Asia is the biggest continent on Earth and home to at least 60% of the world’s population. Asia’s cultural diversity has given rise to a truly incredible variety of cuisines, and within those cuisines a tremendous number of naturally gluten-free delicacies.
It is important to remember that while wheat has never played as critical a role in Asian cuisines as it does in the Western diet, and many Asian dishes have been traditionally gluten-free, cheap wheat flour has become increasingly available, and it is being used more and more, so it’s always a good idea to ask your server about ingredients.
Here, we will focus on eating gluten-free in three countries: China, India, and Japan. Here are some possibilities and pitfalls of eating gluten-free in these popular tourist and business destinations…
How to Eat Gluten-Free in China: It’s All About Planning Ahead
While some traditional Chinese dishes are based around wheat flour, such as noodle dishes and scallion pancakes and dumplings, the biggest concern with Chinese cuisine is one of its most basic (but often overlooked) ingredients: soy sauce. Soy sauce nearly always contains wheat.
Chicken stock granules used in many dishes may contain gluten, as does Shanxi vinegar (a vinegar with gluten ingredients that is not distilled) and hoisin sauce. According to Gluten-Free Around the World, some Chinese specialties that may be gluten-free include rice flour dumplings, some Chinese new year dumplings, steamed date cookies, almond cookies, gum lu cakes, and lai yut (dessert dumplings). However, you must always check to make sure they are made with strictly rice flour and nuts, rather than regular wheat flour.
Unfortunately, China has a reputation as being one of the most difficult places to eat gluten-free. When traveling, you should absolutely bring your own gluten-free soy sauce and try to have access to a toaster oven and/or stove wherever you are staying so you can prepare your own food. Plain rice and salads are often an option, and sushi is commonly available (again, just be sure to use your own gluten-free soy sauce). If you go to a more high-end restaurant with a chef that speaks English, you may be able to get a stir-fry made without soy or hoisin sauces. Keep in mind that woks are not generally cleaned well between dishes, so it’s important to ask for food to be prepared in a clean pan.
How to Eat Gluten-Free in India (and One Key Spice to Stay Away From)
Many delicious curries featuring meat, vegetables, and cheese (paneer) are naturally gluten-free. South Indian cuisine features uthappam (spongy, thick, savory pancakes made of lentil and rice flours and topped with vegetables) as well as dosas (dosai) which are thin crepes made of a fermented lentil/rice batter and wrapped around spiced potatoes or vegetables.
A popular appetizer is pakoras, which are vegetables or cheese dipped in a batter made of chickpea flour and then deep-fried. There are other Indian dishes that feature rice or bean flours in place of wheat flour, such as papadum (crackers) made of bean/lentil flour, and idli dumplings and vadai (savory “donuts”) which are generally both made of rice flour or a rice/lentil flour blend. Pulao or biryani are rice pilafs that are filling and flavorful.
Beware of curries and other dishes containing the spice asafetida, which nearly always contains a small amount of wheat flour. Also be careful to ask whether traditionally gluten-free foods such as pakoras, papadum, uthappam and dosas (dosai) have wheat flour added to their batters.
Our Favorite Gluten-Free Food in Asia: Japanese Food
To many Westerners, “Japanese food” means sushi. And although there are many other Japanese dishes worth exploring, sushi is a great place to start if you are a celiac or gluten intolerant traveler.
Sushi and sashimi are some of the safest options for celiacs. Again, you should carry travel packets of your own gluten-free soy sauce, since it will almost always be difficult (or impossible) to find.
Sushi ingredients to be cautious of include fake crab used in some rolls (which nearly always contains wheat), rolls that contain fried/tempura items, and rolls that contain cooked or barbecued items (such as eel or eggs) that may have been flavored with soy sauce. Nori, the seaweed that sushi is rolled in, is usually gluten-free, but if it comes from Korea it may have been processed with soy sauce so it is always worth asking. Ask for your sushi to be prepared with clean equipment, because cross-contamination from tempura and soy sauce is common.
Miso soup is almost always off limits as well, as traditional miso paste is made from barley, rice or soy. Even when the paste is made exclusively from rice or soy, gluten-containing soy sauce is often used to prepare the soup. Green tea in Japan may, surprisingly, be made with barley malt or toasted barley – so be sure to stick to tea bags that say they only contain green tea leaves.
If you are eager to explore Japanese food beyond sushi, you might consider starting with an organic, vegan or vegetarian restaurant. Some travelers have found these types of restaurants to be particularly accommodating. Some potentially gluten-free foods include rice balls, yakitori, and inari. Mochi desserts are sometimes safe, too. Japan even has a gluten-free beer called Nadogoshi Nara!
We highly recommend you consider investing in a set of gluten-free dining cards such as the ones offered by Triumph Dinng if you are planning to dine abroad. They come in many languages and will help ensure a safe gluten-free trip abroad!