Chinese Southern Belle: Gluten-free Asian food
“Does this have gluten in it?”
I hear this question almost every time I do a class or a demonstration. As a culinary and cultural instructor for Asian cooking classes and international market tours, I find myself both a subject matter expert and a student of cooking: teaching, interpreting and learning about a diverse and evolving menu which includes traditional and modern ethnic recipes and ingredients; instructing preparation techniques; and increasingly, learning about current and trending nutritional concerns and dietary data. I love highlighting how culture, history and tradition play a role through food around the world.
Keep reading and you’ll gain some insights on gluten intolerance from an Asian food and cultural perspective, the importance of culturally-competent health education, and a few tips and favorite recipes for enjoying delicious gluten-free Asian food.
Gluten-free, cholesterol-free, trans fat-free or any other dietary-free restrictions are not part of my family culture or upbringing in Smyrna. “Clean Plate Club” was our motto. So when I suffered an array of food allergies as a toddler, they wondered if I had been switched in the crib at the hospital.
Until recently, U.S. healthcare providers had little experience in handling cross-cultural health concerns and disparities in non-white American populations (The National Center on Minority Health and Health Disparities was only established in 2000). For example, Asian Americans are more likely than Caucasians to have diabetes despite a lower average body weight, and peanut allergies appear to be more common and severe among older children of specific immigrant groups growing up in the U.S.
Celiac disease, also known as gluten intolerance, is considered a genetic autoimmune disease that mainly affects people of European descent but recent studies show that it also affects Asian, Hispanic and African populations. Due to a broad range of symptoms and variations that cross ethnicity, diet, age and gender lines, celiac can be difficult to diagnose. This factor may also contribute to under-diagnosis and reporting.
Rice, especially whole grain rice, is a tasty and healthful gluten-free food. Now with the availability (and accurate labeling) of gluten-free soy sauce (traditionally fermented with wheat and sometimes called tamari), you can have your fried rice and eat it, too. Rice flour can also be mixed with tapioca starch and/or potato starch to create a gluten-free baking mix.
Rice in Asia has always been about more than just food. Japan holds sacred rituals and festivals around the planting and harvesting of rice. The focal point in making perfect sushi is the rice, not the fish. In China, rice has a place in language, art, work and politics: it is associated with life, prosperity and fertility. The actual word for cooked rice, fan, is a general reference for all things food-related. And “rice bowl” (fan wan) is a metaphor for one’s social status. In India, basmati rice is considered a luxury food and offered in religious rites.
Yu’s Your Noodle
Noodles have a long history in Asia. The world’s oldest known noodles were discovered in an earthenware bowl along the Yellow River in China. The noodles were approximately 4,000 years old and made of foxtail and broomcorn millet.
Italian-style pasta is almost always made of wheat, and distinguished by shape. Asian pasta is usually of the string variety but can be made of rice, mung bean, sweet potato, buckwheat, tapioca, soy, acorn, kudzu root, even kelp. That’s great news for pasta lovers looking for alternatives to wheat, and has the bonus of offering more variety in taste, color, and texture.
Asian rice noodles are readily available in many markets now and are indispensable in stir fries like Pad Thai, soups like Vietnamese pho, or salads like Szechuan beef noodle salad. Chewy sweet potato noodles are delicious stir fried with sesame oil and vegetables in Japchae – a Korean noodle dish. Japanese 100 percent buckwheat soba noodles are tasty served simply with a touch of tamari sauce and scallions.
Check all food labels carefully. A product may be naturally gluten-free but cross-contamination is a risk. Also, condiments may also contain wheat-based additives, like regular soy sauce or rice vinegars, so you may want to request plain rice for sushi rolls. Unfortunately, labeling varies by country but a few companies have started making Asian products that are certified gluten-free.
Do you love dim sum? So do I!
But many have wrongly confused Asian glutinous rice (also known as “sticky” or “sweet” rice) with dietary gluten which is the basis of gluten intolerance. There is no gluten or wheat in glutinous rice. The term refers to a variety of short-grain rice that has been grown in China and Southeast Asia for nearly 2,000 years. It is very sticky and glue-like and featured mostly in desserts and popular dim sum items like sesame balls filled with sweet red bean paste. Fun fact: Glutinous rice is so sticky that it was used in the mortar to build the Great Wall of China!
Asian Gluten-Free Tips & Recipes
- When buying soy sauce, look for naturally brewed tamari or gluten free varieties. More seem to be on the shelves of quality grocery stores these days.
- Premium quality rice is a great gluten-free alternative. My favorites are from Lotus Foods. Try their Forbidden Black and Bhutanese Red.
- Finally, a shameless plug: Try my very own My Sweet Hottie sauce, dressing & glaze for grilled chicken and shrimp, slaw, salads and spring rolls.
Check my website at ChineseSouthernBelle.com for where you can buy these products, download the recipes below, and more.
As a nod to Natalie’s alma mater, this dish is a go-to favorite for a delicious and fast salad, BBQ side or topping for fish and chicken tacos, sliders, hot dogs and more. Travels well for picnics and potlucks, too. As a fellow Harvard grad, I’m hoping Jeremy Lin will take notice. : )
2 c shredded Napa or regular cabbage
1/4 cup shredded carrot
3 T My Sweet Hottie sauce
2 T chopped green onions
1 T chopped fresh mint, basil, cilantro (any or all)
1 t olive or vegetable oil
1/2 t Sriracha chili sauce (optional spicy kick)
Optional: dash of white pepper, sesame seeds, raw peanuts or cashews
Toss together well in a large bowl. Enjoy!
Traditionally in Asia, noodle soups feature a bone soup base (simmered for many hours) topped with braised or stir fried meat and greens–a hearty comfort “meal” in a bowl. Keeping the stir fry meat and vegetables separate from the soup add a gourmet Asian touch and allow the flavor of multiple ingredients to shine through. It also allows for creative variations/toppings with the same base. Mung bean noodles are a wonderful lighter, gluten-free option to wheat noodles.
2 cups gluten-free broth, homemade bone broth or water
1 small pack glass “beanthread” or 1 cup noodles, cooked
1 cup sliced Asian greens (bok choy, Chinese broccoli or chard)
1 green onion, chopped
1 Tbs gluten-free soy sauce
1 tsp sesame oil
½ tsp garlic powder (or 2 cloves, minced)
¼ tsp white pepper
1 piece chicken breast or thigh, sliced
Marinade: 1 Tbs gluten-free soy sauce, ½ tsp garlic powder (or 1 minced clove)
Slice and marinate meat in seasonings, set aside. Cover and soak noodles in boiling water until al dente; drain. Cut and stir fry greens in hot vegetable oil, half green onions, minced garlic; set aside. Add 1 tsp vegetable oil, cook meat until done, mix in vegetables. For each bowl, put a small handful of noodles (about ½ cup), one ladle of broth and top with a spoonful of stir fried vegetables/meat. Garnish with scallions and few drops of sesame oil. Serves 2 medium or 4 small bowls.
Natalie Keng, Founder/Owner, Chinese Southern Belle LLC is a culinary entertainer and food and culture expert. Contact/event inquiries: email@example.com.