Healthy Asian Cuisine

By Nancy Berkoff, RD, EdD, CCE

It’s fun to go out to eat Asian food, but it’s nice to stay home and prepare your own Asian meals, too. You don’t even have to restock your kitchen. If you’ve got a deep-sided pot, a sharp knife and cutting board, tofu, chilies, rice, and a few other ingredients, you can create authentic Asian dishes. In addition to tasting great, Asian cuisine can be very healthy. Studies have shown that the traditional Chinese and Thai diet is lower in cholesterol and saturated fat than Western menus. The average traditional Chinese or Thai diet has 20 percent or fewer calories from fat. If you’d like to take a look at the Asian Food Guide Pyramid, you can visit and click on “Traditional Diet Pyramids.” Although not vegetarian, there are many alternate foods offered to replace meat, fish, poultry, and dairy.

The Basics

To create Asian dishes in your own home, you should have the following ingredients in your kitchen: garlic, ginger, dried mushrooms (especially shiitake and oyster), green tea, and soy foods, such as soymilk, tofu, and soybeans. Fresh garlic cloves are preferable, but if that’s not an option, stock some dried granulated garlic. Fresh gingerroot can keep for months in the refrigerator. If this isn’t available, purchase some pickled ginger to keep in the refrigerator or dried ginger to keep on the shelf.

Dried mushrooms should be available at your local market. If not, check Asian markets or natural foods stores. They can last for many months if stored in a cool, dry place. Green tea, the same kind you’d use for drinking, may come loose or in tea bags. Chances are you’ve got some soy products in your kitchen. If you don’t use soy regularly, aseptically-packaged soymilk and tofu can be kept unrefrigerated for longer than a year if you don’t open them. Soy sauce is a convenient seasoning. If you are watching your salt intake, try the low- or reduced-salt soy sauces on the market. (These may still be too high in sodium for some people who are on low-sodium diets.)

There are other ingredients that can enhance your homemade Asian dishes. Date sugar adds sweetness to entrées and desserts; sesame oil and sesame seeds add authentic flavor. Soybean sprouts and water chestnuts add crunch. Fresh, frozen, or dried seaweed, such as the common nori variety, add color and flavor, and fresh or dried chilies add “heat.”

If you’d like to go a little further with your Asian ingredient inventory, you can add rice products to your shopping cart. Popular varieties of the grain include glutinous short-grain (sushi) or long-grain rices. Rice vinegar has a subtle flavor and is available in different strengths. Rice wrappers can be turned into wonton, spring rolls, or salad toppings. Also, soba, udon, or whole wheat noodles add to an Asian meal. If they are not available, wheat or rice vermicelli will do.

For many of your dishes, you’ll need vegetable stock or broth, which you can purchase in most stores. You can also make your own and freeze it. Simply chop vegetables, such as carrots, celery, onions, leeks, and mushrooms. Cover with water, bring to a boil, simmer, and strain. That’s it! Don’t add seasonings, such as pepper or garlic, though. You want your stock flavorful but not distinctive so it can become the basis of many dishes.

If you don’t have time to make a formal stock, soak dried mushrooms in cool water for about 30 minutes. Drain the soaking liquid, and you’ve got instant mushroom broth to use in cooking or as the base for soup. For example, you can use mushroom broth with bits of firm tofu and green onions to make a fast soup. The soaked mushrooms can be added to stir-fries, sliced into salads, or placed on top of rice later on.

Tools Of The Trade

To begin, you can purchase specialty equipment or make do with what you have. You’ll want something to grill on, either an outdoor barbecue or an indoor grill. If you don’t have a wok, you can use a deep pot with high sides and a cover to stir-fry. The deep pot can double as a steamer, or you can invest in a conventional steamer.

Asian cooking techniques include stir-frying, steaming, toasting, and simmering. Make sure you’ve got a good pair of tongs to quickly stir-fry food and to grasp particular morsels. Most Asian recipes employ fast cooking methods, so plan on being by the stove while dinner is being prepared. However, you won’t need the oven very much.

