Preparing and eating Chinese food at home is the best way for a person with gluten sensitivities to consume this delicious cuisine safely. An increasing number of Chinese restaurants, however, have become aware of the very real danger gluten can pose and now offer gluten-free options. Your best bet, however, is to ask for a server who speaks English or your native language to ensure your meal truly will be gluten-free and not have been exposed to cross-contamination.
Ordering Food in a Chinese Restaurant
Eating in a Chinese food restaurant can present a life-threatening situation for those with allergies to gluten, and for those with celiac disease, accidental gluten ingestion can cause major health issues. Don't be intimidated by your condition. Be an informed consumer and ask questions.
- When dining out in a Chinese restaurant, ask for a gluten-free menu and a manager or server who speaks English or your native language to clarify the finer points.
- Stress your meal must be prepared in a clean wok or in one that is specifically designated for gluten-free cooking using utensils specifically for gluten-free cooking.
- Make sure any foods prepared with a dark sauce do not contain soy sauce with gluten (most do). A better option would be dishes made with a white sauce because they are thickened with cornstarch, a safe ingredient. Bring your own gluten-free soy sauce to add color and flavor to the dish.
- Ensure any dish with wine or other alcohol is gluten-free.
- Most rice noodle dishes are safe unless they have been manufactured in an environment where cross-contamination is possible.
- Likewise, plain white rice is OK unless subject to cross-contamination. Fried rice is not OK because it usually is seasoned with soy sauce or other gluten-containing condiments.
- Beware of dishes containing seitan made of texturized vegetable protein (TVP), which definitely is not safe for a gluten-free diet. Tofu, however, is fine in most cases where cross-contamination hasn't occurred.
- When ordering takeout, make sure the single-serve soy packets provided with your meal are gluten-free, such as food-service Panda Brand Low-Sodium Gluten-Free Soy Sauce Packets or use your own.
Chinese Food at Home
A majority of Chinese food recipes are prepared with soy sauce, a no-no for those with gluten issues because it is typically made with a mash of salt, water, and wheat. That's why cooking it at home may be beneficial if you must avoid gluten.
Stocking a Gluten-Free Chinese Pantry
Here are some gluten-free options for this traditional condiment and other ingredients used in Chinese and Asian cooking. As always, however, read the label to make sure gluten isn't present and that the product hasn't been manufactured in proximity to foods containing gluten.
- Soy sauce: Some brands offer gluten-free versions of soy sauce, but a better choice taste-wise would be wheat-free tamari sauce from San-J, Eden Foods, or Wan-Ja Shan Organic.
- Bead molasses: This ingredient is used as a sweetener and flavor and color enhancer in Americanized Chinese cuisine. All molasses are considered a gluten-free food but check the label. If coloring is added, that can be a potential source of gluten.
- Black bean sauce: Black bean sauces usually contain wheat. A safe way to go is to make your own with gluten-free soy and oyster sauces.
- Chili garlic sauce: Most brands will be gluten-free, but check labels to be sure. A good choice is Lee Kum Kee Chili Garlic sauce or Caravelle brand.
- Cornstarch: Pure cornstarch is gluten-free. However, not all brands are created in a cross-contamination-free environment. According to the manufacturers, Argo & Kingsford, Bob's Red Mill, and Clabber Girl Hearth Club cornstarch are safe.
- Dark soy sauce: There are no commercial brands available for gluten-free dark soy sauce, but an acceptable version can be made by mixing equal parts of gluten-free soy sauce or tamari with bead molasses and heating it until the molasses dissolves completely.
- Duck sauce: Also known as plum sauce, all brands of this sweet-sour condiment made with plums, apricots, sugar, and seasonings tout themselves to be gluten-free but check the label. Trustworthy gluten-free brands include Wok Mei Plum sauce and Ying's Sweet & Sour Sauce.
- Hoisin sauce: Like many other Chinese sauces, hoisin sauce contains wheat either from soy sauce or another source. Gluten-free brands include Premier Japan Wheat-free Hoisin sauce, Joyce Chen, and Wok Mei.
