In Categories: Practical Tips

A common, everyday greeting in Chinese is ‘ni chi fan le mei you?’, which translates to ‘have you had anything to eat?’ Food is central to Chinese culture, and at no point is it more apparent than during the Chinese New Year, which is also known as the Spring Festival or Lunar New Year. Celebrated by mainland China as well as other Asian countries, this holiday is observed by approximately one sixth of the world’s population.

In nations such as China, Korea, and Vietnam, family-wide celebrations last from the eve of the New Year to the Lantern Festival on the 15th day after. Whether you are considering welcoming in the Year of the Dog with takeout or a dinner with your extended family, here are some tips to navigating Chinese food on a low carb or ketogenic diet during these festivities and beyond.

Not all Chinese food is created equal

There are 34 provincial level administrative regions in China, and each arguably has its own cuisine. While Chinese American food typically features vegetables as a side dish and is laden with sugary sauces, more traditional Chinese cuisine highlights leafy, low-carbohydrate vegetables and makes use of a variety of techniques that go beyond sesame chicken. These 8 major cuisine types are ranked in order based on how keto-friendly their meat and vegetable dishes are.

Cuisine type Keto-friendly? Common in US? Flavor Profile
Sichuan (Chuan) Yes, especially hot pot Yes Sour and spicy (i.e. “numbing hot”)
Hunan (Xiang) Yes Yes Sour and spicy (i.e “dry hot”)
Anhui (Hui) Yes No Savory, Umami, Slightly Sweet
Shandong (Lu) Yes Yes Salty and Sour
ZheJiang (Zhe) Sometimes No Mildly Salty and Sweet
Fujian (Min) Sometimes No Savory, Mildly Sweet and Sour
Jiangsu (Su) Sometimes Yes Mildly Salty and Sweet
Cantonese (Yue) Generally No Yes Sweet

Within a regional cuisine, there are many types of food

For example, take Cantonese cuisine, which is best known for dim sum and having a characteristically sweet taste from their popular sauces: hoisin, oyster, plum, and Sweet & Sour. While none of these sauces work for individuals trying to stick with a low carb diet, this region is also known for their variety of soups and roasted meats, which can work for those avoiding obvious and hidden carbohydrates.

How to choose your Chinese restaurant wisely

  1. If listed, take the type of restaurant under consideration: Although most Chinese restaurants serve food from more than one region, the establishment’s name can give good bearing on whether it is a viable option for you. For example, you should have no trouble sticking to keto at a Hot Pot restaurant, but may want to reconsider going to a Shandong restaurant known for its dumplings and noodles.
  2. Ask in advance for help: While this probably will not be an option at chain restaurants, it is worth asking the restaurant in advance, if it is Chinese-owned, whether they are willing to avoid adding any extra carbohydrates, such as corn or potato starches that are commonly used to thicken sauces and soups. This is no guarantee that the owners will oblige, but Chinese culture views food as having a healing effect: so much so that one of the most common descriptors used for a meal is that it makes you feel shufu, meaning comforted.
  3. See if the restaurant has a longer, traditional menu: Oftentimes, Chinese restaurants will have two menus. If this is the case, ask for both and see if there is any difference in the number of offerings. Your server can be a great resource in these situations if the longer menu is not in english. Ask for his or her recommendations, and make clear that you want dishes that are not sweet, not deep fried, and (if you are a meat-eater) that you aren’t scared of animal fat!
  4. Avoid sauces that have gravy-like consistency and chopped up meat: As mentioned above, the thick sauces you are likely to come across in restaurant dishes, such as beef and broccoli, get their velvety sheen from sugar and starch. The same goes for chopped up meat: oftentimes, the marinade includes soy sauce, sugar, and starch. Stick to sauces that are thinner and more transparent (e.g. garlic shrimp) or roasted meats, and try to avoid sauces such as hoisin, oyster, plum, duck, and sweet & sour sauce.

If eating out isn’t an option, celebrate at home

To have more control over what is being put into your meal, consider preparing your meal at home if it works with your lifestyle. The other added benefit to this is that you can draw from all regional cuisines to create a keto-friendly menu.