Asian cooking is all about preparation. The cooking part is the fastest and shortest part! To create a savory stir-fry, thinly slice some hard vegetables, such as carrots; some “medium” vegetables, such as celery, mushrooms, onions, and bell peppers; and some “soft” vegetables, such as bean sprouts or tomatoes. Heat a wok, pour in a very small amount of oil (probably no more than a Tablespoon for a meal for three people), and allow oil to heat. Add vegetables according to their cooking times, stirring constantly, and season with soy sauce, shredded fresh ginger, minced fresh garlic, and even a bit of brewed green tea. Serve with steamed rice and you’re ready to eat.

Just Desserts

And what about dessert? Mangos, papayas, and pineapples fit the bill. Although grown in many tropical countries, mangos and papayas are thought to have originated in Asia and have certainly been incorporated into the continent’s cuisine.

Mangos are available fresh, frozen, in concentrate, or as a frozen or canned juice. Ripe, fresh mangos are wonderful sliced and served as a refreshing dessert or as part of a seasonal fruit salad. They can be sliced and served on top of soy ice cream. If you find yourself with overripe or frozen mangoes, use them in smoothies. Underripe or green mangos can be shredded and used in pasta and green salads or used as a “vegetable” in curries and stir-fries.

Papaya is also available fresh or frozen. You are probably familiar with the pear-shaped, yellow-orange papaya with a million seeds and the peachy-strawberry flavor. Ripe papaya is an excellent dessert, simply halved and filled with a scoop of sorbet or fresh berries. Use papaya cut into mixed green salads to create a great Asian refresher or as a colorful topping for soy ice cream sundaes. Overripe or frozen papaya can be used in sauces and in fruit shakes.

We tend to forget that pineapple is used in Asian cuisine for sweet and sour tastes, as a condiment and as a dessert. Ripe, fresh pineapple has a delicate flavor and can be a perfect counterpoint to spicy dishes. Think about a skewer of pineapple with fresh mint served with a fiery Indonesian curry or with garlicky stir-fries. Or quickly sauté fresh pineapple slices with a hint of rum or maple syrup for a fast, sweet dessert.

While you are waiting for your rice to steam or your sauce to simmer, make yourself a cup of soothing green tea. To brew the perfect cup, remember the adage, “Bring the teapot to the kettle, not the kettle to the teapot.” That translates to bringing water to boil in one pot and having tea leaves waiting in another pot, kettle, or cup. Pour boiling water over tea leaves. This technique allows all the flavors to release. Let the leaves sit, covered, for 3-5 minutes to infuse flavor and color. How much tea to use? That’s up to you. If you like a strong cup of tea, use 2 teaspoons.

Produce Department

Once you get into Asian cooking, you may want to take some field trips to local Asian markets or farmers’ markets to gather some traditional greens. They are very easy to cook and are a wonderful ingredient served with rice or noodles. Here’s your Asian green vocabulary list:

  • Bok choy

    Probably the most familiar of all Asian greens, mild-flavored bok choy is available in large and baby sizes. The dark green leaves can be used for braising, such as with vegetable stock and garlic, and for garnishing soups. For example, try mushroom broth with sliced scallions, minced ginger, and shredded bok choy leaves. Use the white stalks for stir-frying or as an ingredient in soups and curries.

  • Napa (or Chinese) cabbage

    Delicately pleated, napa cabbage can be thinly sliced and hurriedly steamed. Once cooked, add it to soup, vegetable mixes, and hot salads.

  • Gai choy (or mustard cabbage)

    Each leafy head grows to only about 10 inches, resembling a miniature bok choy. It can be steamed or stir-fried whole and served as an accompaniment dish. Gai choy is a member of the mustard green family and has a tangy flavor.

  • Ong choy (water spinach)

    has long, dark-green leaves and hollow stems. It can be used wherever traditional spinach is used.

