"People often think of Chinese food as sweet and oily, with heavy flavors, and that image is hard to shed," says Doron Wong, the executive chef at Yunnan BBQ in New York City. But the cuisine—which varies greatly from region to region—is mostly based on clean flavors, fresh vegetables, and proteins cooked in simple and healthy ways, he explains. It's also super fast to make, which is why you should make it part of your regular rotation.
The best part: "Chinese home cooking is not about a rigid set of rules," says Amanda Vuu, associate development chef for Conagra (she works on brands like LaChoy). Once you learn a few easy techniques, you can produce combinations of healthy meals, adapting them to your flavor preferences (dial up the tastes you like, use less of seasonings you don't love), the ingredients you have on hand, and what foods are in season. Here's how to get started.
A good stir-fry is all about timing, and understanding roughly how long each ingredient will take to cook, says Vuu. First, prep all your ingredients. Then, heat a few tablespoons of oil in a wok or large sauté pan, and flavor it with garlic and ginger. Start by cooking your protein, and remove it when it's halfway cooked. Then add the vegetable that will take the longest, adding in vegetables until you reach the most delicate ingredients, which you'll add in last. Finally, add the protein back in to finish cooking it. This technique will ensure you get "perfectly cooked yet crunchy vegetables that are fully satisfying," says Vuu. Use condiments like chili paste or black bean sauce to change up the flavors. (Start with these 6 Stir-Fry Recipes Better Than Takeout.)
Something as simple as steam can transform vegetables and proteins into tender, flavorful bites when you add aromatics. Wong suggests steaming fish with scallions and finely chopped ginger then seasoning the dish with some soy sauce and hot oil on top—a simple, flavorful dish that comes together in minutes. "Your wok can be converted into a steamer for fish, vegetables, eggs, and more," he says. Just place a bamboo steamer basket right inside a wok.
Rice is a staple in Chinese cooking. But while American restaurants may serve it in large quantities, as an inexpensive filler, Vuu says that in China, it's always a small amount of rice and a large portion of vegetables. If you're adding some noodles to a veggie-heavy stir fry, blanch them first so they're halfway cooked, and then add them to your wok towards the end of cooking to finish up. (For more ideas, check out 15 Low-Calorie Recipes for the Chinese New Year.)
Most Chinese soups are just vegetables and broth, says Vuu (simple enough!). What makes them extra satiating: cooks often thicken the broth with a bit of potato flour or cornstarch, which gives it a velvety texture and makes it extra filling and satisfying.