Adore eating out, but afraid of the consequences? The truth is that almost any cuisine can fit into a healthy lifestyle. Whether your passion is American or Chinese, Italian or Mexican, you’ll find that by adhering to a few basic principles, you can sample all the tastes the world has to offer–with gusto not guilt!
Once you decide you are committed to your healthy new lifestyle, there’s no reason not to eat at your favorite restaurant any time you want. And, at Atkins, we love to show people how to find delicious, healthy choices from any cuisine there is. So don’t worry – or if you are worried, stop: Enjoy eating out and stay true to the healthy lifestyle you’ve chosen. Atkins may be the only plan out there that makes it easy and satisfying.
Here’s what we’re talking about:
- Going Out for Dinner: We’ll cover restaurants in general as well as focus on some of the cuisines that are most popular among Americans, starting with American and Mexican cuisines.
- Dining, Asian Style: We’ll take a look at the most popular cuisines of the Far East – Chinese, Japanese, Thai and Korean – along with some tips for making healthy menu selections at those restaurants.
- Greece to India with the Middle East in-between: Do you love the food of India, the Middle East, and Greece? We’ve got you covered, with tips for making healthy menu selections at those restaurants.
- European Cuisines: We’ll also explore the cuisines of Europe – especially those most popular in the United States. You’ll learn some great tips for making healthy menu selections at those restaurants.
With Atkins Nutritional Approach, you can eat at nearly any restaurant and stick to your goals, no matter what you crave. Just remember to the rules of the road:
- Eat foods with adequate levels of protein: Protein boosts your metabolism and provides energy for your body to build and repair muscles, bones and other tissue.
- Choose “good” carbs that maximize nutrient content and minimize impact on your blood sugar level.
- Eat tons of fiber – fiber is a good carbohydrate – but it is important enough to call out on its own.
- Choose good fats – avoid trans fats
- Avoid refined sugars – no matter what they’re called (dextrose, sucrose, maltodextrin and the sweet sounding but deadly organic evaporated cane juice) – and emphasize fruits and vegetables with a low glycemic impact.
- Select foods to maximize your intake of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients. Dark, leafy vegetables and cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower are all good choices; and remember that in general, the less a vegetable has been cooked or processed, the more it retains its favorable characteristics. It usually looks and tastes a lot better, too.
If you keep these basic principles in mind, you can still enjoy a wide selection of foods at nearly any restaurant and stick with your healthy eating habits. How to do that is what this article is all about.
Starches are Everywhere
Nearly every cuisine in the world has some kind of starch that seems to be an essential component. Mexican food and its regional American variations, all lean heavily on beans, rice, and corn. The cuisines of Italy are all seemingly impossible to eat without a plate of pasta. But you can find healthy, satisfying, fare so don’t despair.
It’s helpful to remember, what really gives any cuisine its identity are the spices and cooking methods. The good news is, those elements can be found applied to a wide variety of proteins and healthy vegetables, so it’s just not necessary to rely heavily on pasta, rice, noodles, or tortillas.
A Few General Hints About Restaurants:
The restaurants we will explore may have different menus based on different cuisines, but they all have some things in common:
- Restaurants are in the service business. Some servers are more knowledgeable about what comes out of the kitchen than others, but in any case, do not hesitate to ask for specific information about what goes into a dish. If the server doesn’t know, ask him or her to please find out. You don’t need to go into detail about why you’re interested. Remember, servers rely heavily on tips for income; when they’re at your table, they’re working for you. Be polite, but don’t hesitate to ask any questions you may have, or to specify any changes you want in presentation, like asking for the sauce on the side or to leave the potatoes off your plate.
- Every restaurant is in business to make money. One of the things mass market restaurants do to ensure enough traffic is to offer dishes that appeal to the largest number of people. These will inevitably involve whatever starch is the foundation of that nation’s cuisine. That doesn’t mean, however, that you have to order it or eat it.
- Many restaurants use prepared food products. There is a huge industry built around supplying restaurants with prepared foods, and many sauces, salad dressings, appetizers and garnishes may have come out of a freezer pack, jar or can. That’s why it’s always a good idea to get your sauce on the side. That way, you control the amount you eat.
- Overall, the trend is toward healthier food. Many restaurants, from major chains to mom and pop establishments, are aware of the movement toward healthier eating, and will have at least some smarter-carb options on the menu. While many of these offerings are very good and healthy, there is no universal standard restaurant definition of “healthy.” So just because something appears in a special section of the menu, you shouldn’t necessarily believe the health claims.
- In general, you’ll always be safe with a dressing that has an oil-and vinegar base: French, Italian or Greek dressings made with oil, vinegar and herbs, for example. If you’re dining at a Mexican or South American restaurant, try Chimichurri sauce on your salad. It’s a thick mix of oil and greens like parsley and cilantro, it’s tasty and is not likely to contain unnecessary empty carbs. Mayonnaise is fine as well as Ranch dressing, which is sour cream-based. Regardless of which dressing you order, ask for it on the side so you can control the amount that ends up on your salad. At the very least, don’t hesitate to question your waitperson about the dressing and pass it up if you aren’t satisfied with the explanation.
