A quick peek at the nutrition facts on Beijing’s “home style” dishes reveal foods as bad as or worse on a per calorie basis for fat and salt than KFC or McDonald’s.
Some of the first vocabulary words introduced to Chinese language students are invariably: Fish flavored shredded pork (鱼香肉丝) and Kungpao Chicken (宫宝鸡丁) etc. They were the first things I knew how to order off the menu in Chinese (albeit not very useful as a vegan). But you learn them for a reason, they are some of the most common and popular dishes on the “home style” 家常菜 menu in Beijing’s Chinese restaurants, and are often the most affordable sit-down restaurant food available to Beijinger’s (10-25 rmb per dish).
These dishes usually get to the table swimming in an inch of cooking oil, with a sauce that squeezes what seems like slight variations on the recipe “sugar + salt” onto your rice bowl. We intuitively sense that food is not that healthy when cooked this way, but just how bad is it? Let’s look at the numbers:
As you can see, even the lighter dishes like the stir-fried eggs and tomato are still marginally worse than a McDonald’s egg sandwich in terms of fat and salt per calorie. When you consider that the IOM recommends an adequate intake 1,500 mg of sodium per day for adults, you can also see that both “home style” and fast food options add a heavy sodium load to your daily diet. Eating just 200 calories worth of fish flavored shredded pork or McDonald’s egg and sausage sandwhich gives you almost 40% of daily adequate salt intake.
Also note that the percentage fat for these dishes averages 54% of total calories, far out of proportion to the maximum 20-35% daily calories from fat recommended by the USDA.
The Chinese recipes came from government sites or Baidu/Hudong wikis so likely represent a standard approach to these dishes. In Beijing, some restaurants will cook with less oil and some will use more. Basically though, if you can see the oil pooling beneath the food, it’s probably just the Chinese version of a hamburger and fries, even if it’s a “healthy” vegetarian dish. Even scarier, the restaurants liberally applying the oil may be reusing it or buying reused oil on the black market.
These dishes may have been healthy before the era of cheap oil, sugar and salt. Now that these are easily available, Chinese food is beginning to conform to the trend set by the American processed food industry which is chiefly: high HFSS foods (high fat sugar salt) sell better.
(For more details on the HFSS trend in China, check out “Fat China”).