A number of people have written to me over the years about gluten-free strategies for enjoying Asian food. Several of those individuals suffered from Celiac disease. I hesitated until now because aside from occasionally feeling slightly bloated or gassy from eating water crackers in the afternoon, I have little personal experience with wheat intolerances. And none of my family or close friends has problems with gluten. (Ask me about lactose intolerance and I have lots to talk about!)
However, Laura Russell’s new book, The Gluten-Free Asian Kitchen, got me thinking about the subject more seriously. (I reviewed the book for a cover endorsement and revisited it after its release.) According to an August 2011 BusinessWeek article on popular trends, less than 1 percent (about 3 million out of 312 million) of Americans have celiac disease but 15 percent of consumers buy gluten-free foods. The result is a $2.6 billion market for gluten-free foods.
The data indicate that a fair number of people experience a range of reactions to food that contain gluten from wheat, barley, and rye. That is, gluten intolerance may range from being mildly uncomfortable to seriously debilitating.
Since the Asian diet is based on rice, making gluten-free Asian food seems like a no-brainer. Russell points out at the outset of The Gluten-Free Asian Kitchen that devilish gluten may be found in a number of Asian staples, such as:
- Fish sauce
- Soy sauce (including tamari and kecap manis Indonesian sweet soy sauce)
- Maggi Seasoning sauce
- Shaoxing rice wine
- Hoisin sauce
- Oyster sauce
- Plum sauce
- Korean red pepper paste (gochuchang)
What to do if you want to eat gluten-free Asian food? How do you navigate Asian ingredients to turn out tasty fare that won’t cause you grief?
Read labels and learn about ingredients
This is what Russell advises and I totally agree. Be a smart Asian ingredient shopper. Learn a little bit about how Asian foodstuffs are made so you can make informed decisions. For example:
- The production of soy sauce and many Asian bean sauces (e.g., hoisin and miso) combines a legume (most likely soybean) with a grain (wheat, barley, or rice). My bottle of Indonesian kecap manis says that it contains “black soybean extract” (read: soy sauce). Given that kecap manis is made with palm sugar and soy sauce, the “black soybean extract” probably contains wheat.
- Tamari may or may not contain wheat. Traditionally made tamari is dense and intense because it is by definition the concentrate at the bottom of a vat of soy sauce. Wheat-free tamari is a modern approach and delicate in comparison to old-school tamari.
- Fish sauce manufacturers sometimes add a bit of hydrolyzed wheat protein to their brew. On the label below, it’s presented as hydrolyzed vegetable protein. In Vietnamese, “protein lua mi” literally means wheat protein.
- Asian companies may mislabel because of a lack of English language fluency. I once found a brand of rice paper that supposedly contained wheat flour, water, and salt. The manufacturer may have lifted that copy from a Chinese wheat-based spring roll label. Rice paper contains rice (gao), water (nuoc), salt (muoi) and sometimes tapioca starch (bot nang).
- The more expensive brands of Asian ingredients are more likely to have better labeling of ingredients and manufacturing or best-by dates. They tend to be more marketing and communication conscious.
- Asian markets are savvy to their growing base of multicultural customers, whose needs and languages vary. Over the years, I’ve seen more organic ingredients at Asian markets and better labeling. The Yamasa brand of gluten-free tamari in the top photo was purchased at an Asian market.
Read labels carefully wherever you shop, be it an Asian market or regular supermarket.
Russell suggests purchasing certain ingredients at mainstream grocery stores because the ingredient labels will be in clear and accurate English. If you suffer from an acute case of gluten intolerance or diagnosed with celiac disease, you definitely need to seek out ingredients that won’t harm you. The first part of The Gluten-Free Asian Kitchen contains a helpful grid of ingredients and their gluten status. That section is followed by a guide to ingredients that includes DYI workarounds for ingredients such as kecap manis.
If you’re used to standard Asian ingredients having wheat or barley, you may find that their gluten-free kin taste off. You may feel like you’ve been thrown off your game because the flavors won’t seem right. Asian seasonings were produced with gluten for particular flavor and texture outcomes. When you omit the gluten, there’s something missing. I’ve found that when using gluten-free Asian seasonings, I have to add a bit extra salt, sugar, or spice to tweak the flavors to my liking.
However, if you can tolerate a bit of gluten, consider allowing a little gluten into your Asian food via the seasonings. Because you don’t use much of those ingredients to flavor food, your body may be fine with regular soy sauce, rice wine, or hoisin sauce. (I’ve not found much rye in Asian ingredients.) Try a bit out and see how you react. Gauge your personal tolerance for gluten.
Maybe you'll feel better if you reduce your intake on the big-gluten ingredients in Asian foods. Sample strategies for a low-gluten diet include:
- Drizzle Maggi Seasoning sauce and slather on the full-fat mayonnaise in your banh mi sandwich but employ gluten-free bread; it’s the Maggi, mayo and other goodies that make the sandwich sing.
- Panfry rice noodles instead of egg noodles but use fish sauce and oyster sauce to lend briny depth to the stir-fry topping.
- Eat non-wheat Asian dumplings that employ rice flour or starches. Go for steamed rice rolls, fried sesame balls and tofu rolls! Refrain from eating pot stickers, shui mai, and wontons. Har gow uses wheat starch, which may have a tiny bit of gluten in it. (Russell’s book inspired me to revisit making a basic gluten-free Asian dumpling dough, which I’m still tinkering with and will write about soon.)
- Stay away from wheat gluten and seitan, common Asian meat substitutes; they are your enemy!
So if you can allow a little gluten in your diet, keep the seasonings but find substitutes for the bigger gluten-laden offenders. If you suffer acute, persistent symptoms, see a doctor and go totally gluten-free.
Have experience with gluten-free cooking or gluten-free Asian ingredients? Share your thoughts and insights.
- Laura Russell's personal blog and info on The Gluten-Free Asian Kitchen
- Shauna Ahern's Gluten-Free Girl and the Chef