Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Healthy Chinese food sails on Seven Seas

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Laurie DeWitt⁄The Gazette
Edward Shen, owner of Seven Seas in Rockville, shows off some healthy Chinese cuisine: Five flavor beef, lily bulb with shrimp seaweed salad, vegetable hot pot with mushrooms, seafood hot pot, sweet and sour cabbage, Chinese yam and wolfberry with chicken and sweet bell pepper, and jellyfish.
Seven Seas chinese restaurant

1776 East Jefferson St., Rockville


Fax: 301-770-5083

Style of cuisine: Chinese

Hours of operation: Sun.–Thurs. 11 a.m.–10:30 p.m.; Fri. & Sat. 11 a.m.–11 p.m

Dinner entrée prices: $8.50-$29.95

All major credit cards

Edward Shen, owner of Seven Seas Chinese Restaurant, says he and his kitchen staff can always determine from a dinner order whether a table is occupied by American or Chinese customers. If all the meals are deep-fried or there are five different dishes made with chicken, odds are the group consists of Americans.

To the recent study decrying the high fat and sodium content in Chinese food that made national headlines, Shen offers a rebuttal: It’s eating like an American that gives Chinese food a bad rap when it comes to health and nutrition.

‘‘Chinese is some of the healthiest food — if you eat right,” he contends. Portion control, cooking style and choice of foods all play into the equation.

When a typical Chinese family eats out, they share the food, Shen says, perhaps ordering five dishes for eight people instead of a separate entrée for each person.

‘‘When sharing food, it’s all about balance,” Shen says. Usually, if one person orders beef, another will order chicken and still another, a vegetable dish. As a bonus, sharing food also teaches appreciation and respect for other people, he points out.

Shen opened Seven Seas in 1987, and in the 20 years since then, he says, many Chinese restaurants have become more health conscious, using less oil, less MSG and reduced sodium and salt.

‘‘People are more cautious about what they eat, not just in the U.S., but in China,” he says.

The Taiwan native came to the U.S. in 1979. He returns regularly to learn the latest trends in Chinese food. He also contracts with a new chef from Taiwan every year or two to help keep the food authentic.

‘‘We work together to create the menu,” says Shen, who takes suggestions from customers as well.

Seven Seas features a Chinese Health Menu, with flavorful yet low-calorie dishes including Chinese yam and wolfberry with chicken and sweet bell pepper.

‘‘There are only 471 calories, only 235 calories each” when two people share, Shen says.

He recently introduced paper hot pots for certain dishes as a way of absorbing excess oil.

‘‘Everybody’s talking about packaging and presentation,” Shen says of paper pots strong enough to withhold the heat of a low flame at the dinner table.

For customers who want to try something new but like the comfort of the familiar, Seven Seas introduced an afternoon tea sampler — a choice of two appetizers and two entrees on smaller plates. The food is cooked to order rather than mass prepared as buffet dishes are.

‘‘Ninety percent of Chinese food is cooked fresh,” Shen says. ‘‘You can tell us what you like, and we can do it. If you want chicken with broccoli, and want to add baby corns and carrots, steamed with sauce on the side, no problem; just tell me. No sugar? OK. No salt? OK.”

Ironically, with all this attention to a healthier menu, Seven Seas’ most popular item is still General Tso’s chicken.

‘‘People still like McDonald’s hamburgers, but they have high fat and cholesterol,” Shen says. ‘‘I cannot tell people what to order.”

Before opening Seven Seas, Shen owned a small restaurant in Ocean City, then House of Chinese Gourmet on Rockville Pike. His wife and business partner Corrina redid the restaurant a few years with an American designer — sacrificing easier communication for results that translated better to their American clientele. The interior features eye-catching red paint on the walls and a fish tank built into a wall.

‘‘I tell customers the ‘tank fish dish’ is the freshest you can get,” Shen says. ‘‘If it’s a whole fish, it takes less than 30 minutes to go from water to table. It’s another way we focus on freshness.”

Because Seven Seas cooks its food fresh, it’s not necessarily fast, Shen warns. ‘‘If it’s fast food,” he adds, ‘‘it’s typically fried.”

And fried isn’t the best choice for healthy eating — at a Chinese restaurant or just about anywhere else.