Meeting Dietary Needs at Asian Restaurants


Verywell / Alexandra Shytsman

The food that hails from the continent of Asia is vast and diverse. Asia is made up of 48 countries, each with their own recipes, staple foods and culinary traditions. Even within countries there are regional differences in cuisine.

In the United States, we are fortunate to have many grocery stores that carry a wide selection of ingredients. And we can dine in restaurants that serve recipes that originated in Asian countries such as China, Japan, Thailand, India, Korea, and Vietnam.

Below we explore some of the delicious options that you can choose when dining at restaurants inspired by the cuisine of Asian countries. Brimming with vegetables, lean protein and grains, there are many nutritious dishes to choose from, no matter what your dietary needs are. Whether you're trying to choose more vegetables, eat more fish, are plant-based, need to watch your salt intake, or require gluten-free grains, here are some tasty dishes that you can try.

Chinese Restaurants

Many dishes in Chinese cuisine are made with a combination of vegetables, lean protein, rice, or noodles. Popular animal-based proteins include chicken, fish, seafood, and pork, while plant-based choices include tofu and beans.

Studies show that Chinese culture values eating regular meals, eating in moderation, and enjoying fresh foods; and many dishes reflect these philosophies. Idioms such as "be 70% full after every meal, you will age healthily," and "eat seasonal fresh foods" guide food culture in China, and it is solid advice that mirrors intuitive eating principles and the goal to eat fewer ultra-processed foods.

What to Choose

Eating mostly plant-based? There are many options! Rice and rice noodles are vegan, while wheat-based chow mein and lo mein noodles may be made with egg. Ask the chef to know for sure.

Chinese cooking also includes many stir-fried vegetables, making it easy to fill half your plate at every meal. Leafy greens such bok choy, gai lan, choy sum, and cabbage are a great way to add vitamin A and K to the diet.

Tofu, made from soybeans, is a staple plant-based protein in Chinese cuisine. Studies show that despite common misperceptions, eating soy foods does not increase breast cancer risk. In fact, the opposite is true. Increasing soy intake may help prevent breast cancer.

Tofu is found in dishes such as mapo tofu, a popular spicy dish from Sichuan Province. You can also get many well-known chicken dishes made with tofu instead, such as kung pao tofu, sweet and sour tofu, or General Tso tofu.

Meanwhile, if you are following a gluten-free diet, rice-based dishes are a great option. But soy sauce, a popular condiment in many stir-fried and saucy dishes, may be made with wheat. Ask if the soy sauce the restaurant uses is gluten-free.

Also, if you are watching your salt intake due to high blood pressure, heart issues, or kidney disease, remember that soy sauce is quite salty, with 1000 milligrams of sodium per tablespoon. Healthy adults should limit sodium intake to 2,300 milligrams per day, or just 1,500 milligrams per day if you have high blood pressure. You can always ask for soy sauce on the side and use it sparingly.

Japanese Restaurants

People in Japan have one of the longest life expectancies of any country. This fact is believed to be partly due to their nutritious dietary pattern. The Japanese Okinawan diet is said to be as beneficial as the Mediterranean diet for heart health and longevity. That said, the diet is that of indigenous Okinawan people has some differences compared to what you might get in a typical Japanese restaurant.

Overall, Japanese food contains very little red meat or saturated fat, is high in fish and omega-3 fats, contains lots of plant foods such as soybeans and vegetables, and offers non-sugar-sweetened beverages such as green tea. This dietary pattern can help reduce the risk of heart disease and some cancers.

What to Choose

Oily fish such as salmon and tuna are used in sushi and sashimi, two Japanese delicacies that are brimming with heart-healthy omega-3 fats. Sushi is a vinegar-flavored rice dish that is often paired with fish and seafood, while sashimi is thinly sliced raw fish. Eating omega-3 rich fish helps reduce cardiovascular disease risk.

If you are not a fan of raw fish, try sushi made with cooked shrimp, or opt for cooked salmon as an entrée or in a bento box. A bento box is a divided box with an assortment of dishes and often includes protein, rice, salad, and vegetables.

If you are looking for plant-based options, you are in luck! Miso soup is made from soybean paste, and often has cubes of silken tofu in the broth. Other plant-based choices are edamame, which are steamed green soy beans in the pod, and natto, which is fermented soy product. As an added benefit, fermented soy foods may help manage type 2 diabetes, blood pressure, and some heart issues.

