetti squash. Twas delightful!

    I love water chestnuts. You just reminded me that I have a can in the pantry…hmm, I do believe I know what I’m having for dinner now!

    Any pointers on eating with chopsticks? I have watched a TON of youtube videos, but I just can’t seem to get the hang out of it. At best, I get the food to my mouth and have to race to catch it before it falls on the plate!

    1. Brandie says:

      YUM tempeh! Love the stuff… stir-fried with coconut oil makes for the BEST tempeh! 😉

      AQs for chopsticks – my two cents would be definitely start out with some roughly textured kind!!! Honestly, the cheap asian restaurant wooden ones rock for learning, cause they’re not sanded terribly smooth lol. Helps you get a grip on things :) I’ve been using chopsticks for over 20 years and still drop the food with the ‘fancy’ smooth slippery ones haahahaha!

      1. Me too! Good tip, Brandie! The plastic ones are no fun. My favorites are re-usable wooden ones you can find at an Asian grocery store (or World Market).

    2. LOL people tell me I’m not a very good chopstick teacher… I guess it’s similar to how sometimes engineers or native Spanish speakers don’t always make the best teachers. They naturally know how to do their skill, so they don’t know how to explain it to others. I found a good article, but I know you said u-tube videos are confusing (that’s how I feel about those videos when I try a new skill, too!). Just in case, though, here’s the article: http://www.ehow.com/how_3261_chopsticks.html

  40. I love making soba noodles! I guess they’re technically Japanese, but Japanese is pretty close to Chinese, right? 😉

  41. Angie says:

    Guess who’s eating rice for dinner me! :) i was craving mexican though so I had some rice with vegetarian chili on toritilla! deliciousness!

  42. BroccoliHut says:

    I love making my own Chinese food! Stir-fry is a favorite as well as orange-sesame tofu and cashew-ginger tofu:)

  43. Picky Nicky says:

    Yummm, I love chinese food! The REAL kind, the veggielicious kind :)

  44. Ilana says:

    Pineapple in stir fry is just heaven! It should always be there, always!!! I can’t eat pineapple in the States much after how delicious they were in Thailand but in a stir fry, I’ll do it.

  45. I love stir fry’s! It’s great when you need to get rid of left over veggies. I did the same thing but a little different style. http://www.healthymealsforless.blogspot.com Love your idea too.

  46. I never eat the Chinese food here but I frequently eat rice and veggies. I also love Japanese food

  47. Tanya says:

    LOVE water chestnuts. Haven’t had them in ages. Also love baby corn :) I don’t mind Chinese (or American/Chinese) food every once in a while…however, my husband HATES it, so we never eat it. He hates the “glop” and orange sauce with deep fried “stuff” in it. Is that a good description?? :) I like a good sweet and sour sauce….I occasionally try to make my own stir fry at home.

  48. Sarah says:

    Do you eat everything with chop sticks? Do you bring them when you go out to eat or use regular utensils then?

    1. No, not everything. But yup, I bring them to restaurants. Check out my previous post on “Raw Kale Enchiladas.”

  49. Claire says:

    Waterchestnuts are wonderful in cooking! I’m in the same boat as you though, often forget to use them. Not sure why that is though :S

  50. Oh my goodness! I read the description for your last photo before looking at it and was so confused. Buying grandparents?! lol

    I don’t ever go out to chinese restaurants either. Too greasy and full of not good stuff. I love making my own stir fries….. though they’re probably more Japanese than Chinese…

  51. Marina says:

    Mhm, your dish looks lovely.
    I love making stir fries with bunch of veggies and soy sauce, and maybe some tofu too. And specially with addition of cashews and sesame seeds :)

  52. Cassandra says:

    omg this looks delicious! you are a vegan guru! lol

  53. Patricia says:

    Regarding water chestnuts.. is buying them in a can the only option? Are they in the produce section?

  54. Quirky Eats says:

    It’s sad when a healthy cuisine or recipe is lost in translation, isn’t it?
    Something similar happens to Chinese food here in India. Most restaurants use loads of oil and MSG and make the dishes a hodgepodge of Chinese and Punjabi (a region in northern India) tastes. Call it “Chin-jabi” cuisine :-p
    At least when you “innovate” at home, you can keep your health scores high! Like this recipe:
    http://quirkyeats.posterous.com/stir-fry-in-tangy-peanut-sauce

  55. I’ve made this recipe several times. The pineapple is an excellent addition, I love it. (I love your chocolate-y recipes even more though :P)

  56. Karis says:

    LOVED IT! I added tofu to mine and drank ginger lemon tea with it using the leftover ginger. Definitely will be making this again

  57. Anonymous says:

    I like to make my own stir-fry but I think that in order to get the look right you have to add too much soy sauce and it makes it too salty and too much soy. So I use half the soy sauce and have balsamic vinegar. Not really authentic Chinese but I love it anyway.

  58. Jenny says:

    Awesome recipe!

    BTW – The soy and cornstarch will mix up better if you mix while the soy is cold, then heat it up. Whatever liquid you mix with cornstarch should always be on the cool side. Just mix in enough of the cold stuff to make a paste, then you can add to the hot stuff.

  59. Rashi says:

    Hey Katie, just going over your blog…u have the most amazing recipes! I’m a vegetarian and I love to try new foods, specially dessert and chinese!
    You have the most fuss free recipes I have ever come across and I love them!

  60. Kelly says:

    Just made this! So good! Love how there’s pineapple in it :]

  61. Tiera says:

    This turned out amazing! I just used frozen stir fry vegetables and quinoa instead of rice (it packs more nutrition:)) Absolutely fabulous!