Guilt-Free Asian Dining
Like any cuisine, the key to healthy Asian dining is to bear in mind a few common-sense principles. Join vegetarian writer Rachel Stern as she navigates a sampling of local restaurants in search of health-conscious satisfaction.
Often notorious for its lard, oils and the recurring phrase "deep fried," Asian cuisine may satisfy the taste buds but also contribute to your rising cholesterol level. Still, even on menus saturated with crispy chicken and coconut broth, it's possible to find heart-healthy--not to mention delicious--choices at Chinese, Thai, Indian and Sri Lankan restaurants thoughout Santa Cruz County. Here are a few tips to keep in mind on the next visit to your favorite eatery.
When I was in Chengdu, China, for two months last summer, the terms "healthy" and "good for you" were ubiquitous selling points for food items offered both on the street and in restaurants. Even dessert biscuits and sugar water--I mean, fruit drinks--for sale in curbside markets made nonvalidated claims of being filled with vitamins. Restaurants frequently offered examples of "heart-wise" cuisine that were nevertheless swimming in the oils that are typical of the stir-fried dished found in the Szechuan province.
As a health-conscious vegetarian who ate out nearly every night (with food priced at 40 to 60 cents a plate, who wouldn't?), I sought out meals that were low-fat without being low on flavor. I learned to see beyond the advertising and pick up skills for solid eating habits--applicable in China or here in America at your down-the-block Chinese restaurant.
My own neighborhood spot is the ABC Chinese Restaurant, a small and cozy strip mall addition filled with dim lights and brass chandeliers. Located on Mount Herman Road in Scotts Valley, it offers plenty of chow mein and fried rice dishes; I avoid these, as fried noodles alone add about 150 calories to the meal per half cup.
However, I do not shy away from the rest of my carbs--which, in traditional Chinese cuisine, make up the main part of the meal. I'll order the vegetable noodle soup, a large lunch menu item that only costs $3.50. The steaming, low-sodium broth is filled with fresh-tasting scallions, zucchini, broccoli, carrots and sweet onions flavorful enough to be a scrumptious alternative to extra MSG.
While soup is traditionally served at the end of the meal in China, eating it first will fill you up enough so that you don't open your eyes wider than your stomach when it comes to the first course. It also serves as a good replacement for fried appetizers, such as egg rolls or pupu platters, as well as items on the menu with the names crispy, golden, brown or sweet-and-sour--as this is code language for "deep-fried." For menus heavy in Chinese, words to gravitate toward are jum (poached), kow (roasted) and shu (barbecued).
For my main meal, I order the snow peas and black mushrooms--also a popular vegetarian dish in China. It's light on sodium but has just enough--along with a slight sweetness--to make a flavorful dish when mixed with steamed rice. The black mushrooms, a type of shiitake, are meaty and rich-tasting. Out of habit and health, I've forced myself to ditch my fork and make use of those chopsticks in front of me, as it allows me to eat more slowly and pick up less of the sauce--which, even if not in this case, is often high in calories and salt. Besides, in traditional Chinese culture, forks are considered barbaric weapons.
It was the Chinese who introduced frying, stir-frying and deep-frying to Thai cuisine, which used cooking methods that most commonly relied upon stewing and baking. At the Thai Noodle House on Mission Street, whose sign proclaims the "traditional" foods of Thailand, the boast turns out to be true.
For our appetizers, we order the po pia sod, or fresh spring rolls containing carrots, mint and tofu, served with a sweet, but not cloying, filling of peanut sauce on the side. Their delightful crispiness makes them as delectable as the po pia tod--their deep-fried twin.
As for the main dish, I order the kwee-tio pack, a broth-based soup (vs. one with coconut milk, which has a whooping 45 grams of saturated fat per cup). Luckily, only one of the 13 soups at the Thai Noodle House is made with the artery-clogging base, and all the others come with mixed vegetables and a vegetable broth.
For only $5, I received a meal's worth of steaming soup with chunks of tofu, slices of zesty carrots and big farmers-market-esque fresh pieces of broccoli. The garlic powder that sat atop the noodles gave the broth the perfect spicy and distinct accent. It fills me up, but in a way that energizes me to go for a long walk, rather than struggle to stand up.
At the Royal Taj on Soquel Avenue, we behold a menu of 90 distinctly Indian food choices, including numerous oily options. We avoid all the chapati, naan, kulcha and roti breads, as they've been fried in lots of fat, as well as dishes made with ghee, a type of clarified butter, and malai, a thick cream. Instead we set our eyes on the aloo paratha, or whole-wheat bread stuffed with spiced potatoes and peas. It's not too spicy but heavily seasoned, which compensates for the lack of lard.
For meat eaters, the Royal Taj has a wide assortment of tandoori, or baked, meats. For us vegetarians, there's also a wide assortment of almost equally filling dishes rich in vegetables, peas and beans. These dishes are traditionally cooked in coconut oil; we ask for a switch to canola oil, which adds slightly less fat without compromising taste.
We order the bhindi masala ($6.95), or semispiced okra cooked with onions. We savor the low-fat, protein-rich okra, which mixes nicely with the onions, India's tradition staple curry vegetable whose distinctly strong flavor has been mellowed and sweetened after being cooked.
We also try the bengan bhartha, or baked eggplant in a semispicy, smooth and rich sauce of onions, tomatoes and peas.
I also visit the Jumping Monkey Cafe--a relatively new Indian food addition with healthy literally written all over it--on Front Street. From the small menu, I order the kichuri, a blend of basmati rice, dal, coconut chutney placed to the side and an extremely large pile of seasoned vegetables--all for $4.95, I should add.
