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Mandarin Translation Needed!, and eager for Healthy Evolution of Chinese cuisine

Chinese, Malaysian, Burmese, Vietnamese, Thai, Japanese, Korean, love all Asian cuisines and crave the flavors daily. Being a juvenile diabetic, have had great success keeping my blood sugars down through eliminating sugars, white flours, cornstarch, and sauces which contain these ever-prevalent ingredients in most Asian cuisines. I can tell you how much sugars/ carbohydrates they have by how much my blood sugar rises -- it's astronomical -- after a typical meal consuming only a quarter of the rice, always brown rice....the sauces are loaded, as are the noodle/rice/dumpling-free soups, teriyakis, etc!

Could someone well-versed in Mandarin, Thai, Vietnamese kindly translate this: " Please, no sauces with sugar, cornstarch, flour. And less oil. Salt and abundant seasonings are welcome. Thank you."

When I order 'no sugar/ no cornstarch' in trusted NYC neighborhood restaurants, I get a sad-looking plate of chicken/ beef/ tofu with vegetables steamed or barely sauteed with a drop of soy sauce, if lucky. Would love to see some garlic, ginger, orange peel, splenda, a robust array of seasonings, and, oh, a soy-based carb-free thickener to meld all the flavors..... Sometimes have even brought in my own shirataki tofu noodles, which they've covertly accepted.

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  1. Make sure your first line is "I am a diabetic" - you'll be more likely to get an honest response about whether or not it's possible to modify a dish to your specifications if they know you have a disease, and that you're not just someone on a low-carb diet.

    Honestly, your best chance at getting something delicious will be if you cook it yourself. You may be lucky enough to find a cook who will embrace this challenge with open arms (and if you do, make sure you continue to patronize that place), but the truth is that most of the places you go to will give you the sad-looking plate of protein with steamed vegetables. A lot of sauces/stocks/side dishes are premade, and a lot of meats are marinated in cornstarch (at Chinese places, at least), and thus can not be modified... given the razor-thin margin that most of these restaurants operate on, it's extremely unlikely that they will stock Splenda and carb-free thickeners.

    Good luck!

    1. My daughter has a college roommate who is from Hong Kong, and I could send her a E-mil and ask for a translation. I'm sure Cynthia (her English name as I cannot pronounce her Mandarin name) could do it, but it might take a day or so.

      I know that she is fluent in both Mandarin and Cantonese.

      1 Reply
      1. re: Kelli2006

        I don't know if this is of any use, but maybe you can jot this down and show it to the servers when you order: "請不要用含有糖, 玉米粉 (生粉) 或麵粉的醬汁, 和盡量少油。鹽和其他香料則沒有問題, 請隨便使用。謝謝。" You might need to view this with a Traditional Chinese encoding.

        I'm not a very fluent Mandarin speaker (I speak Cantonese) and it's hard to get the pronunciation right, but you may try this: "Qing bu yao yong han you tang, yu mi fen huo mian fen de jiang zhi, he jin liang shao you. Yan he ji ta xiang liao ze mei you wen ti, qing sui bian shi yong. Xie xie."

        Hope this helps, and good luck in your quest for healthier Chinese food.

      2. Thank you, everyone! And Kelli, would love to see the translation in Mandarin and Cantonese -- whenever she has time. Will carry the translations in as many languages as possible in my wallet (next to my Medic Alert card). Oh, FYI can also assure you that sugar alcohols so often found in 'low net-impact carb' foods do raise one's blood sugar considerably, almost as much as the equivalent level of slower-acting carbs in foods such as brown rice.

        1. I would advise getting down in writing and showing it to the staff. Otherwise, you may mispronounce it beyond recognition. Usually, when you ask a Chinese cook to make the dish you want it, they will assume that you want a dish that is free of just about everything. Thus, you need to know what type of dish to order so that the cook will know what do do.

          Unfortunately, if you don't know what to order, it is a "chicken and egg" problem. What type of Chinese regional food is served at your local restaurant?

          1. Try this Kamembert:

            Repeat after me: "Wo Yo Tong Nhew Bing"

            That's a VERY VERY ROUGH ping-ying translation of "I have diabetes". It should be start and at least give your server a heads-up that certain things are off-limits for you even if you can't articulate them in Chinese.

            The other things you want translated are a bit hard to come by, but "Tsaw Tong" literally means less sugar.

            Good luck.

            2 Replies
            1. re: ipsedixit

              Thank you, but whenever I convey that I have diabetes, I get a sad-looking plate of steamed meat and vegetables devoid of any seasoning. Trying to convey a way to get flavorful food with a distinctly flavorful sauce, appropriately roasted or sauteed meats, with a wide assortment of vegetables, no rice, maybe with shirataki tofu noodles..... Seems some restaurants might venture to feature at least one dish like this, for a higher price for the time and add'l ingredients, for a while and see how it goes....