- Finally, each cuisine we look at will have a section called “Try This Instead.” Here you’ll find some suggested specialties that offer the essential flavor of that nation’s cuisine. Substitute these for dishes high in empty carbohydrates that may affect your blood sugar level, and/or are relatively void of fiber, protein and other nutrients.
Let’s go to dinner.
Let’s start right here at home with what, for the sake of convenience, we’ll call American Cuisine. American cuisine is built around meat – primarily chicken, beef or pork with seafood trailing behind. No mater what, it seems like every meal is dominated by protein of some kind.
The plate will also feature some kind of starch, usually white potatoes that are baked, fried or mashed; and almost as an afterthought, a green vegetable is added, as well. Often it’s a dinner salad or something out of a can. Restaurants that are wise to the healthy dining trend will usually substitute a vegetable for the starch. Sometimes it’ll be green beans or if you’re lucky, steamed broccoli. Don’t hesitate to ask for a substitution for the starchy component of the meal, and remember that steamed broccoli or cauliflower can be dressed up with a squeeze of lemon, a bit of salt and a pat of butter. And that’s good.
Fast Food Restaurants
America made fast food the enormous industry it is today, and now it seems even more American than apple pie. From pizza to burgers to fried chicken, it can take you longer to decide what you want than it does for the people behind the counter to serve it, ring it up and take your money.
The problem, of course, is that fast doesn’t always equate with healthy, and typical fast food offerings are full of empty carbs: in the bun, the breading, the condiments, and of course the ubiquitous fries. But there are options if you take the time to seek them out. Some fried chicken chains now offer grilled, broiled, roasted, or “broasted” chicken. It’s not breaded or battered, so it’s better for you than fried. You should, however, be cautious about some of the sauces, which may be made with high amounts of sugar. If you have any doubts, ask. In a pinch, you can always peel off the battered skin on a piece of regular fried chicken and just eat the meat. It’s much better to get something that hasn’t been battered in the first place.
Burger chains seem to have picked up on the “better for you” smart-carb trend more quickly than other national chains. Many now offer salads with ham or chicken and healthier salad dressings. If you ask, some will serve you a complete cheeseburger with a knife and fork, without the bun.
The Cuisines of Mexico
That’s right, we said “cuisines,” plural. What most of us think of as “Mexican food” is probably one of these three Americanized versions of Mexican food:
- Tex-Mex, which, not surprisingly, originated in South Texas. It consists of enchiladas, yellow cheese, chile and tamales. The primary flavor is hot and the heat comes mainly from jalapeño peppers.
- New Mexico-style Mexican fare can be similar to Tex-Mex, although the outstanding feature is the unique flavor gained from roasted Hatch green chiles. The flavors of New Mexican dishes tend to be richer, although not necessarily hotter, than Tex-Mex.
- Cal-Mex is California’s take on Mexican food. It relies heavily on seafood, with California’s typical emphasis on fresh vegetables. The flavors are bright and strong. But there’s a great deal more to the cuisines of Mexico than any of these.
Metropolitan Mexican food demonstrates the strong French influence that lingers from the brief period of French rule under Maximillian and Carlotta. The Eastern and Western coastal regions feature some outstanding seafood, typified by dishes that originated in places like Vera Cruz and Oaxaca.
And there are a number of other cuisines from other regions, including dishes with a native heritage. If you want to go beyond border-style Mexican cooking, look for the names of the various regions of Mexico in a restaurant’s name or description. Or just keep an eye out for the terms “interior Mexican cooking” or “cuisines of interior Mexico.” Put simply, there’s a lot more to Mexican food than tortillas, beans and rice. If you’re willing to make the effort to avoid the empty carbohydrates that come along with those starchy foods, you’re in for a real adventure.
It’s important to remember that the primary flavor elements of Mexican food are garlic, chiles, cilantro, and cumin (among others). These spices and seasonings can be found in any number of dishes which are carb-smart and they taste just as “Mexican” as enchiladas do. So pass on the chips and salsa and look for the regional specialties, which more and more Mexican restaurants are offering.
Try This Instead!
- For starters, guacamole is terrific. It’s based on avocado, which is rich in fiber, nutrients and flavor.
- Ask for jicama sticks for dipping instead of the chips. Jicama is a root vegetable. Bland, just a bit sweet and very crunchy, its crisp bite and flavor complement the rich texture of the avocado wonderfully.
- Are you a fan of enchiladas verdes – tortillas with spiced chicken, covered with a tangy green sauce of tomatillos and cilantro? Just ask for the chicken filling, minus the tortillas and topped with the sauce. It’s wonderful.
