Monday, October 4, 2010

The Failsafe Option is Italian

Finding well-balanced, healthy, food that is good to eat is hard enough when you’re out prowling the streets of Lagos. But doing the same in a restaurant adds a new layer of complexity. The contents of a loaded selection of curry dishes, or a single, swirled plate at any local restaurant don’t come neatly labeled as a microwave crème brulee in the supermarket.
Cooks are fond of tasty shortcuts such as adding butter or cream to their meals perhaps to make it thicker. Worse, some restaurants aren’t all equipped to cater for the health-conscious diner. Since I started eating out, I mean, dining in restaurants - beautiful, ugly, expensive, exotic, infuriating, daunting – it’s always been one experience to the other, so here I put up my view on some restaurants I’ve been to, and although I didn’t specify their names, it is quite clear which type of restaurants serves diners well.
So, whenever I’m planning a meal out, there are certain places that I avoid, except I just want to spend my tucker time negotiating with the waiter, but not so often.
Indian food relies heavily on diary products and so earns the whole cuisine a big red warning sticker. The offending substance is clarified butter-or ghee-which is used to boil, fry and mix almost everything that comes out of an Indian kitchen. There are ways to survive an Indian restaurant, though. (a) Go for tandoori dish. Tandoori dishes are effectively dry-fried in the tandoori oven and don’t use so much ghee. They can be somewhat too dry, however, so look for a yoghurt-based sauce to accompany it. (b) Steer clear of the poppadoms. The world’s best chips are deep-fried and very porous. Try a spicy chappati instead. (c) Avoid the puddings at all costs, I warned you. (d) Eating just the vegetarian dishes is probably the worst thing to do as most are cooked in, and saturated with, ghee.

Chinese food is a similarly troubled zone. Vegetable oil is used in the preparation of nearly everything, whether it’s deep fried or stir fried. The trouble begins with preparation. In a beef stir fry, for example, the meat is half cooked in oil before being thrown into the wok. So although the stir fry itself contains little oil, the meat is already saturated. You can however request the meat be boiled in water instead. Similar measures can be taken to reduce the fat, and therefore calorific value, of other dishes as well. This leaves the meal with less fat, as I have found out.

Although I’ve not really been to a French restaurant, but on two unplanned instances I got invited to breakfast at a wonderful couple’s home. I never guessed it would be an all-the-way French breakfast. My first intentions were to take a back seat for a while, but it was unavoidable, as everyone sat as one. If one had to devise a menu based entirely around beef, cheese, double cream and egg yolks, one would end up with French cooking in this style. There is unlikely to be an escape from cholesterol, salt or sugar. The other French cuisine which jumps readily to mind is nouvelle, or so she called. She said it was not so widely available; nouvelle was essentially the French interpretation of worldwide movement towards fresher ingredients, more natural and exotic flavourings, such as ginger, with the emphasis on presentation. Put simply, you will be able to find something decent to eat at any restaurant that has pretensions to modern cooking. Or has pretensions full stop.

Italian food falls into two camps: traditional and modern. Traditional cuisine relies more cream, butter and olive oil, while modern cuisine tends to use drizzles of oil and grilling instead of frying. The modern emphasis on low fat, natural, unprocessed flavours and light grilling makes it impeccably modern. The modern Italian cuts back on fat, olive oil, but it’s still very fattening. So, there’s no escape fat from the Italian cuisines. The best part of the Italian restaurant is that they often usually come up with a fruit or a light fruit-juice and water-sorbet.

Nearly every class of restaurant offers at least one fish dish, and there is also a tradition of classic British fish restaurants, like the delectable Marmundos. The rules here are pretty much the same as cooking at home. Grilled fish and boiled or steamed vegetables are about as healthy as you can get. White fish are slightly better than pink or brown-fleshed fish, although the difference isn’t that great. Shellfish score higher than fish in mineral content: oysters are particularly high in zinc, a mineral essential to sperm production.
Japanese food is very meat-oriented. Outside of noodle bars, it’s unlikely to find a dish that has not had meat involved somewhere in its preparation. The positive side of this is the Japanese fashion for eating meat, and particularly fish, raw. Sushi is always the good part in the Japanese cuisine. Having said that it’s surprising the Japanese heart attack rate isn’t higher considering that the national hobbies are overwork and amphetamines, so perhaps the diet isn’t that bad.
Korean food is not dissimilar to Japanese, but with more meat, what’s with the meat by the way, sometimes I wonder the amount of meat we consume. Marinated barbecued beef is the Korean staple, along with pickled vegetables such as cabbage. Neither is particularly healthy.
The Choice is yours
Summarising what and where to eat is easy. Look for a handful of things: cuisine which claims to be modern, which offers fish as a main course and uses non-saturated fats to cook with. The failsafe option is Italian. Even if your dinner party consisted of your healthy self, a vegetarian, someone on a gluten-free diet and a marathon runner building up for a race, an Italian restaurant would be able to accommodate them all. Pass me the bread sticks.

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