              1. re: Kamembert

                When you tell them you have a health condition, they will cook food designed for ill people to eat: steamed, bland food. This is very traditional for any type of condition or illness. Spicy or flavorful food are considered harmful to your body's internal balance.

                The only ways to get around it is to get around this are to order the correct dishes or to give them specific instructions on how to cook it. As you've already figured out, this is not easy. If you are a frequent patron to your neighborhood Chinese restaurants consider talking with the manager/owner after the lunch rush. Tell him/her that you have some dietary restrictions and would like some foods with certain ingredients and flavoring (no plain, steamed vegetables and meats). Ask them if they can cook that for you in the future and how much advance notice they would need. Make sure you order enough to make it worthwhile for them. Best of luck.

            2. I'm curious - are mung bean noodles ok, or are they comparable to flour/rice noodles in raising blood sugar?

              I agree with raytamsgv that you should get all of these written down - don't bother trying to do the phonetic translations. 1) If you're not familiar with pinying, you'll struggle with the standard pronunciations (e.g. "q" = "ch", "x" = "sh" etc) 2) Without any tonal demarcations, you have a very small chance of pronouncing any given word correctly, much less the entire paragraph.

              Please remember - the cooks in these restaurants are not Top Chef contestants eager to take on a challenge. If the Chinese cook population in NYC is similar to that of Oakland (I'm a physician in Chinatown with many restaurant workers in my patient population), most of them have elementary school educations, a very minimal understanding of diabetes, and became cooks when they came to the States because the other options for unskilled workers were construction and janitorial work. Take away their pre-prepared sauces, and you're left with garlic, ginger, chili flakes, and soy sauce. They're not going to take the time (and may not have the ability) to figure out creative ways to get around dietary restrictions. They're going to cook something as quickly and simply as possible, and put soy sauce on it. (I'll be thrilled if you can prove me wrong).

              I definitely think the key is to identify dishes that don't intrinsically require sugar, flour or cornstarch, and then to confirm with the server that none of these things are added. I don't think you'll be successful asking them to adapt a dish that ordinarily calls for sugar, flour, or cornstarch. So, no Shandong food, for sure. But if you order selectively, you may be ok with Sichuan, Cantonese, and Shanghaiese.

              I've been racking my brain, trying to think of common restaurant dishes that would taste good, given your limitations. So far, I have:
              Sauteed on choy with fermented tofu
              Sichuan-style hot pot
              Cantonese-style steamed fish
              Salt-baked chicken
              Drunken chicken
              Vegetarian goose (although the braising liquid for tofu skin preparations are often has a little sugar)
              Marinated seaweed

              Can other people chime in?

              10 Replies
              1. re: daveena

                I can think of a number of Cantonese dishes, but it would depend on what type of Chinese restaurants are in the area. If you order steamed dishes, they will almost certainly not have cornstarch or flour. You can always order with less oil, even for the stir fried dishes. But the results may vary depending on the cook.

                From your description, it seems that most of the Chinese restaurants serve Americanized Chinese food. These tend to be heavy with the cornstarch-based sauces. It is not clear where the cooks are from (I've discovered that in certain restaurants, even if the wait staff is Mandarin-speaking, there is a good chance the cooks are Cantonese).

                If you get a chance to go to a good Cantonese restaurant, you should generally avoid dishes that combine meats and vegetables. Instead, look for the dishes that identify just meat or vegetables separately. Off the top of my head, here are some Cantonese dishes:

                Cantonese steamed fish/oysters
                Stir-fried beef/clam/chicken/crab/lobster with ginger and green onions
                Salt-pepper shrimp/crab/lobster/pork
                Shrimp/clam/crab/lobster with black bean sauce
                Steamed/boiled chinese broccoli (gailan) with oyster sauce
                Stir fried pea pods/baby bok choy with garlic
                Stir fried string beans
                Steamed chicken with green onions and ginger
                Baby bok choy with dried scallop
                Roast pork
                Roast duck
                Winter melon soup

                As for Vietnamese foods, make sure you avoid the fish sauce. Restaurants usually add sugar to it. Unfortunately, I cannot think of many Vietnamese restaurant dishes that do not have rice, noodles, or other starches. There are homemade dishes, but you usually cannot find those in restaurants.

                1. re: raytamsgv

                  Some of these crossed my mind too - BUT:

                  Stir-fried and chicken are almost always marinated in cornstarch first - I would guess that they throw it all together at the beginning of service, rather than marinating each order as it comes in. So the OP would have to make sure they used unmarinated meat. The stir-fried dishes you listed almost always seem to come with a final glossy coat of cornstarch-thickened sauce, but I think it's more for looks than flavor and that they'd all taste good without it, so it is a nice reference list for the OP.

                  Oyster sauce has cornstarch.

                  Roast pork usually has sugar in the marinade (I think roast duck would be ok if you took off the skin)

                  Winter melon soup is a great suggestion. I'll add to that pork soup with bok choy and knots of dried tofu skin.

