You can count on Chinese restaurants to serve up dishes full of MSG (even when they claim none), and high in sodium and “bad” fat, especially if fried. Many traditional Chinese condiments, such as hoisin sauce, soy sauce, rice wine and rice vinegar, are loaded with salt, sugar, additives and, sometimes, artificial colors.
My key substitutions in the recipes below include: using coconut aminos in lieu of soy sauce; coconut vinegar (or apple cider vinegar) instead of rice vinegar or black vinegar; and making a homemade sunflower-seed-based hoisin sauce instead of using a store-bought one, where sugar is the No. 1 ingredient.
With these paleo versions of home-cooked Chinese food, don’t expect the same sodium, sugar and MSG-infused high of Chinese restaurant food. The flavors and texture will be nuanced and subtle, but definitely "cleaner" — and equally (if not more) delicious!
Chinese restaurant sesame noodles can be gloppy and greasy, heavy on the sesame paste. This version, which substitutes slightly chewy zero-carbohydrate shirataki noodles (a.k.a. "Miracle Noodles" made from the root of a plant called konnyaku imo) for white flour noodles, is light and slightly piquant, thanks to the judicious use of sesame oil, coconut aminos, grated cucumber and red pepper flakes.
- 4 (7 ounce) packages shirataki noodles (aka "Miracle Noodles" or angel hair)
For the sauce
- 1/4 cup sesame oil
- 2 tablespoons coconut aminos
- 3 tablespoons coconut vinegar
- 3/4 teaspoon coconut sugar
- 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
Place above ingredients in a large bowl; using a whisk, mix well. Set aside.
- 1 to 1-1/2 cups grated English cucumber
- 1 bunch scallions (about 8 stalks), ends trimmed; the green part sliced into thin rounds
- 1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds (optional)
- Follow package directions for cooking the shirataki noodles (the texture is al dente). Drain cooked noodles well; rinse under cold water.
- While the noodles are cooking, prepare the sauce in a large bowl.
- Peel the cucumber, remove seeds and grate, using the largest hole of a box grater. Push through a colander to strain out excess liquid.
- Add cooked noodles to prepared sesame sauce. Top with scallions and cucumbers, tossing well. Garnish with sesame seeds, if desired.
- Serve at room temperature. Noodles can be made a day in advance, refrigerated and covered tightly with plastic wrap or stored in an airtight container.
Adapted from the original version at Crunchy Mama
Yields approximately 1/2 cup
Commercial hoisin sauce is loaded with sugar (the No. 1 ingredient on the label!), salt, caramel coloring, additives and potential allergens (wheat and soybeans). Eating anything that has been marinated in hoisin generally leaves me with a pulsing headache and dry mouth. This homemade version has a runnier, thinner consistency than store-bought hoisin and is milder in flavor, but equally delicious without the "hangover" effect.
- 4 tablespoons coconut aminos
- 2 tablespoons sunflower seed butter (without added sugar or salt)
- 1 tablespoon raw honey
- 1 tablespoon coconut vinegar
- 1 teaspoon minced garlic
- 1-1/2 teaspoons sesame seed oil
- A few grinds of freshly ground pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon of ground African bird pepper (dried)
- Whisk together all ingredients until smooth.
- Store in fridge up to a week.
Char sui (Chinese roast pork)
Char sui (barbecued pork), originally a Cantonese dish, is popular in Chinatowns throughout the world. It typically has a distinct red hue, thanks to artificial coloring, and, with maltose or honey in addition to hoisin sauce, char sui can also be overly sweet. This recipe uses only pasture-raised pork (all-natural and organic are fine, too), and the marinade contains no red food dye, added sugars or sodium.
- 2 pounds pasture-raised pork, country-style ribs or pork butt (both are from the shoulder), excess fat trimmed, and sliced into 2 x 1-1/2-inch chunks
- 4 tablespoons homemade hoisin sauce (see previous recipe)
- 4 tablespoons coconut aminos
- 2 tablespoons dry sherry
- 2 tablespoons pure sesame oil
- 1 head garlic, crushed with flat blade of knife and sliced into slivers
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
- Place pork (including marinade and garlic) in a single layer in a 13 x 9-inch baking dish. Cover baking dish tightly with foil.
- Place pork on lower one-third of oven. Be careful not to overcook. Roast pork for about 25 minutes. Test a piece; if not yet done, roast (covered) another 2-3 minutes, or until pork is slightly pink inside and very tender. If using a meat thermometer, it should register about 130 degrees F.
- When done, transfer meat and garlic, with any jus, to a serving platter and serve warm.
For the marinade
- In a medium stainless steel bowl, combine homemade hoisin, coconut aminos, dry sherry and sesame oil, whisking well together.
- Add pork chunks to the marinade; fold in the garlic. Stir well.
- Cover bowl tightly with plastic wrap. Let stand at room temperature for 30 minutes.
