Is it possible to eat healthy in China?
HA HA! Is that a joke?
Well, not entirely. And yes, it is possible to eat healthy in China if you want to buy all of your food, clean it, prepare it, and cook it yourself. BUT, who wants to do that when eating out is actually cheaper and doesn’t require all of the inconveniences of cooking?
Now don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy cooking occasionally and it’s nice to know what goes into your food, but when you are trying to hustle to make money and get yourself off the ground, making each meal can be a time killer and energy drainer.
Ain’t nobody got time for that shit!
So, everyday I usually go to the local food spots to get my ¥12 meal.
That, my friends, is dirt f*cking cheap. And that cheap price almost directly correlates to how the food is handled—if you catch my drift.
But let me explain something first…
Before I moved out to Asia I had this idea that the Chinese were uber healthy and everything they ate was super fresh, clean and delicious.
Now, I look how back and realize how ignorant this was.
Yes, they may consume much less meat and smaller meals than we do in the west but from what I’ve been exposed to, their idea of “healthy” should be reexamined.
If you hadn’t heard of the major issues that plagued most of China over the years, they’ve become infamous for the McDonald’s meat scandal, the selling of fake chicken eggs—oh, and don’t forget—cooking your dinner in gutter oil!
As much as I’d like to tell you that everything I eat here is fresh, clean, and pristine, that is just simply not the case. In fact, I would argue that the same food items purchased at restaurants in the U.S. are much cleaner and healthier.
Why you ask?
I say that because the Chinese cook everything in heaping gobs of oil. Vegetables, eggs, meat, and even soup, is submerged in puddles of OIL!
But wait! There’s more here that will make your stomach turn.
Most days my roommates and I head down to a small storefront and order duck, pork, or chicken, which comes with rice and cabbage. The first thing I noticed when eating this is that it’s all cold — not a very appetizing quality — but a quality that is very common here.
If you are picking up something for lunch to go from a local Chinese spot, good chances are that it will NOT be piping hot. This is a stark contrast from how things are in the west and it took some getting used to.
Aside from their effort to make all the food glisten with ridiculous amount of oil, the Chinese idea of sanitation and cleanliness does not seem to compare with most western countries.
The other day I saw a guy smoking a cigarette while holding a giant bin of noodles in which he was shoveling them into individual containers with no gloves. I was just waiting for the long ash to fall into someone’s lunch, but fortunately, it didn’t. At least while I was watching.
I imagine if someone visited from home they would have a hard time sitting down and enjoying a meal at the same places that I’ve been eating at everyday.
But, this has been a bit harsh.
It’s not all that bad. I mean, I’m not dead yet, right?
It’s a bit comical now because I’m so used to eating the food that it doesn’t really bother me anymore. And after all, I am in Guangdong province—the culinary capital of China, known for using the freshest ingredients.
If you really want to eat healthy in China, you’ve got to avoid the stir-fry’s, the deep-fry’s, and why not the french fries while we’re at it. Don’t forget to dodge those fatty chunks of pork that are swimming in sweet and sour sauce.
It’s not all “healthy” but I would say it is fresh, and if you know the right places and the right dishes, you can eat quite well.
Okay, so what are we supposed to eat?
The key is to hit up the local markets!
They have incredible hand-made dumplings, hundreds of varieties of fresh fruit and vegetables, and meat that is slaughtered right in front of your face (kind of gross to be honest).
It doesn’t get much fresher than that!
Many of these markets have restaurants nearby that use these products. One healthy dish that I’m fond of includes a hot bowl of ingredients—ranging from chicken and beef to lamb and fish—steamed to perfection on top of a bed of rice and freshly cooked vegetables. I would eat this most days if there were more options around my apartment, but for now it remains a special treat when I’m out in the city.
Another healthy option that I frequent is this vegetable soup spot where you pick your greens and they boil it up right in front of you. Kind of like an Asian style Chipotle that I spoke about briefly in this post here.
Here other dishes that you should order if you’re trying to eat healthy in China:
Ba Bao Zhou
Also known as “eight-treasure porridge,” this oaty breakfast soup is steaming hot and comes with glutinous rice, red beans, millet, Chinese sorghum, peas, dried lotus seeds, and red beans. Sometimes, a variety of nuts are thrown in like walnuts, almonds, and peanuts, and all of the ingredients are usually cooked together with added sugar. It’s a tad sweet, in my opinion, but it gives our typical oatmeal bowl a run for its money.
Whoever thought you could get a salad here!? I sure as hell didn’t but this one won’t let you down. The Xinjian salad is an excellent choice for something on the lighter side and comes with a nice range of different seasonal veggies. The one above is of the cucumber and bell pepper variety.
Anything with the word “steamed” in it is usually a good thing. Add “fish” to that and you’ve got yourself some healthy eatin’. This dish can be ordered at most restaurants but will be a tad pricier than your typical meat options. It’s okay, your stomach will thank you.
Traditional Chinese Hot Pot
Here’s where the gettin’ gets good. Chinese hot pot is always a blast because you sit at these big-ass round tables with a large group of people (hopefully Chinese people) and eat until your heart’s content. The waiters bring tray after tray of different meats, seafoods, and vegetables, and you boil them up right in the center where everyone can see. It’s generally healthier because it’s cooked in a broth and you can pick and choose what you want to eat.
Keep in mind, this style of eating usually comes with copious amounts of drinking and “gan bei” (The Chinese version of cheersing. Also, literally translates to “finish the glass”), which, I guess defeats the purpose of eating healthy… But damn if it isn’t fun!
Most the food here can seem a bit scary and absolutely disgusting at times, but if you know where to go and what to order you can still eat healthy and taste some really amazing dishes too.
The best part about living here is that the price for what you get is actually quite good. You can spend pennies and eat some greasy, gutter oil pork or you can spend 3 bucks and eat a world class bowl of steamed fish with freshly harvested gai lan (Chinese broccoli) on a hot bed of rice.
I don’t know about you but I think I’ll take the latter. Eating healthy in China isn’t too hard after all.