Perhaps one of the most craved cuisines that is often banished from the gluten-free diner's list is classic Chinese take-out.
Wondering what Chinese food is gluten-free? You're not alone.
Considering the fact that Chinese menus feature many stir-fry dishes served with rice, much of the food would seem naturally free of gluten, right? Wrong.
“When you're dining out, it's very difficult to find gluten-free Chinese food. If you can't eat wheat, you're way better off cooking at home,” says Laura Russell, author of The Gluten-Free Asian Kitchen (Celestial Arts). She explains that the troublesome wheat protein “is in almost all of the sauces.”
And it's not only the sauces that contain gluten. Consider such old favorites as dumplings, noodles and breaded sweet-and-sour chicken or shrimp, to name a few.
But you don't have to give up these dishes in the name of better digestive health. By recreating them at home, you're not only creating gluten-free meals, but healthier meals overall.
“When you're dining out, for someone who's on a gluten-free or Paleo diet, there are a lot of issues,” says Russ Crandall, author of Paleo Takeout: Restaurant Favorites Without the Junk (Victory Belt) and who blogs at The Domestic Man. “You don't really know what's going into your foods. In your own kitchen, you can control those ingredients, the random sauces, the breading and other things on a typical take-out menu.”
Here's a look at how the home chef can conquer gluten-free Chinese cuisine. Hold the MSG!
For many Chinese menu items, the sauce really does make the meal. Think about the sweet and savory balance of the brown, gravy-like sauce that accompanies a beef-and-broccoli dish, the fiery spice of a kung pao chicken or the simple seasonings that go into a dish of moo shoo pork.
And that's not to mention the soy sauce that graces every table at a Chinese restaurant.
Many traditional Chinese sauces, including hoisin, chili bean, plum, oyster and even some rice wine vinegars, contain wheat or barley malt.
Russell has tried to recreate a few sauces at home, including a peanut sauce and a teriyaki sauce that she makes with gluten-free soy sauce, ginger, mirin, honey and garlic. However, she found hoisin and oyster sauce far too complicated to make, so she opts for the store-bought versions of these.
One of the biggest culprits is soy sauce, which is made from the fermented paste of soybeans.
“Just about all commercial soy sauce you would find in Asian cooking is made with wheat,” Crandall says, explaining that wheat is added to speed up the fermentation process. “Essentially, soybeans are mashed into a paste, and the liquid that comes from it is tamari. Over the years, they figured out that if you add wheat it speeds up the fermentation process, so someone with celiac would definitely have to avoid it.”
In place of soy sauce, use straight-up tamari, a wheat-free byproduct of fermented soybeans. “It tastes a little different, a little more sour with a very bold flavor,” Crandall notes.
Crandall also uses coconut aminos, the fermented sap of the coconut tree, which shares a similar flavor profile. “It has the same strong, pungent flavor, but it's not quite as strong as soy or tamari,” he says. “But I don't like cooking with it."
Crandall would opt for tamari in cooked dishes, such as a fried rice dish, and might use coconut aminos as a flavor enhancer—as a dip for an egg roll, for example.
Health food stores generally stock gluten-free versions of many other Chinese sauces. “In the last couple of years, companies have been starting to make gluten-free versions, but almost never the ones that are used at a restaurant, because they're too expensive,” Russell says.
The main ingredient in hoisin sauce is fermented soybean paste, though it can also contain starches like wheat, rice and sweet potato. Steer clear of dishes with hoisin sauce unless you can confirm the sauce is prepared with a starch other than wheat.
Many Chinese dishes contain chili bean sauce, which is also made of fermented soybean paste, along with salted chili peppers, sugar and spices. However, the sauce will not be gluten-free if it contains fermented broad bean paste, which is made of broad beans, salt, water and wheat flour.
If you enjoy sweet and sour dishes, you may have tasted plum sauce. It contains sweet plums, chili peppers, ginger, vinegar, sugar and salt. In most cases, plum sauce is safe for those following a gluten-free diet, but it may be thickened with wheat flour.
Oyster sauce is a dark brown condiment that is made with sugar, salt, water and oyster extract, and then thickened with some type of agent. In most cases, the sauce contains corn starch, which is a safe option for those on gluten-free diets. But you may find oyster sauces darkened with caramel or thickened with wheat flour. If the sauce has a soy base, it likely contains gluten as well.
Some Rice Wine Vinegars
If rice wine vinegar is fermented, it may contain a mix of grains, so it will likely have gluten. However, if it is distilled or produced only from rice, it is safe to enjoy.
With plenty of gluten-free noodles on the market, recreating traditional Chinese noodle dishes, such as chow mein, lo mein and sesame noodles, is a cinch—as long as you find the right noodle for the dish, that is.
“There are three easy-to-find categories: rice noodles, cellophane noodles (or glass noodles made from mung bean starch) and soba noodles, the ones made with 100% buckwheat flour,” Russell says. “I really like all of them, so for me it would depend on what I was making.” (As many gluten-free eaters know by now, the name “buckwheat” is a misnomer; it's actually a starchy seed with no relation to wheat.)