- Fajitas. There’s hardly a Mexican restaurant north of the border that doesn’t serve beef fajitas – usually made with marinated skirt steak – and many offer chicken and shrimp fajitas as well. Proper fajitas will come to your table sizzling, having been seared in an extremely hot skillet along with sliced onions, bell peppers, and sometimes slivers of one of the milder chile peppers. Just skip the tortillas and beans and you’re good to go.
Here are some other suggestions:
- Instead of stuffed jalepeño poppers or chiles rellenos, try grilled chicken wings.
- Instead of quesadillas, order sopa de albondigas, which is a meatball and vegetable soup.
- Substitute a jicama salad for nachos. Replace any of the taco, tamale, or enchilada platters with whatever grilled fish (pescado) is on the menu.
- Try pollo asado – grilled chicken – instead of chimichangas or flautas.
- Shrimp are even better in camarones al ajili – shrimp in garlic sauce – than they are in shrimp enchiladas.
- A fantastic substitute for any chicken-in-tortillas dish is turkey or chicken in a complex, dark, mole (mo-lay) sauce.
Once you begin to explore true Mexican food, you’ll never miss those cheese enchiladas. In fact, there’s so much more flavor in many of these dishes, you may wonder why you stuck with your tortilla-based dishes so long.
Next, let’s take a look at the most popular cuisines of the Far East – Chinese, Japanese, Thai and Korean – along with some tips for making healthy menu selections at those restaurants.
The Cuisines of China
Many of the basic principles we’ve covered hold true here too. So relax, read and get ready to enjoy new-found freedom in your favorite restaurants.
China is an immense nation, home to over 1.3 billion people. In terms of population it’s the largest country in the world. Rice is a staple in all Chinese cuisines and while there are exceptions, most Chinese dishes use meat as an addition rather than as the central focus. In many dishes, fresh vegetables, minimally cooked, form the bulk of the preparation and various sauces hold everything together.
While China probably has a richer culinary history than any other nation in the world, four regional cuisines dominate and three are well known in the United States:
- Cantonese: Until just a few decades ago, when you said “Chinese,” you meant Cantonese. Cantonese food was the first cuisine to be adapted to American tastes and agriculture, and it’s still highly popular just about everywhere. Cantonese food is typified by light, delicate sauces, roasted meats, and steamed and stir-fried vegetables.
- Szechwan: Szechwan cuisine is best known for its extremely hot dishes like Kung Pao Chicken and Double Cooked Spicy Pork. It comes from the landlocked, mountainous part of Central China, and gets most of its heat from tiny but very potent chilies – usually in the form of an incendiary chili paste – although garlic and ginger are major contributors, too. There are other, more subtle and complex dishes from this region, but it’s the fiery ones that get all the attention.
- Hunan: Hunan is the best-known regional cuisine from the Zhejiang region. It’s known for thick, rich, sauces as well as complex and sometimes biting flavors. Hunan is growing in popularity in this country. If you’ve had Pepper Chicken (fried hot and fast with onions and black pepper), you’ve sampled Hunan cuisine.
- Shandong: Still hard to find in most parts of the United States, Shandong cuisine is marked by its emphasis on fresh ingredients, which are selected to complement one another while retaining their individuality. Flavors are generally delicate, sometimes brightened by the addition of garlic and scallions. The light, clear, soups are good if you’re sticking to healthy carbs, while the thick, pungent, soups may derive some of their texture from corn starch. Perhaps the most famous dish from Shandong is Bird’s Nest Soup, although very few people in this hemisphere have ever tasted it.
It’s generally best to proceed with caution around Chinese buffets, because most of the dishes rely on a sauce – generally thickened with corn starch – to help keep the ingredients hot on a steam table. Often, you can request that a dish be prepared with the sauce on the side, so you can choose how much or how little sauce you eat. Woo Shu Duck, for example, is duck meat, usually dusted with almond flour, fried, and served with a dark brown sauce. The sauce is sweetened, but happily, the duck itself is delicious without it. Certainly you’ll want to avoid any of the sweet and sour
dishes, and dishes that are breaded or battered with starchy flours. Also, watch out for noodle dishes. Some dishes like Peking Duck and Moo Shu Pork, are perfectly fine, as long as you don’t eat all the pancakes and plum sauce that come on the side.
Try This Instead
Here are some substitutions to help you get started:
- For an appetizer, try egg drop soup instead of fried wontons or eggroll. This is especially good if the soup is clear and thin, rather than thickened with cornstarch.
- Instead of shrimp, pork, beef or chicken fried rice, have a sizzling shrimp platter. You may never go back to fried rice again.
- Substitute steamed tofu with vegetables, or beef with Chinese mushrooms, for any of the noodle-based dishes. If it comes with a sauce, request it be served on the side.
- Rather than any of the sweet and sour dishes, try stir-fried pork with garlic sauce (with the sauce on the side, of course).
