Gluten-free Guide to Chinese Food
This year, Valentine’s Day coincides with the Chinese New Year, providing a welcome distraction to those who would rather avoid a world that seems to have vomited up roses and expensive prix-fixe dinners at every corner. On February 14, celebrate the beginning of the Chinese Year of the Tiger!
In its favor, Chinese cuisine hosts some of the most nutritious, calcium-rich veggies one can eat: Chinese mustard greens (aka Gai Choy: one cup chopped has the same amount of bioavailable calcium as a cup of milk!), bok choy and Chinese broccoli (aka Gai Lan) are among the highlights. Alas, Chinese can also be among the trickiest cuisines to navigate for those of us who must avoid wheat and gluten. Wontons and dumplings are wrapped in lovely little wheat-flour dough pockets… Lo mein noodles are made from wheat… fried dishes are battered in flour-based coatings…and the savory sauces and condiments used to prepare most every dish almost always contain wheat or a derivative thereof.
But do not despair. As Confucius didn’t say but surely meant to: where there’s a will to partake in Chinese food, there’s a way to partake in Chinese food. As such, I offer you my personal guide to Chinese food for those with rebellious intestines:
Gluten-Free Chinese Food: Eating in
It won’t come as a surprise to hear that cooking at home is the best chance you have at enjoying Chinese food without worry of wheat.
Build your gluten-free condiment pantry
A large (and growing) number of the staple condiments in Chinese cooking are available in GF versions. After years of label-reading and searching, I am pleased to offer the following list of gluten-free condiments, many of which I stock in my own pantry for when the Chinese cravings hit. Many of them are available for purchase online, and all of them are MSG-free.
- Soy sauce: Look for (reduced-sodium) wheat-free Tamari sauce by San-J, Eden Foods or Premier Japan. La Choy soy sauce is gluten-free, too, but I don’t think it tastes very good.
- Dark soy sauce: There is no commercially-available GF version I’m aware of. You can jerry-rig a passable version by mixing equal parts GF soy sauce (or wheat free Tamari) with molasses, and simmering over low heat until the molasses is dissolved.
- Oyster sauce: Lee Kum Kee Panda Brand Green Label Oyster-Flavored Sauce (note: only the “green label” product is wheat-free and MSG-free. The red label product contains both wheat and MSG); Ka Me Oyster Sauce
- Hot Bean Sauce: Lan Chi Black Bean Sauce with Chili
- Chili Garlic Sauce: Most brands will be gluten-free, but check labels to be sure. Some sure bets: Lan Chi Chili Paste with Garlic, and Lee Kum Kee Chili Garlic
- Hoisin sauce: Premier Japan’s Wheat-free Hoisin sauce (its also organic, which means no GMO soybeans were used in its production); Y&Y brand Hoisin sauce; Ka Me Hoisin sauce
- Plum Sauce: Lee Kum Kee Gold Label Plum Sauce, Y&Y brand Plum Sauce
All brands of sherry, cooking wine, rice vinegar, chili sauce, sesame oil, chili oil should be naturally gluten-free.
Also, most home-recipes call for naturally-GF cornstarch to thicken soups and sauces, so you should be good to go on that front, too.
Plan a menu
- Our go-to Chinese cookbook is Dorothy Huang’s Chinese Cuisine Made Simple.My husband had the good fortune to take a class with Dorothy at a Whole Foods in NYC last year, and he claims she made the best Chinese Food he’s ever tasted in his life. Her
recipes are authentic, simple, incredibly flavorful and way more healthful than anything you’d get at a restaurant. If you’ve stocked your pantry with the GF staples above, you’ll be able to make a surprising number of her recipes gluten-free. The cookbook has chapters dedicated to vegetables, tofu dishes and seafood for those of you who aren’t big into meat-eating, but her book, like Chinese cuisine, is chock full of meat dishes as well.
- Don’t forget the greens! In this respect, Martha is a good place to start. Chinese she is not. But when it comes to recipes for healthful, Chinese vegetable side dishes, she delivers. Try her recipes for Broccoli with Oyster Sauce, fiery Stir-Fried Green Beans, or Lily’s Baby Bok Choy with Dipping Sauce. (You’ll need those GF condiments for some of these if you’re making the gluten-free version…). Beyond Martha, Epicurious offers this simple recipe for sauteed Chinese Broccoli.