"Wow, are you really going to eat all of that?" the guy at the next table asks me, eying in amazement my heaping mountain of meshed-together curried potatoes, soft, slightly sweet and well-cooked carrots, and small cubes of beets. I down every bite with the refreshing and not-too-sweet Ginger Lime Cooler ($1.75).
I finish my delicately spiced dal and rice, take moderate bites of the more fattening coconut chutney, and ask for a to-go container for the rest--which I find myself opening an hour later, and enjoying the healthy mixture guilt-free.
At Sri, concealed in a parking lot off Water Street that's all too easy to pass, lie the best flavors of Sri Lankan cuisine. With a menu that is 90 percent vegan and features numerous soy dishes, I don't even have to make an effort to eat healthily. While heavily influenced by Indian cuisine, less ghee and butter are involved in Sri Lankan cooking.
One clearly Indian item, and the perfect supplement to our meal, is the lassi, which has its mango and yogurt flavors combined in perfect proportion. It's not too sweet, with a creamy yet energizing consistency. Imagine a smoothie that tastes as good as a milk shake.
The salad rolls that follow are the best part of the meal, nearly filling us up before the main entrees arrived. Sweet tempeh, avocado, carrots, salad leaves and rice noodles fill a thin flour wrapper, which is nicely dressed with a chunky mango chutney. The crunchy, fresh salad ingredients juxtaposed with sweet, brown-sugar-coated tempeh are an irresistible blend of freshness and flavor.
As with many other Asian countries, the main cuisine of Sri Lanka consists of rice, which is often mixed with a curry. A perfect example is the Mushroom Soya ($5/lunch, $10/dinner), which we indulge in for the main course. It consists of maple-sweetened soy protein atop curry-spiced yellow rice with a hint of coconut. Not yet soyed out, we also try the All-Soy Sri Lankan Platter, filled with tender chunks of tofu, broccoli and more sweet tempeh. I savor every piquant piece of protein combined with the zest of the spiced broccoli.
For other healthy Asian options, there's also Japanese cuisine, as long as you avoid the few fried dishes such as tempura or katsudon, a large bowl of hot, steamed rice topped with deep fried pork or chicken. The Japanese, who most commonly eat their meats raw, grilled, simmered or steamed, have the longest life expectancy--81.2 years, as of 2005--due in part to their traditionally low-fat, low-in-red-meat diet.
Korean cuisine, with heavy Japanese influences, involves lots of fermented vegetables and marinated, cooked or raw meat. Udon wheat noodles are common, as is gim-bop, a sushi roll in which the inner rice is seasoned and the inside ingredients are grilled. While the food isn't easy to locate in the city of Santa Cruz, one can venture to the Sorabol Korean BBQ in Capitola.
In Vietnamese cuisine--where fresh vegetables and herbs abound, oil is used minimally and meat is viewed as a condiment rather a main course--healthy eating is not hard to do. It's also hard to find in Santa Cruz, but you can drive 17 miles up the 17 to Green Papaya in Los Gatos.
Following is a selection of Asian restaurants, where, by keeping the foregoing in mind, you'll be able to satisfy your cravings and eat healthy at the same time.
ABC Chinese Restaurant, 219 Mount Hermon Road, Scotts Valley. 831.438.6888.
Asian Rose 1116 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. 831.423.7906.
Bangkok West 2505 Cabrillo College Drive, Aptos. 831.479.8297.
Benten 1541 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. 831.425.7079.
Charlie Hong Kong 1141 Soquel Drive, Santa Cruz. 831.471.2609.
Donbo Udon 103 Lincoln St., Santa Cruz. 831.423.8823.
Dynasty Restaurant 3601 Portola Drive, Santa Cruz. 831.479.3388.
Golden Buddha 4610 Soquel Drive, Soquel. 831.79.0788.
Jumping Monkey Cafe, 418 Front St., Santa Cruz. 831.466.9770.
L8 Buffet 431 Front St., Santa Cruz. 831.426.8168.
Masako 1520 Mission St., Santa Cruz. 831.429.4088.
Mei Garden 533 Ocean St., Santa Cruz. 831.458.1687.
Miyako Sushi Bar 1820G 41st Ave., Capitola. 831.462.5288.
Mobo Sushi 105 S. River St., Santa Cruz. 831.425.1700.
Naka Sushi 851 41st Ave., Santa Cruz. 831.479.9620.
O'Mei 2316 Mission St., Santa Cruz. 831.425.8458.
Panda Inn Deer Park Center, Rio Del Mar, Aptos. 831.688.8620.
Paradise Sushi 200 Monterey Ave., Capitola. 831.464.3328.
Real Thai Kitchen 1632 Seabright Ave., Santa Cruz. 831.427.2559.
Royal Taj. 270 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. 831.427.2400.
Sabieng Thai Cuisine 1218 Mission St, Santa Cruz. 831.425.1020.
Shogun 1123 Pacfic Ave., Santa Cruz. 831.469.4477.
Sorabol Korean BBQ 1855 41st Ave., Capitola. 831.477.7075
Sri 736 Water St., Santa Cruz. 831.457.2350.
Star of Siam 3005 Porter St., Soquel. 831.479.0366.
Takara 3775 Capitola Road, Capitola. 831.464.1818.
Thai Basil 210 Monterey Ave. #3, Capitola. 831.479.8985.
Thai House 353 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. 831.458.3546.
Thai Noodle House, 2106 Mission St., Santa Cruz. 831.457.0238.
Thai Orchid 2238 Mission St., Santa Cruz. 831.425.2206.
Xin 841 Almar Ave., Santa Cruz. 831.420.0114.
Yamamori 5600C Scotts Valley Drive, Scotts Valley. 831.438.9262.
Yanflower Restaurant 617 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. 831.423.2574.
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