A blog reader called Tom emailed me recently to say that he was enjoying cooking from my books, but:
I am trying to figure out whether there is any way to reduce sodium in these recipes, though. Like many Americans, I have high blood pressure and am trying to manage it through diet modification. That means really watching salt intake. I see that my soy sauce has nearly 1600 mg of sodium per tablespoon. It tastes fantastic, but wow! That's a huge number. And that's hardly the only source of sodium in Sichuan and Hunan cuisine.
Thanks for writing to me, Tom! This is actually quite a common question about soy sauce and Chinese cuisine in general. I think the important thing to remember is that salty and strongly-flavoured dishes are used in China to ‘send the rice down’ 下饭 – which is to say that they are normally eaten with quite a lot of unsalted (and usually completely unseasoned) rice, noodles or bread. So although a dish or a relish in itself may be salty, it is actually eaten in fairly modest quantities.
So what I would suggest for you and others with similar concerns about salt intake, is to reduce the amount of salt, soy sauce and other salty seasonings in dishes if you can do this without sacrificing flavour, BUT also, and more importantly, to make sure that you serve salty dishes with plenty of plain rice or noodles, and other, lightly-seasoned dishes – for example, you could serve General Tso’s chicken or Mapo doufu with plain, unsalted
rice (brown rice if you want to be really healthy – I often do this when cooking at home), and one or two very lightly-salted stir-fried vegetables. You can also remember that Chinese dumplings are often dipped in vinegar rather than soy sauce (Chinkiang vinegar is very good for this), and that Chinese people traditionally eat far more fan 饭 (rice or other staple grain food) than cai 菜 (accompanying dishes). So if you eat in the Chinese way, a dish like General Tso’s chicken, served with some simple vegetables and rice, can be shared by 4-5 people – which means that the salt will be spread very thinly around!
Do also make sure you rinse your fermented, salted black soy beans and salty preserved vegetables before using them in dishes like twice-cooked pork and dry-fried beans, since they can carry a lot of excess salt.
Personally, I prefer to adjust my salt intake in these ways, rather than buying ‘low-sodium’ products, just as I prefer to eat a little bit of rich and glorious real butter to some synthetic ‘low-fat’ spread.
I do hope this is helpful. Any blog readers have any other suggestions?