As with all the other cuisines we’ll discuss, these substitutions still allow you to enjoy the cooking styles and essential flavors that give Chinese foods their unique characteristics, while avoiding the sugars and empty carbs you don’t want.
The Artful Cuisine of Japan
Whether you’re following a healthy eating plan or not, there’s one problem with Japanese food: When properly prepared, it’s almost too beautiful to eat. Of course, it’s too delicious not to. Happily, the dilemma is easily solved by simply enjoying the beauty and artfully matched flavors and textures. Like every other Asian cuisine, rice is a staple here. But again, you can skip the rice and still get plenty to eat. It should come as no surprise that Japan, being an island nation, has a great many seafood dishes, prepared in a variety of ways. But there are a number of other protein sources, which have found their way into Japanese cuisine, all delicious and perfect for healthy eaters – that would be you.
Typical flavors in Japanese cuisine include:
- Shoyu: Japanese soy sauce, which tends to be milder and sweeter than the Chinese variety
- Mirin: Sweet rice wine
- Dashi: Broth made from dried bonito flakes (bonito is a fish); used for flavoring and as a sauce base
- Ponzu: Dipping sauce made from soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, dashi and seaweed
- Wasabi: Japanese horseradish – careful, even if you’re used to American horseradish, this is ferocious. The good thing is, unlike the hot that comes from Mexican peppers, Wasabi hot diminishes quickly
- Pickled ginger: Adds a distinctive, surprising, somewhat un-ginger flavor
- Miso: A paste made from soybeans
- Sesame: from sesame seeds and sesame oil. Toasted sesame seeds have a nutty flavor and the oil made from them is golden brown and very flavorful.
Don’t miss miso soup (mee-so). It’s a rich, flavorful, clear soup made with dashi broth (made with dried bonito flakes) and soybean paste. Frequently you’ll find it served with a few cubes of tofu and perhaps some seaweed, along with a garnish of green onions. Use this opportunity to try some new vegetables. They’re almost always served crisp, and with the exception of tempura, which you’ll want to avoid because of the batter, these vegetables will be grilled or blanched briefly. Try burdock (a relative of the artichoke), daikon (which is a delicious radish), lotus root and Japanese eggplant. And if you have the opportunity, sample the pickled vegetables that are most often served as a snack or light appetizer. Oshino is “pickle” in Japanese – and these are unlike any gerkin you’ve ever tried. So dig in.
You’ll want to avoid eating sushi because of the white rice, but sashimi offers the same wonderful flavors. Plus, chances are the fish will be the very best the chef has available because there’s nothing to disguise any flaws in appearance.
And for a wonderful, fun, satisfying main course, try shabu-shabu, which consists of thin slices of beef and vegetables that you cook at the table in a broth, the Japanese version of fondue.
Try This Instead
- * Instead of edamame (whole steamed soybeans), whet your appetite with pickled vegetables.
- Replace the fried vegetable dumplings called gyoza, with steamed vegetables, or grilled Japanese eggplant.
- Instead of sukiyaki, enjoy shabu-shabu.
- If you’ve always been fond of shrimp tempura, try the broiled fish of the day with soy or ginger sauce.
- For any of the seafood noodle dishes, substitute grilled squid.
- Try negamiki, green onions wrapped in paper-thin slices of beef, dipped in plain soy sauce. This is a great alternative to beef teriyaki, which uses corn syrup or sugar.
The Powerful Flavors of Korea
Geographically speaking, Korea is at a crossroads, so its cuisine is something of a blend of Mongolian, Japanese and Chinese. And since the country has a lot of coastline, seafood makes up a large part of the typical diet. Fish, crab, shrimp, clams, oysters and squid are all prominent, and some seafood is either dried, pickled or used to make a paste. Fish is usually grilled or stewed in a sauce of some sort.
Soups are popular in Korean cuisine, but they’re almost inevitably noodle-based. Pork, beef and chicken are also found in Korean dishes, often marinated and grilled, served with rice or noodles. The defining flavors of Korean foods are garlic, ginger, soy sauce, rice vinegar, sesame oil and pastes made from fermented soybeans or chilies, which can give Korean food considerable fire.
Korean chefs are experts at blending sweet, salty, bitter, sour and hot flavors. A good example of combined flavors is kimchi, which is an assortment of vegetables like cabbage, turnips, radishes or cucumbers. It’s all seasoned with hot chilies, salt, garlic, onions, ginger and oyster or fish sauce, and pickled. Kimchi is one of the best-known Korean specialties, and you should definitely give it a try.
