At a Cantonese restaurant in New York, an uncle once shamed me for ordering sweet and sour chicken. It was “too American.” Sure, the deep-fried American Chinese dishes bore little resemblance to my regular home-cooked meals, but they were delicious. Beyond sticky fried chicken, Chinese cuisine offers such a wide variety of dishes that would satisfy even the pickiest eater.
A good Chinese dish at its core is “all about balance,” says Clarissa Wei, a Taipei-based freelance journalist covering food and culture. And having a complete, fulfilling meal is also about striking that balance, whether you’re eating Chinese food or not.
Most typical Chinese meals follow the phrasing 三菜一湯, which means “three dishes and a soup,” most of which are vegetable-based. In fact, some Chinese diners will offer three dishes and a soup (with rice) as a set menu, pre fixe-style.
If you’re looking to enjoy a well balanced, hearty, and healthy Chinese meal, here’s what to order, a list of foods to draw inspiration from, and tips for requesting swaps and sauces.
How you order food is up to you, but sometimes getting a little meal inspiration goes a long way toward healthy eating (which includes the act of getting food). Here’s how we chose this list of foods:
- asked Chinese food professionals for their unique favorites
- looked for dishes that provided a balance of veggies and meat
- chose dishes that diversified the experience of eating Chinese food (because enjoyment is part of good eating)
- included options with a wide range of calorie counts*
*Many people use calories and macronutrients as part of a holistic approach to maintaining a balanced diet, but it’s important to note that calories are not, on their own, a measure of how healthy or unhealthy a dish is.
Salad doesn’t really exist in a traditional Chinese diet, since we like to cook our vegetables. But cucumber salad — easy to find on any Chinese menu — is an appetizing start to every single meal, Wei suggests. “It’s cucumber pickled for 24 hours, marinated in vinegar, and sprinkled with a bit of salt,” she says.
Wood ear mushroom salad
Another cold appetizer is made with wood ear mushroom, a dark and wavy fungus. When served cold with a simple garlic sauce, wood ear is crunchy and refreshing. This special mushroom is also rich in antioxidants, iron, multiple vitamins, and more. These nutrients may help prevent cancer and heart disease.
Egg drop soup
For starters, Wei also recommends a comforting egg drop soup, which provides a good amount of protein but is low in calories. It’s a staple in most American Chinese restaurants.
Winter melon soup
As its name suggests, winter melon soup warms up our cold winter nights. It can be cooked with pork ribs, bamboo shoots, or even meatballs. Winter melons, also known as ash gourd, are extremely low in calories and saturated fat but rich in dietary fiber, potassium, and vitamin C.
Although soups are often a Cantonese specialty, winter melon soup can be found in most regional Chinese restaurants.
Zhajiangmian (black bean noodles)
Zhajiangmian is trending in New York, Wei says. It’s a noodle dish topped with a soybean paste meat sauce and cucumbers, both savory and refreshing. Zhajiangmian is available in most regional Chinese restaurants with slight variations in how the sauce is made. You can also find this in Korean restaurants as “jajangmyeon.”
Steamed white rice might sound boring, but it balances out the greasy and flavorful dishes. Its plainness cleanses your palate for the next bite. If you want to get extra fibrous, opt for brown rice instead.
Shrimp fried rice
Maggie Zhu, the food blogger behind Omnivore’s Cookbook, has been ordering Chinese takeout frequently since the coronavirus pandemic began. Despite being a passionate home chef, she appreciates the pleasure of having a flavorful and inexpensive meal.
“I love a good shrimp fried rice,” she says. It’s more exciting than steamed rice, and it’s loaded with lean protein along with diced vegetables.
Century egg congee
Born and raised in Beijing, Zhu often ate plain congee topped with pickled vegetables and meat for breakfast. Congee is a classic porridge made from rice and can be served with various toppings. It’s a perfect comfort food.
For American foodies, Zhu recommends trying century egg congee with chicken or pork. Century eggs are preserved duck eggs that can add all the umami you need in a bowl of plain congee.
Steamed pork dumplings
“Handmade steamed dumplings are a luxury,” Zhu says, adding that they’re underrated considering how labor-intensive they are.
In American cities like New York and Los Angeles, lots of Chinese restaurants sell handmade, nonfrozen dumplings at an affordable price. “In Chinatown, you can get 10 dumplings for just $4,” she says. “But an Italian restaurant would charge $40 for handmade ravioli, which is basically the same idea.”
Dumpling fillings are often mixed with meat and vegetables, but you can opt for vegetarian dumplings. To cut down on grease, avoid the fried dumplings. Steamed or boiled ones taste just as good.
Eggplant with garlic sauce
Don’t be fooled by the simplicity of this dish. It’s a Sichuanese dish that features eggplants with minced meat in a chili-garlic sauce. “It’s flavorful enough to be a main dish, but it’s not really heavy on meat,” Zhu says.
Again, this is a combination of vegetables and meat in just one dish. Its fragrant sauce is sweet and savory at the same time, with a bit of heat. Most restaurants will accommodate requests to skip the meat if you’re vegetarian.
