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Healthy, tasty, fun. No wonder Asian food is in!

With the growth in Far East-influenced restaurants comes an Asian invasion at the supermarket. Phil Lempert has the 101.

From the bold flavors of Thai curries to the delicate fresh taste of sushi, foods from the Far East are becoming ever more popular in the United States. For many it’s about eating more healthily, for most it’s about great flavors, while some love to cook in the Asian style. (For the purposes of this column, we use the term Asian to mean the Far East and understand that there also are many fine cuisines from the Indian subcontinent and other Asian countries.)

In part, that popularity has been influenced by the burgeoning Asia-originating population of the United States, which is projected to grow from 11.3 million in 2000 to just under 20 million by 2020. And it is a population that is widespread — you don't have to go to Chinatown for Chinese food anymore.

In addition to the exploding number of Asian restaurants, increasing numbers of supermarkets are stocking the ingredients used to prepare Far Eastern cuisine. (Many items, of course, are common to all cultures.) Another trend: Prepared Asian foods, particularly frozen ones, are gaining in popularity.

Soy, a core ingredient in Asian cuisine, has become one of the favorite ingredients for lots of Americans looking to improve their diets. According to the United Soybean Board, soy protein provides numerous health benefits. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) officially recognized the cholesterol-lowering effects of soy protein in 1999, and the American Heart Association followed suit one year later. The FDA-approved health claim states that 25 grams of soy protein per day may reduce the risk of heart disease. Recent research suggests that soy may lower risk of prostate, colon and breast cancers as well as osteoporosis and other bone health concerns, and emerging research also indicates that soy protein may reduce high blood pressure and some menopause symptoms.

Here are some of the most popular Far Eastern cuisines in the United States:

Thai:Thai food is a unique combination of influences. From the Indian subcontinent to the west come curries; from the Chinese-dominated areas to the east come beansprouts and stir-frying. Due in part to the prevalence of Buddhism, large cuts of meat are traditionally not used.  Instead, meat tends to be shredded. The long coastline and fertile land lead to heavy use of fish, plants and herbs. Traditionally, ingredients such as coconut milk and coconut oil are used as a substitute for dairy products and herbs such as lemon grass and galanga are used for flavor. A Thai meal will usually consist of a soup, curry, and a dip with fish and vegetables. All of the food is served at once to be enjoyed together. Spicy dishes are offset by bland dishes.

Chinese:
The yin and yang philosophy of presenting opposing forces in harmony very much applies to Chinese cuisine. Some foods have cooling properties while others are warming. This also means a healthy balance of color, texture, and flavor. When prepared the traditional Chinese way, these foods are nutritious, consisting mainly of vegetables, some meat, fresh seafood, low-fat tofu (bean curd), and rice or noodles. The popular regional cuisines are Cantonese (Southern), Peking (Northern) and Szechwan (Western). Cantonese food is considered the finest and known for sweet and sour dishes and dim sum.

Japanese:Rice and fish are at the center of Japanese cuisine. Some popular dishes are rice bowls, sushi, tempura, noodle dishes, sashimi, and yakitori (meat on skewers). These foods are generally low in cholesterol, fat, and calories, and high in fiber (all believed to contribute to the high longevity rate). In addition to freshness and taste, presentation is paramount in Japan, where chefs are considered to be artists.

Here are some of the foods we tasted for the show:

Thai Pavilion:A line of complete meals imported from Thailand. Three different stir-fries and three simmer-sauce meals. Food Import (no website) 201-947-1000

Simply Asia:Heat-and-Serve Noodle Bowls: Soy Ginger, Sesame TeriyakiRice Noodle Bowls: Shitake Mushroom, Spring VegetableSoy Noodle Bowls: Mushroom & Ginger, Szechwan GarlicNoodles and Sauce: Sesame Teriyaki, spicy Kung Paowww.simplyasia.net

Thai Kitchen:Coconut Milk (also available in organic)Pad Thai noodles (Pad Thai the classic Thai noodle dish with sweet and tangy notes of lime, garlic and peanuts)Instant Rice NoodlesRice Noodle BowlsJasmine RiceSauces: Fish Sauce, Red Curry Paste, Green Curry Paste, Peanut Satay Sauce, Pad Thai Soups: Coconut Ginger and Sweet & Sour www.thaikitchen.com

Phil Lempert is Food Editor of the “Today” show. He welcomes questions and comments, which can be sent to phil.lempert@nbc.com or via the e-mail form below. You can also visit his website at www.supermarketguru.com.