- Eat like a local! Fish dishes are traditional on Chinese New Year, like this recipe for Whole Black Bass with Ginger and Scallions. (Worry not: wild, U.S. black bass is currently listed as a “good alternative” by the Monterrey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch from a sustainability standpoint.) The vegetarian dish called Buddha’s Delight is also a common New Year’s offering. Mandarin oranges are a healthy way to finish off the meal (in season now!).
Make your own Potstickers!
Feeling ambitious? Glutenfreeda.com offers an online won ton tutorial where you can learn how to make your very own GF Pot Stickers from scratch. The trick, of course, is that you need a pasta machine to do so (not exactly a staple in GF homes, and even if you do have one, there’s a risk of cross-contamination if it’s been used for wheat-based pasta previously.) But if you’ve managed to overcome those two obstacles and have an afternoon to spare, I think this would be a worthwhile and terribly fun way to celebrate the Chinese New Year! If you get really good at it, consider selling them to potsticker-less, lazy folks like me who would pay a pretty penny to partake of an authentic potsticker again someday…
Gluten-free Chinese Food: Eating Out
If you’re going to brave the restaurant scene, it’s best to be prepared. Here are some options:
- In NYC, visit Lilli and Loo or Lili’s 57, two Chinese restaurants with gluten-free menus. Nationally, P.F. Chang’s offers a gluten-free menu, as does Pei Wei Asian Diner, though I refuse to vouch for the healthfulness of their offerings or appropriateness of their portion sizes. P.F. Chang’s also offers gluten-free soy sauce for your table on request. To find a Chinese restaurant near you that has GF offerings, you can scour one of the various national restaurant registries at this link.
- BYOS. That’s Bring-Your-Own-Soy sauce. Mini packets of GF soy sauce are available from a company called Kari Out (you can order them online from glutenfree.com) and from San-J, available at amazon by clicking here.
- Download the free “Gluten Free Restaurant Cards” app onto your iPhone. It explains your dietary restrictions and in both Mandarin and Cantonese Chinese dialects (and close to 40 other languages), which you can show to your server in hopes that they will help you navigate the menu appropriately. Still, be very skeptical of saucy and savory stir-fried dishes, because it may not be apparent from the menu card’s translation that even soy sauce is going to be off-limits for you.
- If you’re willing to spend a few bucks ($19), Triumph Dining cards offers wallet-sized, cuisine-specific lists of off-limit foods that contain hidden gluten so you can more effectively interrogate your server. The cards are written in Chinese and can be handed to the server and chef to help ensure your needs are clear.
- For a $7 investment, you can arm yourself with the Chinese Gluten-Free Passport to take with you on your next trip to a Chinese restaurant. According to the marketer, it identifies the safest soup options, entree choices (chicken, vegetable and seafood) and dessert selections, as well as a list of questions to ask your waiter to determine whether a food is safe for you to eat.
- If good communication is not an option, stick to some of these ordering guidelines to help avoid the most common sources of Chinese restaurant gluten:
- Among soups, there’s a good chance that Egg Drop soup will be safe (but try to double-check that it’s thickened with cornstarch, not flour. It should be). Ditto for Chicken and Corn soup.
- Steamed seafood and vegetable dishes are usually your safest bet. (Not terribly exciting, but who needs the kind of excitement than an accidental gluten ingestion entails, really?)
- White sauce is the most likely to be safe, but again, double-check that they use cornstarch to thicken it rather than wheat flour (they probably will). Other sauces (e.g., brown, black bean) are not going to be gluten-free.
- Mei Fun and Chow Fun are rice-noodle pastas, which makes them safe if they’re not cooked with any gluten-containing condiments such as soy sauce. Fried rice dishes can easily be made safe if you ask the kitchen to prepare them without soy sauce or oyster sauce. (You can season them yourself with the little GF soy sauce packets you brought along…)
- Avoid imitation (“vegetarian”) meat and seafood ingredients (including imitation crab or surimi). These are always made with gluten.
- Avoid anything deep fried (the batter and the cross-contamination in the fryer are a double-whammy).
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