Another of the most famous dishes from the Sichuan province is mapo tofu: silken tofu set in a spicy fermented bean sauce with minced pork or beef. It’s such a savory dish that it can change anyone’s mind about tofu being bland.
Tofu is gluten-free and is a great source of protein, iron, and calcium. Vegans and vegetarians can also look for a mapo tofu dish without meat or simply ask the restaurant to skip it.
Clarence Kwan (known as @thegodofcookery on Instagram) is a rising voice among Chinese American activists and uses Chinese cuisine to discuss food justice and racism. One of his favorite takeout dishes is Hainanese chicken, a deceptively humble dish.
“It’s so simple and clean but incredibly difficult to perfect,” Kwan says. “I can make this every single week but still never be happy with it.”
Hainanese chicken is essentially poached chicken with chili dipping sauce and/or garlic-ginger sauce. The best versions of it are tender and juicy, served with a flavorful rice that’s cooked in chicken broth. You can easily find this dish in Chinese, Malaysian, Singaporean, or even Thai restaurants.
Steamed whole fish
We cannot talk about Chinese food without mentioning seafood. The most classic home-cooked dish is simply a steamed whole fish with soy sauce, fresh ginger, scallions, and chili peppers.
It can be branzino, sea bass, catfish, or trout as long as it’s fresh — this will depend on what the restaurant has available. You can often ask what fresh fish is in stock today before ordering the dish.
Fish is a great source of minerals, is rich in omega-3 fatty acids and vitamins, and is a satisfying protein alternative to red meat or poultry.
Sichuan boiled fish
If a whole fish with bones isn’t up your alley, try Sichuan boiled fish. It’s usually made of boneless fish slices or fish fillets marinated in chili-based water.
Sichuan peppers not only bring heat but also create a numbing sensation on your tongue. It may sound scary at first, but spicy food lovers will truly appreciate this delicacy.
Stir-fried beef with snow peas
Your regular order of beef and broccoli is fine, but to spice it up, try beef with snow peas. Sometimes restaurants also offer stir-fried snow peas on their own, and they’re just as tasty.
Stir-fried tomato and scrambled eggs
This vegetarian dish is common on many Chinese dinner tables. It’s simple and tasty and has a good amount of protein and fiber. You can find this in most Cantonese or American Chinese restaurants.
A vegetarian dish popular in Chinese and Buddhist cuisines, Buddha’s delight is a stir-fry of tofu and various vegetables (like bok choy and cabbage) tossed with rice vermicelli. This plant-based dish also provides lots of protein, fiber, and potassium.
One of the concerns about Chinese takeout is usually how salty and oily many of the dishes are. Chinese food — even the healthier menu options — is generally high in sodium, but the same goes for most dine-in restaurants, whether they’re Chinese or not. You can try to ask the restaurant to put in less oil or salt, but the only way to really control your sodium intake is to cook at home.
If you’re worried about high fat content, avoid dishes with pork belly. You can also ask the restaurant if they’ll add more vegetables to a dish. They’ll likely say it costs an extra dollar or two.
And remember: Just because you order one dish doesn’t mean that’s the only thing you have to eat. Many Chinese dishes are meant to be eaten alongside others. If you’re worried about leftovers, think about it this way: Now you don’t have to think about tomorrow’s meal!
As health trends ebb and flow in the United States, Chinese food often gets caught in waves of gentrification and stereotypes. Last year, a white wellness blogger opened a “clean” Chinese restaurant. This marketing tactic played off the perception that American Chinese food is inherently unhealthy because it’s often deep-fried and served with sweet sauces. But how fried or sweet a food is isn’t an indicator of health.
In fact, the backlash against that marketing decision revealed that many people knew of only Americanized Chinese food as representative of Chinese cuisine. “[It’s] a very small subset of Chinese food in America,” Wei points out.
When the first Cantonese immigrants arrived in California during the mid-1800s gold rush, they made use of local ingredients like broccoli and peppers. “They were very much a minority, so they were also cooking for the locals,” Wei says. “Your food will evolve to cater to the people around you.”
Even American Chinese food has evolved over the years “because people are cooking for themselves now based on what they want rather than the masses,” she adds. The idea that any food is unhealthy often comes from personal perception and upbringing. So how do you work around that?
When asked how he would advise others to rethink their constructed ideas on Chinese food, Kwan says, “Part of me doesn’t want to change their mindset. That’s their loss.”
“A more positive approach would be asking people why they think that way,” he continues. “But it’s not up to me or a Chinese person to explain.”
That’s to say: It’s all good if you have questions about Chinese food, especially if you want to change the way you see the cuisine. If the person you asked doesn’t want to explain or answer, just turn to your trusty friend Google.
Like many other food cultures, Chinese cuisine has always centered the eating experience around community and spending quality time with loved ones. You might have seen this before: when you order rice you get it in a big pot, no matter how many bowls you ordered. Everything on the dinner table is meant to be shared, whether in a restaurant or at home.
Next time you order takeout, check to see if anyone else in your home is feeling like Chinese food too. Takeout doesn’t have to be lonely, and sharing food with loved ones is its own kind of healthy.