While I had never intended my last post to be the first in a series of entries about successfully navigating the restaurant scene while managing a food restriction, I realized as I was writing it that the rabbit hole goes much deeper than I originally thought. And while the first part of this series had some excellent overall tips when attempting to eat out, this entry will be discussing menu items, or more specifically, common proteins that you'll find in a variety of food cuisines. If the post were to have a subtitle, it would be "A Protein Primer".
Surely chicken is okay, right? Not fried chicken, mind you, but plain old grilled chicken breast? You know, healthy grilled chicken breast?
In a vast majority of cases, you'd be wrong.
Even though most restaurants are happy to comply with a request to not add salt to a chicken breast when it is cooked, by that point it is too late. Most (and I'm talking like 90%) restaurants either receive their chicken breasts already brined or brine them once they receive them. Brining* the chicken does several things:
1. Seasons it (obviously)
2. Keeps it juicier when cooked (and helps it from drying out when overcooked)
3. Prevents variation in seasoning of the final product when cooked by different cooks working the line (e.g., everything is seasoned the same)
Chicken breast, when unbrined, has roughly 55-80mg of sodium per 4 ounce serving. So, if you're looking over the nutritional information for a restaurant and the chicken entree has some 1000mg of sodium when paired with steamed broccoli and a plain baked potato, rest assured that the sodium is in the chicken and it has probably been brined.
Ironically, the best places to find unbrined chicken are Asian restaurants. Since most of the salt comes from sauces (soy sauce, fish sauce, chili sauce, hoisin, oyster sauce, etc.), they don't usually brine the chicken. That being said, I've found that sometimes it can be difficult to communicate that saying "no salt" also means saying no to additional sauces as well.
Chicken wings are a mixed bag. Obviously, nearly all the sauces that would coat the wings are out. The chicken wings themselves are okay as long as they aren't brined or marinated before cooking. This is going to vary by restaurant and it's best to ask the appropriate person before ordering.
* For those unfamiliar with the term "brining", brining a protein involves placing it into a vessel containing (at a minimum) water and dissolved salt for a particular length of time.
The typical large chicken egg has about 60mg of sodium in it. Eggs are a great source of protein, but be careful with that three egg omelet ... even unsalted, you are already at nearly 200mg of sodium without even considering the additional fillings (which could add their own natural salt content).
The good news about beef is that other than beef jerky, corned beef, or BBQ brisket, it is rarely brined and only seasoned as it is being grilled. Depending on the cut of beef, it is sometimes "rubbed" and the rub usually contains salt. It always pays to ask, of course. If the beef is ground (such as for hamburger), salt may be mixed into the grind to season it throughout. It's been my experience that of all the restaurants that have only one thing on the menu I can eat, many times it is the hamburger.
Like chicken, pork that hasn't been brined is perfectly acceptable. Unfortunately, like chicken, pork is often brined in order to keep it juicy when cooked. Unlike chicken at Asian restaurants, a lot of the pork found at this style of restaurant has already been prepared in such a way that it contains additional salt (I'm referring to the twice-cooked pork often found in stir fries).
See chicken above. An additional note is that commercial turkeys (think Butterball), while not brined in the traditional sense, are often injected with a saline solution for exactly the same purpose as brining. It's always best to read the nutritional label to be certain. In a restaurant setting, this will vary.
Here I am talking about things like salmon, tuna, sea bass, grouper, etc. Fish is almost never brined, but I have, on occasion, seen it "glazed", usually with something salty like soy sauce, miso, or hoisin. You are usually completely safe ordering the fresh fish (canned fish can be another matter), but again, if you aren't 100% sure, ask your server to confirm with the chef that the fish is unseasoned/unglazed.
Here I am lumping together all other water-based non-fish items. Bivalves like scallops, oysters, clams, and mussels are LOADED with natural salt. So much so that once your palate adjusts to eating very low levels of salt, they will simply taste like little salt bombs. Shrimp can be okay, but it also depends on how they were processed. Typically the tiny little shrimp found in dishes that cost $6.99 are usually more highly processed than the shrimp fettuccine dish at a more expensive place that costs $18. Squid and octopus are out as well as they also have a lot of natural salt. Fresh crab I've found to be on the border of too salty. For you sushi lovers, eel is popular. Unfortunately, almost all eel is served with a "sauce" that has been painted on top; it's the sauce that has the salt.
Tofu is an excellent source of nutrition and by itself contains almost no sodium. That's the good news. The bad news is that tofu is almost never served by itself and acts like a sponge to absorb all the flavors (and sauces) around it. Tofu served as an entree is usually marinated to give it flavor and seasoning. Tofu blended into a smoothie should be fine (as the tofu is there to give the smoothie body).
I'll be the first to admit that I don't have enough experience with meat alternatives such as seitan or TVP (textured vegetable protein) to offer any guidance. If you're purchasing the ingredients at the grocery store, use the nutritional label as your guide. If you're eating at a restaurant, you may want to wait until you can do your research with the chef (or the published nutritional guide) before selecting it off of the menu.
So there you have it, a fairly complete (but certainly by no means exhaustive) list of proteins you can expect to find offered on most menus. Do you have additional questions? Feel free to leave a comment below.