Baby bok choy with ginger and coconut vinegar
Sweet, succulent baby bok choy gets a tasty spin with fresh minced ginger root and a splash of coconut vinegar, made from the sap of coconut trees.
- 1-1/2 pounds baby bok choy, ends trimmed, rinsed well, spun dry
- 1-1/2 tablespoons fresh ginger, minced
- 1 tablespoon coconut oil
- 1/3 cup water
- 2 teaspoons coconut vinegar or apple cider vinegar
- Celtic sea salt, to taste
- Heat oil in a wok or heavy-bottomed pot (like a Dutch oven) over medium-high heat. Add ginger and stir-fry about 30 seconds. Add bok choy, stirring constantly, until wilted, about 1-2 minutes.
- Lower heat. Add 1 tablespoon water to deglaze ginger sticking to bottom of wok. Add 1/4 cup more water to bok choy, stir well and cover. Let simmer about 3-5 minutes or until soft (but not mushy).
- Uncover, raise heat to medium for 1-2 minutes or until most of the water has evaporated. Remove from heat. Salt to taste. Drizzle in the vinegar.
Braised eggplant with toasted Sichuan peppercorn
As a child, I adored this home-style eggplant dish, which my Sichuan-born father, a Chinese scholar and excellent cook, used to make. It was my first introduction to hwajiao, literally meaning "flower pepper" in Chinese — also known as Sichuan peppercorns. The tiny reddish-brown seedpods come from a prickly ash tree and, when toasted and ground, impart a truly exotic, citrusy-smoky flavor. Both the hwajiao and a touch of ground pork (omit the pork for a completely vegetarian dish) enhance the natural "meatiness" of the eggplant.
- 3-1/4 pounds long, slender purple Asian eggplant (ideal) or Italian eggplant, rinsed well; trim and discard ends
- 1/4 to 1/2 pound pasture-raised or all-natural ground pork
- 1 tablespoon fermented black beans, well rinsed and finely minced
- 2 tablespoons garlic, finely minced
- 1 bunch scallions, sliced into thin rounds (about 1 cup)
- 1-3/4 cups water
- 2 tablespoons coconut aminos
- 1 tablespoon homemade hoisin (see recipe above)
- 1 tablespoon sesame oil
- 1 tablespoon arrowroot plus 3 tablespoons water, mixed well, for slurry
- 1 to 1-1/2 teaspoons ground toasted Sichuan peppercorn
- Cilantro, finely chopped (optional)
- Halve eggplant lengthwise, then crosswise. Arrange pieces on a baking sheet; sprinkle with kosher salt. Let sit at least 30 minutes until eggplant "sweats" out any bitterness. Rinse eggplant and pat dry.
- While eggplant is "sweating," place Sichuan peppercorns in a skillet over medium-low heat until it begins darkening and becomes fragrant, about 5-8 minutes (be careful not to burn). After peppercorns cool, grind in a spice grinder.
- Finely dice eggplant into 1/4-inch cubes so eggplant will easily "melt" during the braising process.
If using Italian eggplant
- Take each quarter section of eggplant and slice lengthwise into 1/4-inch thick rectangular slabs, stack up, then cut into 1/4-inch strips lengthwise; then cut crosswise every quarter-inch, which will yield 1/4-inch cubes. Do for each quarter section.
- Heat 1 tablespoon of coconut oil in a wok or Dutch oven over medium-high heat. When the wok is hot but not smoking, add ground pork. Reduce heat. Cook 1-2 minutes, or until there is no visible pink in meat, being careful not to overbrown meat. Transfer cooked pork to a small bowl and set aside.
- In the same wok or Dutch oven, heat 1-1/2 tablespoons of coconut oil over medium heat. Add the minced black beans, garlic and scallions, stir-frying about 1 minute. Add the eggplant and cook, stirring frequently (about 3 minutes).
- Add 1 cup of water and cover, cooking over medium-low heat 3-5 minutes. Add the remaining 1/2 cup water; reduce heat to simmer and cook, covered, another 20 minutes. If there is still a lot of liquid and the eggplant has not "melted," uncover, adjusting heat between low and medium-low and stirring eggplant frequently (as with risotto). Mash down to expedite melting and achieve a thick pureed texture, about 10-12 minutes.
- Raising the heat to medium-low, stir in the soy sauce, hoisin and sesame oil until well blended, about 2 minutes.
- Return the ground pork to the wok and stir well; the mixture should be thickening (i.e., not watery) at this point.
- Drizzle in 1 tablespoon of the cornstarch slurry. Stir until thickened with a glossy sheen.
- Remove from heat. Stir in 1/2 teaspoon of toasted Sichuan peppercorn.
- Garnish with a generous sprinkle of scallions, sliced into thin rounds, or finely chopped cilantro.
Other paleo-friendly recipes
8 Things to do with napa cabbage
Gluten-free Friday: Asian-style noodles and shrimp
The Nut Job-themed dinner menu