How to Order Gluten-Free in a Chinese Restaurant

Yes, it's possible, but you need to be very careful.

Ensuring a safe gluten-free meal in a Chinese restaurant is tricky: wheat-containing soy sauce is used in almost every dish on the menu (effectively placing those menu items off-limits for those of us with celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity), and you've also got a real language barrier in many Chinese eateries.

There are a few upscale Chinese restaurants (mainly in urban areas) that do cater to those of us following the gluten-free diet, and if you're lucky enough to have a P.F. Chang's in your town, you'll be safe with that chain's gluten-free menu. But if your options are more limited, you might be tempted to try ordering gluten-free from a local Chinese restaurant.

If that's your plan, here are some suggestions to help you choose a Chinese restaurant and order (hopefully) safely from the menu. But remember: This is risky, so please don't take chances. If you’re not sure food is gluten-free, don’t eat it.

1
Check Gluten-Free Restaurant Directories

Urbanspoon gluten-free chinese restaurant listings
Check out gluten-free restaurant guides. © Jane M. Anderson

When I'm traveling and eating out, I start by googling "gluten-free [town/city name]. This often leads to an entry on Yelp or Urbanspoon that touts a particular restaurant's gluten-free attributes ... and yes, I've found Chinese restaurants here (not just P.F. Chang's).

However, I've also had good luck with one of the gluten-free-specific (or allergy-specific) restaurant directories I list here. Remember, these are a starting place — you'll still have to do your due diligence — but they can help narrow down your options. More »

2
Ask for a Manager Who Speaks Your Language

server taking order in Chinese restaurant
Find a manager or server who speaks your language.. Betsie Van Der Meer/Getty Images

Before you sit down in your chosen Chinese restaurant, make sure that someone who speaks your language fluently will be available to take your order and answer your questions.

Once you've found someone with whom you can reliably communicate, be sure to ask about thickeners in the sauces and ingredients of marinades, as those are the riskiest parts of the meal, gluten-free-wise.

3
Use a Chinese Gluten-Free Restaurant Card

gluten-free restaurant card in Chinese
Gluten-free restaurant cards can help you.. Courtesy of CeliacTravel.com

Even if the language doesn't seem to be a barrier (and especially if it is), consider using a Chinese gluten-free restaurant card, which explains the diet and what's okay/not okay for you to eat.

I highly recommend the cards available for a free download at Celiac Travel and on iTunes (pictured to the left). Triumph Dining also offers detailed cards in Chinese and other languages (order them here — I can recommend these as well).

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 in mainland China. In addition, a simplified form of the written language is used in mainland China and the traditional form is used in Hong Kong and Taiwan. More »

4
Know Which Dishes Are Most Likely to be Safe

Chinese rice noodles
Make sure your rice noodles aren't made with wheat.. Maximilian Stock Ltd./Getty Images

My favorite standbys in Chinese restaurants are chow fun (wide rice noodles) and mei fun (thin rice noodles) with vegetables or chicken, cooked with a white sauce.

The rice noodles are safe as long as they’re actually pure rice (some contain wheat; check the ingredients, or have the manager check them for you), and are not cooked with soy sauce — I always ask for mine to be prepared in a white sauce using cornstarch. Make sure the chef understands she must use a clean wok to prepare your dish.

5
Beware of Brown Chinese Sauces

Chinese food with brown sauce
Beware the brown Chinese food sauce. Westend61/Getty Images

Unless you’re absolutely certain 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 cornstarch.

Lately, I've been pleased to find several Asian restaurants that will use gluten-free soy sauce on request to make your food, but these remain a small minority, unfortunately.

6
Bring Your Own Soy Sauce

Chinese restaurant soy sauce
Bring your own gluten-free soy sauce.. Maximilian Stock Ltd./Getty Images

When dining out in any Asian restaurant, I always bring my gluten-free soy sauce. This gives me an option for sushi, and occasionally a restaurant owner has offered to use my safe soy sauce to cook my food in a Chinese or Thai restaurant.

7
Beware of 'Chicken' in Lower-End Restaurants

Chinese stir-fry with seitan
This 'chicken' isn't really chicken.. Sheridan Standcliff/Getty Images

Some lower-end Chinese restaurants claim to use chicken but combine chicken and texturized vegetable protein that most likely isn't gluten-free (it's usually part seitan, which is about as far from gluten-free as you can get).

If you're ordering a dish with chicken, make sure you ask specifically whether the chicken is really, ahem, chicken. If you detect any hesitancy or uncertainty, order something else.

8
Have a Backup Plan Ready

woman eating rice
Plain rice can be your backup plan.. Absodels/Getty Images

If you don’t have a restaurant card and no one on the staff is fluent in your language, you could consider ordering something from the menu that looks bland but safe, such as steamed vegetables or steamed chicken.

To be honest, though, I wouldn't take this chance. I might consider ordering plain steamed rice (especially if I was really hungry and I could see the actual rice steamer in the kitchen), but in most cases I'd skip eating entirely (or reach for the Larabar I usually have stashed in my bag).

9
Share Food Carefully with Friends and Family

Variety of Chinese food
Careful sharing these Chinese dishes.. Kyle Rothenborg/Getty Images

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.

There are several ways to deal with this problem: you can designate one serving spoon for your dish (but you'll wind up anxiously watching anyone who uses it), you can serve them first with a clean spoon, or (my favorite option) you can order everything gluten-free so there's no risk of gluten cross-contamination.

(Edited by Jane Anderson)

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