Vegetables also play a big role in Japanese food, including leafy greens, carrots, broccoli, and root vegetables such as sweet potatoes. Salads with seaweed, avocado, carrot, cucumber, and other vegetables are also popular. Overall, Japanese food is plant-rich, which means it is high in antioxidants that may help reduce inflammation and age-related chronic diseases.

Rice is gluten-free, making sushi a safe choice for people on a gluten-free diet. Double check the soy sauce though, because some brands contain wheat. Also, some sushi rolls feature tempura, which is a wheat-based coating that contains gluten. Japanese cooking also uses soy sauce; watch your soy sauce intake if you are on a sodium-reduced diet.

All Foods Can Fit a Balanced Diet

As with any restaurant food, some items at Asian restaurants may be deep fried or loaded with salt. If you are trying to manage your salt or fat intake, choose items that are baked, stir-fried, roasted, or broiled rather than deep-fried, and ask for salty sauces on the side so you can control the amount. Deep fried foods include egg rolls, spring rolls, tempura, fried tofu, samosas, and fried chicken.

While you may want to select the most nutritious items on the menu, you also want to consider satiety and your favorite foods. There is a place for everything in a balanced diet, so sometimes you may want to consider what you are craving or your preference, even it is not as nutritious.

Indian Restaurants

Indian recipes are filled with vegetables, lean proteins, and grains. A study showed that South Indian (Kerala) cuisine featuring whole wheat, oats, and red rice has a low glycemic index and helps combat inflammation, which can be a precursor to cardiovascular diseases and type 2 diabetes mellitus.

Traditional Indian recipes use beans, lentils, vegetables, and grains as a base making them high in fiber. There is also an array of spices used in Indian recipes, including turmeric, cardamom, coriander, and ginger. Studies show that these spices play a role in heart disease prevention and may help reduce inflammation.

What to Choose

Chickpeas, lentils, beans, and peas are staples in many Indian recipes, and are high in protein and fiber, yet low in saturated fat—a winning combination that is beneficial for lowering blood sugar levels. Try chana masala (mixed spiced chick peas), dal makhani (black lentils), or another curry dish made with beans or lentils.

Plant-based meals may also include curried cauliflower and potatoes (aloo gobi); stir-fried vegetables (sabzi); fresh salad, and gluten-free basmati rice. If you are looking for more whole grains, choose chapati, a flat bread made from whole-grain wheat. Roti, another wheat-based bread, may be made from white or whole grain flour, so ask to know for sure. Note that roti and chapati are wheat-based and contain gluten.

Prefer animal-based proteins? Indian menus will likely have chicken, lamb, and sometimes beef to satisfy your cravings. Try flavorful chicken tikka masala, which is spiced with turmeric, ginger, and coriander, or rogan josh (lamb curry), which features fennel, cumin, coriander and turmeric. Or try tandoori chicken, which is roasted in a clay oven with a yogurt sauce for plenty of protein.

Thai Restaurants

Thai restaurants are known for their rice and noodle dishes, curries, and stir-fries, which offer a wonderful combination of grains, vegetables, and protein. Thai meals should balance salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and spicy flavors.

The magic of Thai cooking is in achieving the perfect balance of these tastes. Ingredients such as Thai basil, lemongrass, galangal, coconut milk, hot peppers, and fresh herbs help with this balance.

What to Choose

Rice is served with most meals in Thai cuisine, but noodle dishes such as curries and pad Thai are also common. They are packed with nutrient-dense vegetables and lean proteins, such as shrimp, egg, tofu, and chicken.

Fresh rolls are another vegetable-packed option, and are gluten-free, too. Rice paper is used as a wrapper, and is filled with your choice of tofu, shrimp, or chicken, plus vegetables such as carrots, peppers, bean sprouts, and lettuce. Many Thai restaurants also offer mango salad, which has a perfect blend of tart-sweet dressing, and is usually garnished with heart-healthy peanuts or cashews.

If you are watching your sodium intake, keep in mind that nam pla, or fish sauce, has a high level of sodium per tablespoon. Use it sparingly if sodium intake is a concern or ask for it on the side.

