Go Healthy. Go Asian!

Sunday, May 22, 2011 | 0 comments »

By Cecilia H. Lee

Asia is a huge continent. Lucky for all of us, this means a plethora of ingredients with a wide variety of delicious tastes. The distinctive seasonings, herbs, and spices used in everything from Chinese stir-fries to Vietnamese spring rolls means not having to rely on high fat and high sodium for flavor.

Asian diets are considered among the healthiest in the world. That's why people who live on the Asian continent have lower rates of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and other health problems than their American counterparts.

The main component of a typical Asian meal is usually rice or noodles—with plenty of soy, fish, beans, nuts, and seeds as protein sources. Meat, poultry, and eggs are used more sparingly; they're generally not the focus of the meal, which is rounded out by a generous amount of fruits and vegetables.

Whether sweet, sour, spicy, or savory, bring the flavors of Asia into your kitchen for a palate-pleasing meal.

Herbs and Spices

Curry-lovers will appreciate that turmeric (the beautiful yellow spice that gives many curry dishes their color and flavor) isn't just delicious—it also purportedly has healing properties. Turmeric is said to be good for your digestion, your heart, and perhaps even your brain. Many of the other spices used in Asian cooking—like cumin, cloves, cinnamon and cardamom—are also claimed to have health benefits. Ginger and garlic are wonderful antioxidants. So feel free to add generous amounts of these seasonings to your dishes.


It's simple to add Asian flavors to your salads. Sesame oil and toasted sesame seeds go a long way toward adding a bit of nuttiness to your dressings. Round things out with some rice wine vinegar and some low-sodium soy sauce and toss with your favorite lettuce mix, snow peas, water chestnuts, chunks of papaya and mango, some grilled chicken—whatever suits your fancy. There are endless flavor combinations to give your salads a taste of the Orient.


You may be thinking about those grease-laden fried dishes found at Chinese fast-food restaurants. Instead, what I'm talking about are crisp, colorful vegetables flash-cooked in a nonstick wok or frying pan. The nonstick surface requires very little oil, making this a great way to cook your seasonal vegetables and lean meats. First, preheat your wok over high heat, then add some ginger, garlic, and onions or shallots. Next, cook your meat or seafood. Then toss in vegetables like carrots, eggplant, or zucchini, followed by faster-cooking vegetables like spinach, leeks, mushrooms, or cabbage. To finish, toss everything with a bit of soy sauce, vinegar, hot sauce, sesame oil, or whatever flavoring you want to add.

Soy and Tofu

Soy is a major source of protein in the healthy, low-fat Asian diet. Foods like tofu, tempeh, or edamame (whole soy beans) contain isoflavones, which have have been shown in some studies to help stop regular cells from mutating into cancer cells. Foods that contain soy may also help lower cholesterol and are a great source of iron. More and more soy products are being introduced into the market, but just eating plain tofu (which takes on the flavors of any sauce it's cooked in) or tossing a handful of edamame into your stir-fries can be a great way to start putting more soy into your life.


The beauty of Asian noodles is that there are so many varieties available. There are wheat-based noodles like udon, which are wonderful in soup on a cold day. Soba noodles, made of buckwheat, are rich in protein and can be eaten hot or cold, in soup or even on top of a salad. And glass or rice noodles, though high in starch, can be the basis of a low-fat meal. Just stay away from fried noodles, ramen, and those instant noodle packs and cups, which are high in sodium and fat and loaded with MSG (monosodium glutamate).


It's not just the foods most Asians eat that make for good health; even the beverages they drink on a daily basis—often tons of green or black tea—can be healthy too. Teas can help lower cholesterol and act as a mild diuretic, which helps flush the body of toxins and free radicals that can cause heart disease. Green tea is also said by some to have cancer-fighting properties, as well as helping you maintain good breath to boot. Plus, like black tea, it's an antioxidant. So drink up!


Although you may not think "dessert" when you think of Asian food, there are so many great ways to add a delicious finale to your meal. Grill some pineapple rings or spears, or slice some mangoes and serve them with a bit of sticky rice covered in coconut milk. If you have an ice cream maker or even just a freezer, simple sorbets of ginger or lychee are easy to whip up. Any of these choices, or some simple poached pears with a small scoop of green tea ice cream, can provide a flavorful finish your healthy Asian dinner.

Cecilia Hae-Jin Lee is a food and travel writer, an artist, and a chef. A James Beard Award nominee, she has authored several books. Her latest, Quick & Easy Mexican Cooking, includes delicious, nutritious Mexican recipes you can make in just 30 minutes or less. When she's not climbing a mountain somewhere, Cecilia writes, eats, and gardens in Los Angeles.