For example, I personally love dumplings, but cannot find them prepared as an egg dumpling, which is a traditional alternative to wheat or rice-based wrappers found more commonly around China. Making these at home with my mother and grandmother is not just a part of a meal—it is time spent as a family.

Below are some suggested recipes for those that are interested in making Chinese food at home. If you are interested in doing your own search, use the ranked regional cuisines as a guide (who knows, you may just stumble upon your next favorite meal!). Be sure to include the dishes that hold particular significance during the Chinese New Year: oranges keep the sweetness of life, ducks represent fidelity and joy, and fish represent prosperity, wealth and regeneration!

Low carb Chinese food recipes

*Recipes labelled with a * include some sugar and starch to achieve the silkiness often associated with Chinese sauces. While foregoing these ingredients when you cook does change the final result, it should not drastically affect the overall flavor of your dish.

Mandarin Tea Eggs*

Hot and Sour Soup*

Bok choy with shiitake (vegetarian/vegan)*

Ma Po Tofu (vegetarian/vegan)*

Nanjing Salted Duck

Cantonese Poached Chicken with Ginger Scallion Oil

Stir-fried beef with broccoli and black pepper*

Red-braised pork*

14 Comments

  1. Avatar

    These recipes are misleading. Several use straight up sugar. 🙁

    Reply

    1. Avatar

      Yes, a few do. It was difficult to find authentic recipes on the internet that didn’t include any sugar, which is why we included this note before the recipes: *Recipes labelled with a * include some sugar and starch to achieve the silkiness often associated with Chinese sauces. While foregoing these ingredients when you cook does change the final result, it should not drastically affect the overall flavor of your dish.

      Reply

  2. Avatar

    Most of these you cannot eat on a keto diet, this should not be in a keto diet, I don’t care what reply / rebuttal you give. When I ask for Chinese foods for a keto diet, I mean just that. NO sugar or starch should be in any of the dishes. If you can find keto Chinese food dishes, don’t publish it, period!

    Reply

    1. Virta Health

      Success on a low carb diet means being able to adapt recipes when needed. For some, that means omitting the offending ingredients and, for others, using substitutes that are appropriate. As we mentioned, while foregoing these ingredients when you cook does change the final result, it should not drastically affect the overall flavor of your dish.

      Reply

    2. Avatar

      Perhaps it shouldn’t be in your diet. Depends on what your targets are. Simple substitutions, or reductions in quantity may be all that’s needed to make my goals. Please don’t get so dogmatic when someone is trying to share ideas about how to eat healthy. If you can’t have any sugar…that’s your call. It doesn’t mean the rest of us can’t try the recipe.

      Reply

  3. Avatar

    It’s all doable without sugar for sure. We have started LCHF since 2013 and it reversed my diabetes, hypertension, fatty liver and normalised a high creatinine reading for me. Meds free and enjoying life as a healthy person, omitting sugar in all those cooking is a small price to pay.

    Reply

  4. Avatar
    Kimberly Moore March 15, 2019 at 9:02 pm

    Why can’t you just use a sugar substitute and almond flour or resistance starch.

    Reply

    1. Virta Health

      You absolutely can!

      Reply

  5. Avatar

    Can you eat fry wings from the Chinese when doing keto

    Reply

    1. Virta Health

      Thanks for your question! If they are breaded and fried, the carb content will be too high for a low carb diet.

      Reply

  6. Avatar

    For any of these recipes you can simply sub out the sugar for monk fruit. Easy.

    Reply

  7. Avatar

    What about pork strips and spare ribs ?

    Reply

    1. Virta Health

      Both pork strips and spare ribs can be good options. Be mindful of any sweet or thick sauces, which likely will make the dish too high in carbohydrates. A dry roasted meat is usually a good choice.

      Reply

  8. Avatar

    Does anyone know if chinese roast pork (the pork belly that gets the crispy cracklin skin), minus the side sauce they give, is keto friendly? I have no clue if any sugar or flour is used, but knowing that roast duck is hot keto friendly or the bbq pork, I was hoping maybe this was? Or maybe soy sauce chicken?

    Reply

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