- Mirin: This low-alcohol, sweet, golden-colored wine is also known as rice wine. A true mirin should not contain gluten, but read the label because some are made with TVP made from wheat. A safe brand is Eden Foods Mirin. Otherwise, use Japanese sake or dry sherry with a little sugar added.
- Oyster sauce: Traditional oyster sauce is made from oyster brine and soy sauce made with wheat. Safe brands include Lee Kum Kee Panda Green Label Oyster-Flavored Sauce (the red label product contains wheat) and Wok Mei Gluten-Free Oyster Sauce.
- Plum sauce: See duck sauce, above.
- Plum wine: All brands of sherry, cooking wine and rice wine (see mirin above) should be gluten-free but, as always, check the label.
- Rice noodles: Most brands of dried rice noodles are safe because they are made from just rice and water but check the labels as some contain wheat starch.
- Rice-wine vinegar: Rice-wine vinegar is gluten-free but if substituting white vinegar, make sure it says distilled. Malt vinegar definitely is not safe.
- Sesame and chili oils: All brands should be naturally gluten-free, but check the label.
When in Doubt
When scanning the label of any food item, indications that a product most likely contains gluten are these words:
- Plant Protein
Gluten-Free Steak With Stir-Fried Vegetables Recipe
This easy recipe comes together quickly in a wok or skillet.
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
For the stir-fry:
- 1 pound skirt steak, sliced into 1/4-inch strips (cutting partially frozen steak makes this easier)
- 2 tablespoons neutral oil like vegetable or canola
- 1 medium red onion, julienned
- 1 pound pencil asparagus, washed, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces
- 1 large red bell pepper, washed, stemmed, seeds removed and julienned
- 1 large yellow bell pepper, washed, stemmed, seeds removed and julienned
- 1/2 pound cremini or white button mushrooms, brushed clean, stemmed and sliced (save the stems for stock or a sauce)
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 1/2 teaspoon fresh ginger, grated
For the sauce:
- 2 tablespoons gluten-free soy sauce or tamari
- 1 tablespoon gluten-free oyster sauce
- 1 cup warm water or low-sodium beef broth
- 2 tablespoons cold water mixed with 1 tablespoon cornstarch
- 1/2 cup drained water chestnuts, julienned
- 4 tablespoons green onion, chopped
- 2 tablespoons toasted or untoasted sesame seeds
Prepare the stir-fry:
- Cut slightly frozen skirt steak against the grain into 1/4-inch wide slices. Set aside.
- Place a large skillet or wok over medium-high heat. When the wok is hot, add 2 tablespoons of oil, swirling it around until entire surface is coated. Add the steak slices and brown them on all sides, about 2 to 3 minutes. Don't overcook or they will become tough. Remove the steak from the pan and set it aside.
- To the same skillet or wok, add the onion, asparagus, red and yellow bell peppers, mushrooms, garlic, and ginger. Stir fry for 5 minutes.
Make the sauce:
- In the meantime, in a small bowl whisk together the gluten-free soy sauce or tamari, gluten-free oyster sauce, and warm water or beef broth.
- After the vegetables have been stir-fried until crisp-tender, return the reserved meat to the pan, add the sauce, and heat for 2 minutes. To thicken the sauce, add the cornstarch mixed with cold water and stir it into the pan. Cook, stirring constantly, an additional 1 to 2 minutes or until the sauce has thickened slightly.
If desired, serve with white or brown rice or rice noodles and top with sliced water chestnuts, chopped green onions, and sesame seeds.
Eating Chinese Food Gluten-Free Is Possible
Chinese food is a cuisine that can be enjoyed safely even by those with the most extreme gluten issues if you take a few cautionary measures. When cooking Chinese food at home, do your homework and stock your pantry with gluten-free ingredients. When eating out, do some research about which restaurants have a gluten-free menu. In some cases, restaurants are certified gluten-free. Otherwise, take gluten-free condiments with you, order a gluten-safe meal, and doctor up your meal at the table. But most of all, don't be afraid to ask your server or the manager questions.