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Ordering Gluten-Free in a Chinese Restaurant


Updated May 29, 2014

Assuring a safe gluten-free meal in a Chinese restaurant is tricky, especially because soy sauce is used so often in Chinese recipes. On the other hand, among the most common ingredients in Chinese food are many that are safe for people with celiac disease: rice wine, rice vinegar, dried mushrooms, cornstarch, garlic, ginger root, spring onions, oyster sauce, rice, sesame oil, chili paste, and tofu.

Here are some suggestions to help you choose a Chinese restaurant and order safely from the menu. But remember: Don’t take chances. If you’re not sure food is gluten-free, don’t eat it.

Check the celiac-friendly restaurant directories.

By checking the celiac-friendly restaurant directories, you may discover a Chinese restaurant near you that has a stated desire to accommodate gluten-free customers.

Try to find someone on the staff who speaks your language.

Before you sit down, make sure that someone who speaks your language fluently will be available to take your order and answer your questions. Be sure to ask about thickeners in the sauces and ingredients of marinades.

Bring along a restaurant card that explains the gluten-free diet in Chinese.

Several companies sell pocket-size restaurant cards designed to help you explain the gluten-free diet to restaurant staff who don’t speak your language. When ordering restaurant cards, remember that the Chinese speak two dialects -- Cantonese and Mandarin. Cantonese is spoken in Hong Kong and by many Chinese people living in the United States. Mandarin is spoken in Taiwan and on Mainland China. In addition, a simplified form of the written language is used on mainland China and the traditional form is used in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Have a backup plan in case no one speaks your language.

If you don’t have a restaurant card and no one on the staff is fluent in your language, you’re best off ordering something from the menu that is likely to be bland but safe, such as plain steamed rice and steamed vegetables or steamed chicken.

Know which dishes are most likely to be safe.

My favorite standbys in Chinese restaurants are chow fun (wide rice noodles) and mei fun (thin rice noodles) with vegetables or chicken. The rice noodles are safe as long as they’re not cooked with soy sauce -- I always ask for mine to be prepared in a white sauce using corn starch.

Beware of brown sauces.

Unless you’re sure you’re being understood by the restaurant staff, avoid any brown sauces because they may include soy sauce. Instead, ask for a white sauce made with corn starch.

Beware of "chicken."

Some lower-end Chinese restaurants claim to use chicken but really use a combination of chicken and texturized vegetable protein that isn’t necessarily gluten-free.

Don’t let your companions contaminate your food.

While it’s traditional to share dishes at a Chinese restaurant meal, you’ll need to make sure your friends don’t take their gluten-contaminated spoons to serve themselves food from your gluten-free dishes.

Bring your own soy sauce.

Order some Panda Brand Gluten-Free Soy Sauce packets and keep them handy for trips to Chinese restaurants.

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