Chinese food was maybe the hardest of cuisines to reintroduce to my life after losing weight. During that year of losing 135 lbs, I eschewed General Gao, anything Kung Pao, and even my beloved crab rangoon. I learned quickly, through CalorieKing and browsing recipes, that there was no easy way to budget calories, or Weight Watchers points, in a way that fit sweet and sour pork and orange chicken.
Maybe the more upscale, chicer Chinese eateries served up lighter and more wholesome dishes, but the types I frequented, the ones I loved and still love, practiced no moderation of oil, sugar, and salt. And bless them for that.
Looking back, I realize two things: One is that I grew fearful of the food because, calorically-speaking, it’s dense. I almost imagine the person who coined “calorie bomb” was referring to my plate at a Chinese restaurant. To lose weight you must create a deficit, no matter how small it may be, and if we’re being honest with ourselves, fried rice makes that next to impossible.
The second realization I had is that at least half of my troubled relationship with Chinese food had to do with my wanting to eat it in the same binge-type way that I had always eaten it at nearly 268 lbs. It wasn’t just that I thought of the hundreds, if not thousands, of calories I’d save by not eating it, but moreso that I didn’t know how to eat it without abusing the food and myself. If I was going to have Chinese food, I wasn’t going to go lightly. All or nothing. Go hard or go home. One of those types of phrases sums up my sentiments.
If you have a lot of weight to lose and you feel that overwhelmed and dreadful pang of, “God, will I ever be able to have X food again?!”, trust me, you will. You will learn that you can have any and all of the foods you love(d). But you can’t binge on them. You can’t have them all at the same time in the same sitting. Plain and simple. And that may be the hardest part to learn. It was for me, anyway.
Nowadays any fears I once had surrounding spare ribs and lo mein, and all food for that matter, have largely disappeared. I embrace that even if a meal is 1000 calories, none of which are wholesome in the least, it’s not going to make or break a calorie piggy bank, darken a day, or make fragile a sense of self worth.
It took me a million moons to fully understand that Chinese food and pizza and foods that get topped with whipped cream and a plump red cherry do not by themselves mean nutritional ruin. One perfect plate of fried rice, beef and broccoli, and a spring roll does not translate directly to weight gain. It was always the aftermath that did me in. It was the way that one heavy meal planted a seed of self doubt in my dieting ability (which meant I was, in turn, a failure), then grew into guilt, then a ‘screw it’ attitude, and before I knew it a week had passed and I was double fisting oreos, sporting a milk mustache no doubt. Rather than just being present and enjoying that one meal fully at that time, I’d spend precious energy trying to negate it mentally and then let it spin me into a down spiral.
I had to work hard to change this, and the good news for all of us is that change is possible. Because life involves Chinese food and singular meals so calorically big that they fill a day in one sitting. My birthday was one such day. I ate every single food that I love (as I suggest we all do on birthdays), and walked around town so upbeat you would have sworn I was on something more powerful than cheese and chocolate. The beauty is in choosing not to do it everyday, and to positively revel in every moment of the meal when you do. Then, when it’s all over, know that the food will always be there, and move on with your day, your night, your life.
If we eat to oblivion everyday, no one day, no one meal is special or particularly unique. And that’s a shame. Chinese food is delicious and in my completely honest opinion, the saucier the noodles are, the thicker the chicken finger batter, and the more duck sauce, the better. So make it a once in a while meal, pair it with a full order of vegetables because I want you to get your nutrients, stop and smile midway, and then lick the plate. And on the other days, the in between days when your taste buds start taunting you with take out, make this lo mein.
Slippery noodles, crunchy bean sprouts, and a rich and glossy soy-ginger sauce. It’s savory and slightly salty but balanced by the sweet warmth of brown sugar and toasted sesame oil. It’s light and filling, and just as satisfying as the real thing.
Light and Healthy Vegetarian Lo Mein
For the Sauce:
- 2 tablespoons soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar
- 2 tablespoons brown sugar
- 1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
- 1/4 teaspoon Chinese five spice powder
- 2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger
- 2 teaspoons minced garlic
- 1/2 teaspoon Sriracha hot chili sauce
- 2 teaspoons cornstarch
- 2 teaspoons canola oil
- 2 cups bean sprouts
- 1/2 cup thinly sliced scallions white and green parts
- 1 cup shiitake mushrooms sliced
- 1 cup shredded Napa cabbage
- 1/4 cup grated carrot
- 6 oz Chinese egg noodles or whole wheat spaghetti
- Cook the egg noodles or spaghetti according to package instructions, drain and set aside.
- Stir all sauce ingredients together in a small saucepan set over medium heat. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer until thickened and glossy, about 3 minutes. Set aside.
- Meanwhile, set a large wok or skillet over medium-high heat. When the pan is hot, add the two teaspoons of canola oil and swirl to coat. Add the bean sprouts, mushrooms, cabbage, and carrot. Saute for about 3 minutes, or until the vegetables begin to soften. Add the cooked egg noodles and the sauce, tossing to combine. Serve immediately.