Beef plays a significant role in Korean cuisine, so it’s a good choice for anyone who’s controlling carbs. Some dishes, like kal bi tang – a marinated beef rib stew – will be served with rice. The meat is delicious; just pass on the starch. Korea is also known for its barbecue (bulgogi). Thin slices of a premium cut of beef like rib eye, prime rib or sirloin are dipped in sauce and cooked over charcoal at your table. You take a piece of meat, add just a bit of sauce, and eat it rolled up in a lettuce leaf. A Korean restaurant may also offer barbecue chicken, pork and you might even find fish and squid bulgogi on the menu. Don’t get carried away with the sauce, because it’s most likely sweetened with sugar.
A carb-smart meal might start with a bowl of soup, an entrée of beef or pork, and an assortment of tiny dishes – sometimes as many as ten or more – containing various sauces, pickles and preserved fish. They’re wonderful and you’re still on your program.
Try This Instead
- Tofu, either cold or fried, instead of the scallion pancake called pa jon
- Twoenjangguk, a soup made with fermented soy bean paste and baby clams, instead of Korean dumplings
- Shinsollo – meat, fish, vegetables and tofu – rather than any of the rice dishes
- Any of the delicious barbecue dishes instead of a rice noodle dish
Exploring Thai Food
Thai food is probably the most popular new cuisine to come to America in decades. It’s a remarkable blending of Chinese and Indian culinary traditions, with the brightness of tropical colors and flavors as well as unique seasonings and condiments. Thailand shares the coastline of the Gulf of Thailand with Cambodia and Vietnam, with a slender arm projecting south with the Gulf on the West and the Andaman Sea to the East, so seafood is plentiful. Like most other countries in that part of the world, however, meat is scarce and costly, so the cuisine has been built up around rice and noodles. But since there’s such variety in Thai cooking, you’ll still be able to eat well at any good Thai restaurant.
Perhaps the most famous Thai dish is pad thai, a noodle-based dish with shrimp, green onions, eggs, dried tofu, bean sprouts and chopped peanuts. And while the noodles may eliminate such dishes from your available selections, the flavors and combinations that make Thai food distinctive, including coconut milk, lemongrass, tamarind, cilantro, turmeric, cumin, chilies, lime juice and kaffir lime leaves, can be found in plenty of other dishes that aren’t based on noodles or rice. That means there’s a wide selection well worth exploring. For example, Thai chefs prepare a dish that’s very similar to a salad. It might be made with pork, beef, or some other protein and dressed with a fish-flavored sauce along with salt, lemon or lime juice, garlic or shallots, and chilies. Nuuryungnamtok is sliced steak, marinated in lime juice and mixed with chilies, onion, tomato, cucumber, coriander leaves and lettuce. And you can find the same combination of flavors applied to sliced squid in yum plamuk.
Thai diners are fond of frog legs prepared in a number of ways, and while they may be difficult to find in Thai restaurants in America, if you happen across them, they’re well worth a try. Thai soups are notable for their blend of unusual flavors. Try tom yum goong, a shrimp soup with straw mushrooms, seasoned with lime juice, lemon grass, and hot peppers; or gai tom kha, made with chicken slices in coconut milk.
In general, it’s best to stick to dishes that are quickly sautéed with lemongrass, basil, and other aromatic Thai herbs and vegetables. You’ll get all of the flavor and none of the guilt.
Try This Instead
- Tom yum goong instead of dumplings or spring rolls
- Sautéed shrimp or beef with basil, chilies and onion as a replacement for pad thai
- Sautéed scallops and shrimp with mushrooms, zucchini and chili paste instead of a curry, since Thai curry dishes frequently contain white potatoes
- Sautéed beef, chicken or pork with shrimp paste and green beans rather than sautéed meat with ginger, black bean sauce and green onion
- Sautéed mixed vegetables instead of fried rice
That completes our quick tour of Asian cuisines – and perfect proof you don’t need rice and noodles to enjoy the flavor without veering away from your goals.
Now, we’ll move west and explore the foods of India, the Middle East, and Greece.
Greece to India with the Middle East in-Between
Exploring the Regional Cuisines of India
India is a huge nation with at least seven regional cuisines. And each region has its own style of cooking. For example, cooks in Northern India usually grind spices before adding them to a dish, and you’ll find many dishes that rely on wheat, basmati or jasmine rice, and other grains. In Southern India, the spices are likely to be added whole, then ground together with other ingredients to make a paste. As you might expect, the seasonings and flavors become somewhat more tropical as you move south, sometimes relying on coconut milk. Because it was a keystone of the British Empire, India was a crossroads for trade between the Far East and Europe, so the cuisines are likely to be more eclectic than you might expect. You’ll see a Persian influence in lamb and mutton dishes that may feature dried fruit and nuts; and the Portuguese influence in the southwestern part of the nation where you’ll find duck, pork and believe it or not, even goat on the menu.
In many parts of India, cattle are still not slaughtered because of religious beliefs, so beef is somewhat rarer than it is in the cuisines of many other nations. This has resulted in an extensive choice of vegetarian preparations, many of them based on rice, wheat, or legumes (legumes are seeds that come in pods, such as beans, peas, and even peanuts). Even with so much carb dependence, there’s still plenty on the typical Indian menu to choose from while maintaining a good balance of protein and healthy carbohydrates.