Korean Restaurants

There are many delicious Korean dishes, which are often accompanied by kimchi. This fermented vegetable condiment has become popular for its probiotics and health benefits. It is made by fermenting vegetables—often cabbage—with probiotic lactic acid bacteria.

Research indicates that kimchi may have anti-cancer and anti-oxidative properties. It also may reduce cholesterol, promote brain health, stimulate the immune system, and promote skin health promotion.

What to Choose

Main dishes often include meat, seafood, or tofu, so there are options for both plant-based or animal-based diets. Plus, food is often served family-style for sharing, so you will get to try a little bit of everything. Many Korean restaurants offer barbecue-grilled meat and fish dishes, such as beef bulgogi, which is a good source of lean protein. These are often accompanied by small dishes of pickled vegetables.

No matter what you order at a Korean restaurant, make sure to add kimchi, which is typically served with steamed rice. These are both gluten-free choices, but check with staff to confirm. If gluten-free is your goal, try chapjae (or japchae), which are cellophane noodles made of sweet potato starch.

Vietnamese Restaurants

Vietnamese dishes expertly contrast tastes and textures, such as sweet and sour, hot and cool, cooked and raw, and crispy and smooth. These flavor profiles can be found in a variety of dishes made with protein (including beef, pork, chicken, eggs and seafood), herbs, vegetables, fruit, and rice.

Vietnamese cuisine is known for being fresh, colorful, and delicious. Two Vietnamese dishes that are widely known across the U.S. are pho (noodle soup) and banh mi (sandwiches), but there's so much more to explore with this beautiful cuisine.

What to Choose

Pho is the national dish of Vietnam, so it is a must-try. It's a brothy soup with rice noodles, thinly-sliced meat, and garnishes such as scallions, cilantro, hot sauce, and beansprouts. Rice noodles are naturally gluten-free, but always ask your server to be sure if you follow a gluten-free diet. Pho bo is made with beef, and pho ga is made with chicken. If you're plant-based, you can also try pho chay, which is made with vegetable broth and vegan protein options such as tofu or textured vegetable protein (TVP).

Banh mi is a type of crusty baguette that is used to make a variety of delicious sandwiches. Each region of Vietnam is known for different fillings for their bahn mi. For example, the traditional banh mi in Ha Noi includes butter, liver pâté, pork, ham, coriander, cucumber, and chili sauce, while the banh mi in southern Da Lat is stuffed with tons of vegetables, including cucumber, white radish, carrot, pickled carrots, onion, cilantro, and chili.

Other popular Vietnamese dishes include noodle dishes with stir-fried vegetables and lean protein, such as mi quang, which is made with rice noodles, vegetables, herbs, peanuts, plus shrimp, pork, chicken, or beef. Fish also plays a role in Vietnamese cuisine, and a great dish to try is cha ca, which is fish seasoned with garlic, ginger, turmeric, and dill.

A Word From Verywell

There are many delicious options when dining at Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Korean, Vietnamese, or Indian restaurants. This fact makes it easy to choose meals that are loaded with fresh vegetables, grains and protein. Whether you prefer animal-based or plant-based meals, you are sure to find something tasty on the menu that suits your dietary needs.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is Asian food healthy?

    Of course! There are many healthy food options from the 48 countries that make up the continent of Asia. Most cuisines are filled with vegetables, grains and lean protein options, such as chicken, fish, seafood, tofu and beans.

  • What foods are served at Asian restaurants?

    There are 48 countries in Asia, and each country has recipes, staple foods, and culinary traditions that are uniquely theirs. Dishes may be composed of an array of local vegetables, a grain such as rice or noodles, and a protein source such as beef, pork, chicken, or seafood. You will even find plant-based proteins like tofu on the menu.

  • Are there any gluten-free foods at Asian restaurants?

    Vegetables, fruit, and protein options such as chicken, tofu, beef, pork and seafood are naturally gluten-free. Rice, a staple grain in many Asian countries including India, China and Japan, is also gluten-free. What matters is how these foods are prepared. If food is breaded or fried, wheat may be part of the batter. Soy sauce, a popular condiment in Chinese and Japanese cuisine, may contain wheat—it depends on the brand. Ask your server to know for sure.

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By Cara Rosenbloom, RD
 Cara Rosenbloom RD is a dietitian, journalist, book author, and the founder of Words to Eat By, a nutrition communications company in Toronto, ON.