How to Order Gluten-Free in a Chinese Restaurant

7 tips to keep you safe while optimizing your dining experience.

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 with celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity).

In addition, there may also be a language barrier in many Chinese eateries, which can make it difficult to communicate your dietary needs.

As gluten-free dietary needs become more and more common, many restaurants will include information about gluten and gluten-free dishes on their menus. It never hurts to ask, and like vegans, vegetarians and those with food allergies who dine out, those who need a gluten-free diet can usually find menu options that are suitable. 

If you aren't sure whether the Chinese restaurant you'll be visiting has gluten-free menu items, here are some suggestions to help you order safely from the menu. But remember, if you’re not sure food is gluten-free, don’t eat it.

1
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 for those avoiding gluten.

2
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 OK and not OK for you to eat.

These cards are available for a download at Celiac Travel. And Triumph Dining also offers detailed cards in Chinese and other languages, which you can order online.

When ordering restaurant cards, remember that there are difference dialects of Chinese spoken in different areas. 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 »

3
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

The best standby options 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. Make sure the chef understands they must use a clean wok to prepare your dish.

4
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.

Many Asian restaurants will use gluten-free soy sauce to make your food, if you request it.

5
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, it's not a bad idea to bring along some gluten-free soy sauce. This gives options for sushi, and occasionally a restaurant owner may be willing to use the gluten-free soy sauce to cook your dish. 

6
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.

7
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
  • you can order everything gluten-free so there's no risk of gluten cross-contamination.

Source:

Saturni L, Ferretti G, Bacchetti T. The gluten-free diet: Safety and nutritional quality. ​​​​Nutrients. 2010 Jan; 2(1):16-34.

Continue Reading