In the United States, the most popular dishes are the tandooris. The name itself refers both to the dish and to the clay oven in which it’s baked. A tandoori oven gets very hot, so the food can cook quickly. Perhaps better-known – certainly in Great Britain – are curries: dishes seasoned with curry powder, which is a blend of spices and seasonings. You’ll also find kebabs, which are skewered pieces of grilled meat; and dals, which are lentil, chickpea, or bean dishes. Chutneys are the traditional accompaniment for many dishes. They have a sweet and sour flavor, and will inevitably contain sugar of one kind or another.
It’s a very good idea to ask what goes into any dish you’re not familiar with because Indian cuisines are complex and contain a wide variety of ingredients. In fact, it may be easier to ask if a dish doesn’t contain high-carb ingredients like sugar, flour or starches, than to wait while your server reels through a staggering list of what goes into the dish.
In general, healthy options include kebabs, tandoori and meat curries. Try raita, which is yogurt with cucumbers, to ease the heat of some of the more powerful curries.
Try This Instead
- Instead of vegetable samosas – which are pastries – try shahi paneer, a homemade cheese in a creamy tomato sauce.
- Substitute roasted eggplant with onions and spices for any of the fritters, which are called pakora.
- Instead of the typical lentil or mulligatawny soup, order a bowl of chicken shorba soup, made with chicken, garlic, ginger, cinnamon and spices including cumin.
- Because it almost always contains white potatoes, instead of a vindaloo, order a tandoori.
- Enjoy a korma, which is meat in a cream sauce, as a replacement for any biryani, which is a rice dish.
- Substitute any curried meat dish for any of the dals, which are lentil or bean dishes.
- Order any of the meat or shrimp kebabs rather than any of the meat saags, which are prepared with spinach and spices – but are heavily thickened with flour or starch and pureed, sautéed onions.
Foods of the Middle East
Many of the mainstays of Middle Eastern cuisine stem from nomadic roots. The predominant flavors of Middle Eastern dishes come from garlic, onions, cardamom, coriander, sesame, cumin, thyme, marjoram and sumac – all of which travel well and are easily preserved in dry climates.
Popular dishes in Middle Eastern restaurants include rice, chickpeas and lentils. But there are also a number of meat dishes, especially lamb-based and babaganoosh, which is roasted eggplant that’s mashed and mixed with garlic and a paste made from sesame seeds called tahini. Traditionally, babaganoosh is eaten with flatbread, but you can substitute celery sticks, green pepper chunks, or for a kick, chunks of onion.
Dishes you’ll want to limit or stay away from include:
- Hummus: a dip made from chickpeas and tahini
- Falafel: a deep-fried chickpea patty
- Tabbouleh: a salad made from bulgur (pre-cooked, ground whole wheat)
- Fattoush: a bread, cucumber and tomato salad
- Kibbe: a ground lamb and bulgur patty
- B’steeya: Moroccan chicken pie with almonds
Try This Instead
- Instead of hummus, try just a tablespoon or two of labnee – a thickened yogurt flavored with mint.
- Replace tabbouleh with loubieh, a dish of green beans cooked with tomatoes.
- In place of fattoush, try eggplant with garlic, tomatoes and peppers.
- Try lamb shish kebab instead of kibbe.
- Rather than falafel, order the skewered and grilled balls of ground lamb and onions called kofta.
- Try shish taouk – skewered pieces of marinated chicken grilled over charcoal– rather than b’steeya.
A Celebration of Greek Cuisine
You would have to look long and hard to find a cuisine that is more full of sheer joy and than Greek food. Because of the emphasis on freshness and Greece’s history as a seafaring nation, fresh fish is always a good choice. The predominant meat in Greece is lamb and few nations prepare it better or with more variety. Whether it’s a roast, vegetable-stuffed, wonderfully seasoned leg of lamb or the tender lamb chunks – called souvlaki – marinated, skewered and broiled hot and fast over charcoal or wood, you can’t go wrong with properly prepared lamb at a Greek restaurant.
Greek chefs make extensive use of olives, aromatic Greek olive oil and lemons. Greek oregano is richer and more complex than that grown elsewhere. Eggplant, zucchini, spinach, fennel, grape leaves, yogurt, garlic, mint, dill, rosemary and tahini in various combinations also form the basis of many dishes.
For dessert, the world-renowned baklava starts with filo – paper-thin sheets of pastry dough, layered with nuts and honey. Instead, consider a sampling of the splendid Greek goat-milk or sheep-milk cheeses to wrap up your meal. Filo is also used for savory dishes like spanakopita, which are triangles of filo stuffed with spinach and feta, and tyropita, traditionally filled with kaseri cheese, which is often served as an appetizer. As tempting as it may be, try to stay away from filo, and try these fantastic options instead.