  • Gai lan (Chinese broccoli)

    As with bok choy, this green is probably familiar to American diners. The solid stems, dark leaves, and white flowers can be braised in black bean sauce (in Asian cuisines, black beans are often black soybeans) as an entrée or as a side dish.

  • Asian basil (also called Thai basil)

    looks a bit like the usual basil but has a licorice-like note that gives a Thai, Indonesian, or Vietnamese flair to sautéed or braised vegetables. Think about sautéing spinach with garlic and a little Asian basil.

  • Asian mint (also called shiso or green perilla)

    is a cross between basil and mint with a long leaf. In Vietnamese and Cambodian cuisine, Asian mint is used in place of rice paper wrappers for spring rolls. In Japanese cuisine, shiso is breaded and fried just like tempura. Finely chop shiso and add to salads or stir-fries.

  • Cilantro

    is a very international green, also known as “Chinese parsley.” Related to parsley and carrots, with seeds that go by the name of coriander, cilantro has a distinctive flavor that may take some getting used to. It can stand up to strong flavors, such as lemon grass, ginger, and garlic, and is a perfect garnish or ingredient for dishes seasoned with chili. Cilantro can have a cooling effect on dishes with a bit too much fire.

Yin and Yang

Traditional Chinese medicine speaks to the physical and mental balance of the whole person. Yin and yang is a theory of body balance proposed by Lao-Tzu, the father of Taoism, in the 6th century BC. Yin energy is passive and cool, while yang energy is active and warm. The body is said to be in harmony when yin and yang are balanced. In fact, Lao-Tzu is quoted as saying, “To figure out the disease, look first at the diet.” The feeling is that too much yin food causes too much yin energy, which translates as sluggishness and low energy; too much yang and the result is too much aggressiveness and fast, unconcentrated movements.

yinyang (1K)To balance yin and yang, people are told to eat a variety of foods, depending on their temperament and physical condition. Warming, or yang, foods can include chili, nuts, pumpkin, orange, leeks, onions, garlic, and chives. Cooling foods can include tofu, zucchini, melon, cabbage, celery, and asparagus. Neutral foods include broccoli, mushrooms, spinach, sweet potatoes, and pea pods.

Recipe Index

Cold Vegetable Salad with Spicy Dressing

(Serves 4)

This Indonesian dish is fiery and cool at the same time.


  • 2 Tablespoons sesame or peanut oil
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger
  • 2 teaspoons chopped fresh chilies
  • 1 Tablespoon red wine vinegar or plain vinegar
  • ⅓ cup water
  • 2 Tablespoons flaked coconut (optional)

Place oil in a small pan and heat. Add garlic, ginger, and chilies, and cook, tossing, for 1 minute. Add vinegar, water, and, if desired, coconut. Stir and allow to cook for another minute. Remove from heat and allow to cool.


  • 1-¼ cups (about ¾ pound) fresh green beans*
  • ½ cup fresh spinach leaves
  • ½ cup fresh or frozen, thawed snow peas (edible pea pods)
  • ¾ cup fresh bean sprouts
  • ½ cup thinly sliced red bell pepper
  • ¼ cup thinly sliced onion

Trim green beans and cut them into 4-inch pieces. Steam the green beans for 1 minute, only until they begin to slightly soften. Remove from steam and run under cold water to stop the cooking process. If necessary, remove stems from spinach. Thinly slice spinach.

Combine all salad ingredients in a large bowl and refrigerate.

To Serve

Just before ready to eat, toss the vegetables with the dressing.

Note: Thawed, frozen green beans can be used if fresh are not available. The salad will have a little less crunch.

Total calories per serving: 89 Fat: 7 grams
Carbohydrates: 6 grams Protein: 2 grams
Sodium: 6 milligrams Fiber: 2 grams

Ginger-Teriyaki Sauce

(Makes about 16 Tablespoons)

Use as a dipping sauce for steamed vegetables or to perk up steamed rice.

Whisk all ingredients together until well combined. Pour into a glass or plastic container and refrigerate. It will last 5-7 days in the refrigerator.