How can you tell which noodles are safe? Although some Chinese dishes use rice noodles, many contain noodles made from wheat that don't align with a gluten-free diet. The Mandarin word mian, often translated to mein or mien, refers to noodles made of wheat, while fen or fun noodles are usually made of mung bean or rice flour starch.
Rice noodles contain rice flour and water, although some include corn starch or tapioca to alter the texture or transparency level.
For a stir-fry dish, Russell suggests a sturdier rice noodle. “Asian markets have a thicker round rice noodle, which can be a nice substitute in a dish that has a thick wheat noodle,” she says.
For a saucier dish, Russell likes cellophane noodles, which tend to absorb the sauce and have little flavor on their own. Cellophane noodles, also referred to as glass noodles, are transparent and made with some type of starch—such as mung bean, potato, tapioca, potato, sweet potato or canna starch—mixed with water. You'll often taste them in stir-fried dishes, spring rolls, and soups.
Soba noodles are made with buckwheat flour and feature a nutty flavor. Fresh soba noodles are available at some Asian markets, but you can typically find dried soba in packets at most grocery stores. They look similar to flat spaghetti and are light-brownish in color.
Crandall explains that some people use vegetable noodles made with a spiralizer. “You can make zucchini and sweet potato noodles, but it's not really the same,” he says. “I like the Korean sweet potato noodles, but for a chow mein it's pretty easy to just substitute with any gluten-free noodles. The number-one easiest are rice noodles that are found at any Asian market.”
Here's where things get a little more complicated.
For the gluten-free home chef, those mouthwatering dim sum dumplings and wontons, either fried or served in a warm broth, are more difficult and time-consuming to recreate, and as far as Russell and Crandall are concerned, there are no gluten-free store-bought wraps on the market yet.
“When it comes to dumplings, it's possible, and it's possible to make good ones, but it's very labor-intensive,” Russell says. “You have to make the individual dumpling wrappers, plus the filling, and then stuff them.”
Russell uses a blend of millet, sweet rice and tapioca flour to make wrappers, stressing that a blend is necessary to create a dough that's easy to work with and that also has a good consistency, or chew.
“Gluten has a lot of jobs, so you have to replace each with a different flour,” she explains. “It's not hard; it's time-consuming. I always say, if you're going to do it make like 100 of them, because they freeze nicely.”
Crandall gave up on finding a perfect replacement for dumpling wraps. “I tried to mix all these flours, and it got to the point where I was getting close, but I thought there was no way a home chef would try to make this, they would get too frustrated,” he says.
Instead, Crandall works with the filling, mixing ground pork, ginger, garlic, rice wine vinegar and other flavors, and calls them gyoza bites, which are traditionally Japanese but can be substituted in Chinese dishes in place of dumplings.
“Honestly, it's a meatball that's pan-fried, and it tastes really good,” he says.
When it comes to making egg and spring rolls, Crandall uses rice paper wrappers. For egg rolls, the filling can be the same ground pork version used in dumplings.
Spring rolls are typically filled with cooked thin rice noodles and a mix of vegetables including finely grated cabbage, garlic and carrots, along with bean sprouts, and can be served cold or deep-fried.
The trick in making egg or spring rolls at home is in the rolling; rice paper needs to be wetted to the right consistency beforehand. “Rice paper is a lot more finicky than wheat wraps,” Crandall explains.
He typically makes a bunch of rolls and freezes them before cooking, so “they don't fall apart when baked or deep-fried.”
A variation of those tasty, crusted nuggets of chicken or shrimp you get in a restaurant, typically doused in sweet-and-sour sauce, can be created at home. Russell recommends using one part starch, such as corn, tapioca or potato, mixed with three parts rice flour.
“I would coat shrimp with a little more starch and dump it into the mixture of the flour and starch to coat it evenly,” Russell says. “When they hit the oil, they get really crisp, so you're still going to get that crunch.”
Crandall uses a similar method, dredging the meat in the starch, but then he dips it into a beaten egg batter and places it into a pan that's not too hot. “It turns into a puffy outer breading, like a fried egg on the outside of the meat,” he says. “It's really spongy and has nice texture that absorbs the flavors of the sauce.”
As they might say in China, Qing màn yòng, meaning “enjoy your meal!”
Kung Pao Chicken
1 1/2 lb boneless, skinless chicken breasts, 1/2” dice
4 tbsp gluten-free soy sauce or tamari, divided
1 tbsp sake or dry sherry
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
2 tbsp warm water
1 tbsp sugar
2 1/2 tbsp unseasoned rice vinegar
2 1/2 tsp toasted sesame oil
3 tbsp vegetable oil, divided
1 tbsp cornstarch
1 tbsp minced fresh ginger
8 cloves garlic, minced
6 green onions, white and green parts, sliced
1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
1/2 cup coarsely chopped roasted peanuts or cashews
Steamed rice, for serving (optional)
Yields 4 servings
Source: reprinted with permission from The Gluten-Free Asian Kitchen By Laura Russell (Celestial Arts); photo by Laura Russell
**These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.