Try a selection of marvelous Greek olives and cut vegetables, and dip the vegetables in tzatziki, a refreshing cucumber, yogurt and garlic dip. Another famous appetizer is dolmades, which are grape leaves stuffed with ground beef and rice. You’ll also find gyro meat platters on the menu, which consist of both lamb and beef – it’s absolutely delicious. Request another vegetable instead of the rice and flatbread, or pita, which accompany the meat.
And of course, Greek salads are full of good things for the carb conscious diner: feta cheese, olives, olive oil, ripe tomatoes, and lots of fresh basil. As long as you stick to the basics, it’s nearly impossible to go wrong at a Greek restaurant. And because the cuisine tends toward simple ingredients, it’s easy to find out what goes into any dish.
Try This Instead
- Rather than the thick, garlicky spread made with potatoes, called skordalia, try tzatziki.
- Instead of spanakopita for an appetizer, try avgolemono–a marvelous chicken soup made with egg and lemon.
- Order taramosalata, a wonderful creamy spread made with fish roe instead of dolmades, and ask for fresh vegetables to use for dipping.
- Rather than moussaka, order beef or lamb souvlaki.
- Instead of pastitsio with its pasta, sample Greek lamb – either roast leg of lamb, grilled lamb chops, or braised lamb shanks.
- Substitute chicken grilled with lemon, garlic, and either oregano or rosemary for chicken pilaf.
- Replace any pasta dish with pork loin braised with fennel and lemon.
- Order grilled prawns, octopus or swordfish instead of fried kalamari.
That’s it for India, the Middle East and Greece. You should feel comfortable now ordering at any restaurant that specializes in these cuisines.
And now for Europe, specifically France and Italy. Certainly in any city of any size at all, you’ll also find German and Spanish restaurants as well, but the basic principles we’re covering here will hold true for other cuisines, too.
The Haute and Not-So-Haute Cuisines of France
Because the first waves of immigrants to this country came from Europe, and because for centuries French chefs have been considered by Europeans to be the best and most talented in the world, it’s no wonder French food has always been viewed with reverence in this country. And because France’s climate and soil are so favorable to growing everything from wine grapes to asparagus, the respect is justified.
As with most large nations, the national cuisine of France is actually a collection of regional specialties determined by climate, the land and proximity to the sea. So you’ll find fish, herbs and olives in Provence; butter and apples in Normandy; wine simmered stews in Burgundy and Bordeaux and sausages and beer in Alsace. There’s a huge variety of cheese everywhere. And within each of these regions you’ll find the haute cuisine dishes that have earned France’s reputation as the fine dining Mecca of the world. These dishes tend to be complex, multi-sauced and incredibly rich. And absolutely no shortcuts are allowed in the preparation. Traditionally, an haute cuisine meal is served in distinct courses, preceded by an aperitif to put a fine edge on the appetite and followed by a “digestive” to aid digestion of the rich foods. In-between, you’ll choose from hors d’oeuvres, soup, an entrée, salad, cheese and dessert, with perhaps a fish course thrown in for good measure. Wines are carefully matched to each course, and a classic French meal can take hours to enjoy from beginning to end.
To a classically trained French chef, “fast food” is an oxymoron. That doesn’t mean you have to partake of a six or seven-course meal at a French restaurant. Even relatively few French go to such extremes on a regular basis. You can enjoy many of the same marvelous flavors prepared with the same care and deft touch by dining on bistro fare instead. Bistro-style food is heartier and considerably less pretentious. It generally costs a good deal less, too. If you’re committed to eating healthy carbohydrates and avoiding bad carbs, you’ll be happy to know many French sauces are perfectly acceptable because they’re based on butter or olive oil and thickened with egg yolks rather than flour. Asparagus with hollandaise is perfectly acceptable and remarkably delicious.
Consider the Classics
- French onion soup. While it’s traditionally prepared topped with a large crouton of toasted bread under a layer of melted Gruyere cheese, you can request it without the bread. The flavor will still be remarkable.
- Coq au vin is chicken slowly simmered in a wine sauce. It’s fine as long as you pass on the white potatoes that may be included.
- French leg of lamb is generally prepared by inserting slivers of garlic and rosemary before its roasted. It’s fragrant and delicious.
- Boeuf bourguignon, one of the towering classics of French cuisine, consists of cubes of beef, slowly simmered in red wine, beef stock, onions, garlic, and herbs. It fits a healthy dining regimen, and the flavor is just about as French as you can get.
Perhaps the most important thing to remember about French cuisine, whether haute or bistro-style, is that it’s still made with the same ingredients that go into food around the world. The quality may be higher than usual and there may be more care taken with preparation and presentation, but in the end, it’s still a combination of protein, healthy fats and carbohydrates, and you can still choose how much of each of those elements ends up on your plate and in your body.