                  1. re: daveena

                    In a "good" Cantonese restaurant, the final glossy coat should come from oil (which is optional), not a cornstarch-thickened sauce. However, it really depends on how good of a Cantonese restaurant it is. We don't know if the OP has access to such a place.

                    It would seem that most "clean" stir fry dishes would be good. The term would be "ching chow" (qing chao in pinyin). Food cooked like this will have a minimum of additional sauces. Again, it depends on the skill of the cooks.

                    However, your point about oyster sauce is well taken--I did not know it had cornstarch.

                    1. re: raytamsgv

                      Most of the generic oyster sauces that restaurants use have sugar or caramel as an additive and extender.

                      1. re: raytamsgv

                        That glossy coat is from oil? Is it usually just a neutral vegetable oil? Do they infuse it with anything? I do have some fish recipes where you flavor neutral oil with ginger and scallions, and pour it over the final dish.

                        "Qing chao" is a good addition to the vocabulary - thanks!

                        1. re: daveena

                          In Cantonese cooking, after the food is done, the cooks will often dip their cooking utensils in oil (usually the same one they use for stir-frying) and mix it up a little to give it a shine. Historically, oil was a sparse commodity, so if you added a little extra oil to the food, it was sort of a sign of wealth.

                      2. re: daveena

                        Roast pork is surprisingly, very sweet! (At least at the 20 or so places I've had it, including in HK). Blood sugar rises rapidly even w/o rice.....

                        1. re: daveena

                          Roast duck w/o the skin also makes my sugar rise.... just like a rotisserie chicken w/o the skin. The birds are infused with a sugary marinade with the successful intention of sweetening/ flavoring the meat.....

                      3. re: daveena

                        Most of these are great options, thank you, yet also want ample, ie 70% vegetables in a dish.... And marinated seaweed, at least in the Japanese preparation, is loaded with sugar! Would be great if Chinese/ Thai/ Vietnamese/ other Asian restaurants had at least one dish with no sugar, cornstarch, flour, etc! (Rather easy to keep on hand one extra sauce and shirataki noodles, at an extra price, which would be fine for those of us in demand.)

                        1. re: Kamembert

                          Why should Chinese restaurants use shirataki noodles? That's a Japanese item. I'm not sure the version that looks like fetuchini is even traditional in Japan.

                      4. The crux of much of your problem is this- Many sauces are prepared in advance, or, as others have said, use prepared/bottled sauces whose ingredients they don't control. While sometimes it's a matter of tossing on some of this, some of that- many are made in advance so a ladle of "x sauce" is added to the dish to finish it. Also, there are the marinades to contend with. When I do Chinese at home, I marinate my meat in a rice wine and cornstatch slurry, as instructed by friends who owned a chinese restaurant, and taught me much about cooking this cuisine.

                        So, while you may be able to get your point across, it may be harder to actually implement it. For instance- I worked at an Italian restaurant, and we made the Casear dressing daily in prep. If requested to "leave the anchovies out of the dressing..... ", this would have been impossible- it's already in there, so oil and vinegar is an alternative.

                        So, perhaps adding your alternatives to your note- that ginger, soy, etc are acceptable as opposed to "seasonings" might help.

                        1. Okay, I'll be the one to say it.

                          Western diseases related to food are just not that common in much of asia. They are becoming more common, but still diseases like diabetes are fairly unknown, and immigrants are unlikely to have a full grasp of what that entails, and what people can and can't eat. Heck, I have little idea what that means, in terms of soecific dietary limitations, other than the obvious sugar. Telling the waitstaff in an authentic asian restaurant you have diabetes may get you as much response as telling them you are from the moon.

                          But don't blame it on the cuisine or the people, I agree with the first poster in this thread- your best luck is to learn to make it yourself the way you need it.

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: cheesemonger

                            I think that could be why the OP gets food fit for an invalid when he tells them about his diabetes. Steamed, plain, bland... I wonder if Kamembert has access to an Asian market. He might be better off making his own at home.

                          2. healthy evolution is right, most ready made chinese foodstuff have no nutrition info...

                            1. Eat the food that they normally cook and take enough insulin to cover it. How hard is this to figure out? If you have Type 1 diabetes, which, by the way hasn't been called juvenile or juvenile-onset diabetes for at least 30 years, then you're already on insulin and should be able to figure out the carbohydrate count pretty easily.

                              1 Reply
                              1. re: Euonymous

                                That aside, at least as phrased in the OP, it seems to me the poster is expecting an awful lot from neighborhood restaurants. I doubt anyone in the ones in my neighborhood have ever heard of shirataki (Japanese) noodles, much less the tofu version?? But then is one shocked when the corner diner doesn't offer 9-grain hamburger buns with sunflower seeds, to go with the turkey hamburger, the one made with especially low-fat meat and no prepared seasonings in there anywhere? I gotta say, none of this sounds like any "neighborhood" restaurant I've ever eaten in anywhere...