06 Jul / Stocking a Gluten-free Asian Pantry
A few years ago, my friend randomly mentioned that her mom has a stash of wheat-free soy sauce kept in a safe place at her neighborhood Chinese restaurant. And every time she goes there the owners whip out the bottle and happily prepare her favorite dish–shrimp fried rice–for her.
I was much bemused by this. I’d never even considered that Asian cooking contained a lot of wheat products, and besides, I didn’t know any Asians who were bothered by wheat. In fact, we live on wheat products. Egg noodles, wheat gluten (aka TVP), bean sauce, soy sauce–all of these products contain wheat.
Then last year, I was visiting my husband’s aunt who was recently diagnosed with celiac disease. I wanted to cook for her from my cookbook and her pantry was stocked with gluten-free products. Both she, and I, were pleasantly surprised at how many Asian meal options she had. I did a little research to help her with shopping and coincidentally, I was also asked to write a blog post about gluten-free options for common Asian sauces and condiments for Wasabimon readers.
I figured my own readers would be interested in this as well. According to the University of Chicago’s Center for Celiac Disease, 3 million Americans are affected by this disease. So you might be cooking for someone with celiac disease very soon!
While there are many gluten-free Asian products out there, pay attention and please please please read the labels! There are some sneaky ones that you’d never expect.
Shaoxing rice wine
This aromatic cooking wine adds flavor to Chinese stir-fries and braises. While it is made by fermenting glutinous rice, wheat is usually added. Pale dry sherry (I use Trader Joe’s Tesoro brand) is a great substitute.
Dark soy sauce
To replicate dark soy sauce, add some molasses or dark brown sugar to a gluten-free tamari soy sauce (like San-J or Eden Foods) to thicken and sweeten the potion.
All the bottled hoisin sauces I’ve tried contain wheat flour. A quick online search revealed Premier Japan brand Organic Hoisin Sauce. Although this gluten-free sauce has some unorthodox ingredients (at least by Chinese standards) like apple cider vinegar, molasses and orange juice, it’s worth a shot.
True mirin (hon-mirin) is made by fermenting sweet rice and contains nothing else (besides the alcohol of course). I have seen unfermented products labeled “mirin” containing Hydrolysed Vegetable Protein (HVP) which may be made from wheat. In this case, use sake or dry sherry with some sugar added.
Bottled black bean garlic sauce contains wheat but you can easily make your own with fermented black beans (they come in a cellophane bag). For a from-scratch black bean sauce recipe, go here. Chinese yellow or brown bean sauces usually contain wheat as a thickener. Substitute with a gluten-free hatcho miso paste made only from soybeans. If you like it spicy, Yeo’s brand hot bean sauce is gluten-free; but it contains MSG. Or you could mix miso with a chili paste like sambal oelek.
Most dried rice noodles are made from just rice and water but please read the labels as not all brands are created equal. The fresh rice sheets/noodles you find at Asian markets often contain wheat starch. So if you’re at an Asian restaurant, avoid any dish containing wide rice noodles. Soba noodles, if made only with buckwheat, are gluten-free as well.
Instant dashi powder
Yes it’s convenient but this Japanese staple contains hydrolyzed wheat protein so make your own dashi. It’s not difficult at all. All you need is some sheets of kombu, bonito (dried bonito fish flakes), and patience and a watchful eye! Refer to my cookbook for a recipe.
Lee Kum Kee’s Panda Brand Green Label Oyster Flavored Sauce and Choy Sun Oyster Flavored Sauce in glass bottles and metal cans are both gluten-free and MSG-free.