Try This Instead
- Rather than the bacon, onion and egg pie called an Alsatian tart, try a frisée salad with thin strips of bacon and a poached egg.
- Enjoy coquilles St. Jacques – scallops in a cream sauce topped with cheese, instead of lobster in puff pastry.
- For vichyssoise – the famous French cream of potato soup – substitute mussels in a white wine sauce or the equally famous fish stew called bouillabaisse.
- Instead of duck a l’orange or aux cerises, substitute coq au vin.
- Order entrecôte or tournedos Bordelaise – steak in reduced shallot and red-wine sauce – instead of the egg-dipped, fried ham-and-cheese sandwich called a croque monsieur.
- Rather than veal Prince Orloff, which is veal roast stuffed with rice, onions and mushrooms, have the veal stew with tomatoes and mushrooms called veal Marengo.
- Instead of any potato dish, order buttered French green beans.
- For dessert, have a plate of some of the stunning French cheeses instead of something like crêpes Suzette.
Italy, way more than pizza and pasta
For all too many of us, Italian food is a green salad followed by big plate of spaghetti and meatballs in a garlicky tomato sauce, or a pizza piled high with all sorts of toppings from hamburger to pineapple. This does one of the world’s greatest collections of cuisines an enormous injustice, because Italy has a rich and varied culinary heritage that goes far beyond the Southern Italian food we’re generally used to.
Northern Italian food is reminiscent of French cuisine without the pretensions. It features rich butter and cream sauces, highly developed flavors and extreme care given to the preparation of only the freshest ingredients. Tuscan foods are carefully chosen and prepared to emphasize the essential bright flavors of individual ingredients. The signature element in Florentine dishes is spinach, and from the French border to Venice, you’re not likely to find pasta on the menu at all. Instead, the starches include rice dishes called risottos or cornmeal dishes called polenta.
No matter where you go in Italy, the emphasis is on freshness and enhancing the flavor of each element, whether it’s tomatoes or shrimp; and conscientious chefs in fine Italian restaurants in the United States do exactly the same.
Smart Dining Strategies
There are two secrets to enjoying the food at an Italian restaurant: first, avoid the ubiquitous side of spaghetti and any dishes that are cornmeal or rice-based. Second, don’t let the waitperson bring the basket of either hot garlic bread or crusty Italian bread and a plate of olive oil for dipping. It’s not as hard as you might think. You’ll find many dishes featuring chicken, veal, seafood or pork – or a combination – that offer the essential flavorings that mark Italian food, just without the starches. You simply need to read the entire menu to see what’s available, and ask about anything you’re not sure of.
Italian chefs probably do more wonderful things with veal than anyone else in the world. Just be aware that the veal in some dishes is breaded, battered, or floured before it’s pan-fried. Ask if you aren’t sure or it doesn’t say on the menu, and don’t generalize from restaurant to restaurant since some chefs bread everything in sight, while others limit breading to only a few dishes. So at one establishment you might find the veal Marsala and veal Florentine breaded, while there’s no breading at the place across the street. Ask to be sure.
Some don’t-miss foods include prosciutto, which is one of the most delicious variations of ham. It’s usually sliced very thin. You may see it offered with melon or wrapped around fresh asparagus and served with Parmigiano Reggiano cheese as an appetizer, or layered with veal medallions in veal Saltimbocca, which roughly translates as “jump in the mouth” because the flavor combination is so astonishingly good. And don’t hesitate to try seafood. You’ll find some delicious dishes made with fish, shrimp, and shellfish.
Try This Instead
- Have a seafood salad instead of fried (and battered) calamari.
- Rather than an appetizer of fried mozzarella sticks, order mixed grilled vegetables or grilled portabella mushrooms.
- Instead of garlic bread, enjoy a salad of arugula and fennel with shaved Parmesan cheese.
- Order an antipasto platter instead of baked, bread-stuffed clams.
- Have an escarole or stracciatella soup – an Italian version of egg drop soup – instead of fettuccine Alfredo.
- Enjoy one of the roasted or grilled seafood dishes instead of linguine with clam sauce.
- Have a grilled chicken breast or pork loin in place of any risotto dish.
- Order veal or chicken piccata or scaloppini – veal or chicken scaloppini with lemon and capers – instead of veal, chicken or eggplant Parmesan.
Okay, that’s it. We’ve covered pretty much the whole world – or at least the high points, cuisine-wise.
Now you know, there are smart, healthy choices to be made, no matter what restaurant you choose. Choices that will let you enjoy the essential culinary elements of each country and still eat healthy foods in high style. There’s a whole world of delicious food out there, prepared in myriad wonderful ways. If you can remember the basic principles of the Atkins Nutritional Approach, you will be able to enjoy eating out at a variety of restaurants while still enjoying your health and well-being.
Bon appétit. Let’s eat.