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Choosing healthy options among Baltimore's ethnic restaurants

Each week a nutritionist from the University of Maryland Medical Center provides a guest post to The Baltimore Sun's health blog Picture of Health (, which is printed here. This week, Shanti Lewis, RD, CNSD, weighs in on ethnic food.

Are you craving food with an international flair? Charles Street in downtown Baltimore offers a huge variety of ethnic restaurants. Dining out on exotic flavors from all over the world does not have to increase your waistline. You can still enjoy Chinese, French, Italian, Greek, Indian, Mexican and Japanese restaurants throughout the city. Here are some tips for selecting foods at ethic restaurants.


While traditional French cuisine is full of heavy cream sauces and pastries, there are still many healthy options at French restaurants. Also, if you are splurging on one of your favorite French foods, remember to share or take half home.

What to choose: French onion soup (hold the cheese), watercress and endive salads, poached fruit, steamed/poached fish or shellfish, Nicoise salad, lightly sauteed vegetables, chicken in wine sauce, consomme or bouillabaisse.

What to limit: Bearnaise, Hollandaise and bechamel sauces; pate; croissants, pastries, brioche and eclairs; anything with the word "cream" or "au gratin"; crepes; fondue; duck or goose with skin; French onion soup with cheese; quiche.


Indian cuisine is often full of healthy complex carbohydrates, such as basmati rice, chickpeas, lentils, breads and vegetables. However, there is often fat and salt added to vegetables, entrees and breads. Be careful of the word ghee, which is really clarified butter that is frequently found in Indian cooking. In addition, be aware that coconut oil is often used in frying and sauteing and is full of unhealthy, saturated fat.

What to choose: Tandoori chicken, beef or fish; beef or chicken tikka; gobhi matar tamatar (cauliflower with peas and tomatoes); chicken vindaloo; matar pulao (rice pilaf with peas); chapati (thin, whole wheat bread); chicken, beef or fish saag (with spinach); mint, mango or onion chutney; tamatar piyaz aur kheera salad (tomato, cucumber, onion salad).

What to limit: Samosas (fried turnovers containing meat or vegetables); doconut-based curries; saag paneer (spinach with Indian cheese); korma (meat with heavy yogurt sauce); murgh makhani (butter chicken); naan, roti or kulcha (leaved, baked bread that can be large portions); pakora (fried dough with vegetables); creamy rice dishes; and anything with ghee.


Chinese cuisine offers numerous healthy selections with lots of vegetables, lean proteins and healthy fats. Most of the oil used is peanut oil, which is high in unsaturated fats. However, excess amounts of oil can lead to excess calories and weight gain. Also, many Chinese sauces are high in sodium and you may want to stick with plain, steamed dishes if you are on a sodium-restricted diet. Look for the following words when ordering food at a Chinese restaurant: zheng (steamed), jum (poached), kao (roasted) or shao (barbecued).

What to choose: Wonton soup; steamed chicken, tofu or fish with vegetables; Szechwan shrimp; stir-fried tofu, fish, beef or chicken with vegetables; steamed brown rice; steamed dumplings; egg drop soup; moo-shu vegetables; hot and sour soup.

What to limit: Egg rolls; fried rice or dumplings; white rice (opt for brown rice); moo-shu pork or sweet and sour pork; General Tsao chicken; spareribs; lo mein; egg fu yung; sesame chicken.


Typically, Greek cuisine provides an abundance of grains, fruits and vegetables, and olive oil, which are associated with the Mediterranean diet. While the basis of cuisine is healthy, you may want to consider limiting certain dishes if you are watching your calorie and fat intake.

What to choose: Dolmades (opt for rice versus meat); baba ghannoush; tzatziki sauce; stifado stew; Greek salad without feta cheese and with dressing on the side; souvlaki; kakavia soup (fish and vegetable soup); grilled, pan-seared, broiled fish; low fat Greek yogurt and fresh fruit.

What to limit: falafel; gyros; spanakopita; cheese pie; baklava; moussaka; saganaki (fried cheese); tiganita (deep fried vegetables); phyllo dough.


Italian is a popular cuisine among Americans. However, making the wrong food choices can lead you to make more than a day's worth of calories in one meal. When choosing pasta, picking the right sauce is important.

What to choose: Minestrone soup; half orders of pasta (marinara, marsala, non-creamy primavera, wine sauce); chicken cacciatore; chicken or veal piccatta/scaloppini; grilled calamari; thin-crust pizza with fresh vegetables; shrimp, fish, chicken or veal and wine sauce; skim milk cappuccino.

What to limit: Fried calamari/mozzarella; sausage/meatball subs; calzones/pizza with sausage and pepperoni; ravioli with meat or cheese; cannelloni and baked ziti; fettuccine alfredo and pasta carbonara; shrimp scampi; chicken, veal or eggplant parmigiana; cannoli, spumoni and tartufo.


While people enjoy hot and spicy food offered at Mexican restaurants, many of the ingredients common to typical Mexican dishes, such as cheese, sour cream, tortilla chips and guacamole add additional calories with less substantial nutritional value. Choose grilled chicken and fish entrees, rice, beans and add salsa as your main condiment rather than sour cream or cheese sauce. If you are tempted by the tortilla basket, ask your server to take it off the table so you don't consume your entire meals' worth of calories from chips.

What to choose: Gazpacho; chicken, beef, shrimp fajitas; soft chicken taco (hold sour cream and cheese); camarones de hacha (shrimp sautéed in tomato coriander sauce); ceviche (fish cooked in lemon/lime juice); zrroz con pollo (rice with chicken breast); cheeseless burritos; frijoles a la charra (pinto beans); grilled chicken breast or fish entrees.

What to limit: Tortilla chips with guacamole; carnitas (fried beef); chorizo (sausage); refried beans; beef and cheese enchiladas; frozen margaritas and pina coladas; sopapillas (fried dough with sugar); chimichangas; nachos with cheese.


Staples in Japanese cuisine include rice, soy-based foods, vegetables and small amounts of chicken in fish. While many of the sauces and marinades, such soy and teriyaki, may contain high levels of sodium, Japanese cooking is generally prepared with minimal amount of oil.

What to choose: Edamame; hijiki (cooked seaweed); sashimi (raw fish served with wasabi and dipping sauces); miso soup (soybean-paste soup with tofu and scallions); fish and vegetable sushi (not fried or with creamy dipping sauces); chicken, beef or fish teriyaki; yakitori (skewers of chicken); oshitashi (boiled spinach with soy sauce); yosenabe (seafood and veggies in broth); steamed brown rice and vegetables.

What to limit: Shrimp tempura; vegetable tempura; eel and avocado rolls; fried bean curd; tonkatsu (breaded pork cutlet); fried dumplings; yo kan (sweet bean cake); chawan mushi (chicken and shrimp in egg custard); oyako domburi (chicken omelet over rice).

You do not have to avoid all your favorite ethnic dishes forever. If you are splurging on a French eclair, split it with a friend or take half of it home to eat later. Also, you can opt for appetizer portions of your favorite pasta or ravioli. When enjoying one of the higher fat and calorie ethic treats, make sure that you eat a healthy and balanced diet full of whole grains, lean meats, and fruits and vegetables for your other meals. Experiment with traditional ethnic foods at restaurant, and create healthier versions in your own home by replacing unhealthy for healthier oils or choosing leaner cuts of meats. Baltimore offers a wide range of different ethnic restaurants where you can still make healthy food choices that won't hurt your waistline.

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