  *Regular soy sauce can be used, if desired.
**This recipe does need wine or sherry for an authentic taste. If wine or sherry is not available, substitute 2 teaspoons orange juice concentrate and 1 teaspoon white vinegar. This will make an acceptable sauce.

Total calories per Tablespoon: 24 Fat: 1 gram
Carbohydrates: 3 grams Protein: <1 gram
Sodium: 267 milligrams Fiber: <1 gram

Thai-Style Sauce

(Makes about 16 Tablespoons)

Use in a vegetable or tofu stir-fry, as a dipping sauce for spring rolls, or as a hot salad dressing.

  • ¼ cup brewed green tea
  • 3 Tablespoons reduced-fat coconut milk* (unsweetened)
  • 2 teaspoons minced fresh ginger
  • 4 teaspoons fresh lime juice
  • ¼ cup peanut butter (Reduced-fat is fine.)
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 teaspoons minced fresh chili
  • 2 Tablespoons chopped fresh scallions
  • 1 teaspoon minced fresh cilantro**

Place all ingredients in the canister of a blender or food processor. Process until very smooth. Pour into glass or plastic container and refrigerate. It will last 5-7 days in the refrigerator.

 *Canned, reduced-fat coconut milk is available in most grocery stores. It is sometimes on the Asian products shelf, and it is sometimes with the canned milk products.
**If fresh cilantro is not available, you may use 1 teaspoon fresh Italian parsley.

Total calories per Tablespoon: 28 Fat: 2 grams
Carbohydrates: 2 grams Protein: 1 gram
Sodium: 11 milligrams Fiber: <1 gram

Sweet Garlic Eggplant

(Serves 4)

Serve this with soba noodles or vermicelli for a hearty entrée.

  • 2-3 Tablespoons sesame oil, divided
  • 4 cups cubed, peeled eggplant (about 2 pounds)
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 3 teaspoons sugar (Use your favorite vegan variety.)
  • 1 Tablespoon soy sauce
  • 1 Tablespoon cider vinegar
  • 1 Tablespoon sherry (optional)

Heat 2 Tablespoons oil in wok or heavy pan. Add half the eggplant and stir-fry over high heat for 3 minutes or until browned. Set aside and add the remainder of the eggplant. Stir-fry as before. Remove the eggplant from the wok. If all the oil is absorbed, add one additional Tablespoon. Add remaining ingredients, and bring to a fast boil. Stir in eggplant, reduce to a simmer, and cook for 3 minutes or until sauce is absorbed. Serve immediately.

Total calories per serving: 98 Fat: 7 grams
Carbohydrates: 9 grams Protein: 1 gram
Sodium: 225 milligrams Fiber: 2 grams

Mushrooms in Scallion Dressing

(Serves 4)

Serve this Japanese favorite as an entrée or as a side dish with grilled vegetables.

  • 2 Tablespoons thinly sliced fresh ginger
  • Ice water to cover
  • 2 cups whole fresh button mushrooms (about 1 pound)
  • 6 scallions
  • ¼ cup rice vinegar
  • ¼ cup soy sauce
  • 1 Tablespoon miso*

Place ginger in a small bowl and cover with ice water. Set aside. Wash mushrooms and trim stems if necessary. Slice the scallions lengthwise.

Place mushrooms and scallions in a bowl and toss. In a small bowl, combine vinegar, soy sauce, and miso and whisk together. Pour over the mushrooms and allow to marinate for 30 minutes.

To serve, drain the marinade from the mushrooms. Place the mushrooms in a serving bowl. Drain ginger and use as a garnish on top of the mushrooms.

Note: Miso is a Japanese staple, made from fermented soybeans and wheat, rice, or barley. It has a wine-like taste and can be used in sauces and soups. It comes in many colors and flavors and can be found with Asian products in the grocery or refrigerated sections of many markets. Note that miso is very salty, so use it sparingly. If you can’t locate it, add a squeeze of fresh lemon juice (about 2 teaspoons). This does not substitute for miso, but it does add flavor.

Total calories per serving: 52 Fat: <1 gram
Carbohydrates: 8 grams Protein: 5 grams
Sodium: 1,203 milligrams Fiber: 1 gram

Vermicelli with Garlic and Tomatoes

(Serves 4)

Make enough of this Vietnamese dish for leftovers. It’s good cold!

  • 4 ounces uncooked rice vermicelli (Wheat, bean, or soy vermicelli will also work.)
  • Vegetable oil spray
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 stems lemon grass (if available) or 2 teaspoons fresh lemon zest
  • 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • ¾ cup chopped onions
  • 1 cup diced ripe tomatoes or chopped canned tomatoes, slightly drained
  • 2 Tablespoons fresh lime juice
  • 2 leaves fresh basil, minced

Put vermicelli in a bowl, cover with hot water, and soak for 5 minutes or until soft. Drain and set aside.

Heat wok or deep-sided pot. Spray with vegetable oil. Add garlic, lemon grass or zest, pepper, and onions. Stir-fry for 1 minute. Add tomatoes and lime juice, and stir-fry, tossing well. Add vermicelli and toss well, stir-frying until vermicelli reaches desired texture. Serve immediately, garnished with basil.

Total calories per serving: 134 Fat: <1 gram
Carbohydrates: 32 grams Protein: 2 grams
Sodium: 9 milligrams Fiber: 1 gram

Sticky Rice with Mango

(Serves 4)

This Thai dish takes some time to prepare… but it’s worth the wait.

  • 2 cups glutinous or sticky rice*
  • 1 cup reduced-fat coconut milk
  • ½ cup sugar (Use your favorite vegan variety.)
  • 1 cup peeled, pitted, and diced fresh or frozen, thawed mango
  • Fresh mint leaves and sesame seeds, to garnish

Put rice in a sieve and wash under cold water until the draining water looks clear. Place rice in a glass or plastic bowl, cover with cold water, and allow to soak in the refrigerator for at least 8 hours.

Drain the rice, and steam in a steamer, rice cooker, or pot with a rack and lid for approximately 40 minutes or until tender. Put cooked rice in a large bowl, cover, and set aside.

Pour coconut milk into a small pot and heat. While milk is heating, slowly stir in sugar. Slowly bring to a boil, stirring. Lower heat, cover, and simmer for 5 minutes or until the mixture has thickened slightly.

Slowly pour milk over rice, fluffing rice with a fork while pouring. Cover and allow to sit for 15 minutes.

Place a mound of rice on 4 serving plates and arrange mango around rice. Garnish with mint and sesame seeds, if desired.

Note: Glutinous rice does not contain gluten. The reference is to the creamy appearance of the cooked rice. If glutinous rice is not available, you can use short-grained or sushi rice.

Total calories per serving: 491 Fat: 6 grams
Carbohydrates: 102 grams Protein: 7 grams
Sodium: 3 milligrams Fiber: 1 gram

Mango Ice Cream

(Serves 4)

This is a sweet indulgence. Serve this dessert with fresh pineapple slices.

  • 3 cups fresh or frozen mango pieces
  • 2 Tablespoons sugar (Use your favorite vegan variety.)
  • 2 Tablespoons mango or apricot nectar
  • ¼ cup vegan coffee creamer

Purée mango in a food processor or blender. In a large bowl mix mango, sugar, and nectar until combined. Beat creamer into soft peaks and fold into mango mixture. Freeze in a plastic or glass bowl until half-frozen, about 1 hour. Remove from freezer, blend in food processor, return to freezer, and allow to freeze completely. Remove from freezer 15 minutes before serving so it will be soft enough to scoop.

Total calories per serving: 126 Fat: 2 grams
Carbohydrates: 30 grams Protein: 1 gram
Sodium: 14 milligrams Fiber: 2 grams

Nancy Berkoff, RD, EdD, CCE, is VRG’s Food Service Advisor and the author of, most recently, Vegan Menu for People with Diabetes.