“Does this have gluten in it?”
I hear this question almost every time I teach a class or a demonstration. As a culinary and cultural instructor for Asian cooking classes and food tours, I am a subject matter expert and a student. I enjoy sharing, connecting and learning. My classes highlight a diverse and evolving menu which include seasonal ingredients, traditional scratch-cooking techniques and modern express adaptations, plus dietary and nutritional concerns. I love how dinner tables unite people from different backgrounds to “break egg rolls together.”
Gluten intolerance has traditionally not received much attention in Asian communities or families, but delicious, gluten-free foods like Asian varieties of rice have become popular.
Gluten-free and other dietary restrictions were not part of my family culture or upbringing in Smyrna. “Clean Plate Club” was our motto. As a result, when I suffered from an array of food allergies as a toddler, they wondered if I had been switched in the crib at the hospital.
Until recently, U.S. healthcare providers had little experience in handling cross-cultural health concerns and disparities in non-white American populations (The National Center on Minority Health and Health Disparities was only established in 2000). For example, Asian Americans are more likely than Caucasians to have diabetes despite a lower average body weight, and peanut allergies appear to be more common and severe among older children of specific immigrant groups growing up in the U.S.
Celiac disease, also known as gluten intolerance, is considered a genetic autoimmune disease that mainly affects people of European descent but recent studies show that it also affects Asian, Hispanic and African populations. Due to a broad range of symptoms and variations that cross ethnicity, diet, age and gender lines, celiac can be difficult to diagnose. This factor may also contribute to under-diagnosis and reporting.
Fortunately there are options. Rice, especially whole grain rice, is a tasty and healthful gluten-free food. With the availability (and accurate labeling) of gluten-free soy sauce (traditionally fermented with wheat and sometimes called tamari), you can have your fried rice and eat it, too. Rice flour can also be mixed with tapioca starch and/or potato starch to create a gluten-free baking mix.
In many Asian countries, rice holds symbolic and spiritual meaning and always been more than a base food. Japan holds sacred rituals and festivals around the planting and harvesting of rice. The focal point in making perfect sushi is the rice, not the fish. In China, rice has a place in language, art, work and politics: it is associated with life, prosperity and fertility. The actual word for cooked rice, fan, is a general reference for all things food-related. And “rice bowl” (fan wan) is a metaphor for one’s social status. In India, basmati rice is considered a luxury food and offered in religious rites.
Yu’s Your Noodle
Noodles have a long history in Asia. The world’s oldest known noodles were discovered in an earthenware bowl along the Yellow River in China. The noodles were approximately 4,000 years old and made of foxtail and broomcorn millet. Italian-style pasta is almost always made of durum semolina wheat, and distinguished by shape. Asian pasta is usually of the string variety but can be made of rice, mung bean, sweet potato, buckwheat, tapioca, soy, acorn, kudzu root, even kelp. That’s great news for pasta lovers looking for alternatives to wheat.
Asian-style rice noodles are readily available in many markets now and are indispensable in stir fries like Pad Thai, soups like Vietnamese pho, or salads like Szechuan beef noodle salad. Chewy sweet potato noodles are delicious stir fried with sesame oil and vegetables in Japchae – a Korean noodle dish. Japanese 100 percent buckwheat soba noodles are tasty served simply with a touch of tamari sauce and scallions.
Check all food labels carefully. A product may be naturally gluten-free but cross-contamination is a risk. Condiments may contain wheat-based additives, like regular soy sauce or rice vinegars, so you may want to request plain rice for sushi rolls. Unfortunately, labeling varies by country but companies have started making Asian products that are certified gluten-free.
Sticky Topic: Gluten vs. Glutinous
Do you love dim sum? So do I!
But many have wrongly confused Asian glutinous rice (also known as “sticky” or “sweet” rice) with dietary gluten which is the basis of gluten intolerance. There is no gluten or wheat in glutinous rice. The term refers to a variety of short-grain rice that has been grown in China and Southeast Asia for nearly 2,000 years. It is very sticky and glue-like and featured mostly in desserts and popular dim sum items like sesame balls filled with sweet red bean paste. Fun fact: Glutinous rice is so sticky that it was used in the mortar to build the Great Wall of China!
Asian Gluten-Free Tips & Recipes
- When buying soy sauce, look for naturally brewed tamari or gluten free varieties. More seem to be on the shelves of quality grocery stores these days.
- Premium quality rice is a great gluten-free alternative and there are several Asian varieties like Himalayan red rice, Japanese sushi rice, Indian basmati rice and more. I enjoy Lotus Foods brand in the USA and Kokuro Rose from Japan. Try Lotus Foods Forbidden Black and Bhutanese Red.
- Our family-recipe, award-winning My Sweet Hottie sweet chili peach sauce, dressing & glaze is zesty and flavorful with Bursts with real fruit, ginger, honey and sesame but is soy free, gluten free and very low sodium. NO junky syrups or excess sugars. Flavor of Georgia Winner. Delicious for slaw/salads, fish tacos, natural Sweet and Sour Chicken or Sweet and Sour Shrimp and dipping sauce for appetizers and vegetables.
As a nod to Natalie’s alma mater, this dish is a go-to favorite for a delicious and fast salad, BBQ side or topping for fish and chicken tacos, sliders, hot dogs and more. Travels well for picnics and potlucks, too. As a fellow Harvard grad, I’m hoping Jeremy Lin will take notice. : )
2 c shredded Napa or regular cabbage
1/4 cup shredded carrot
3 T My Sweet Hottie sauce
2 T chopped green onions
1 T chopped fresh mint, basil, cilantro (any or all)
1 t olive or vegetable oil
1/2 t Sriracha chili sauce (optional spicy kick)
Optional: dash of white pepper, sesame seeds, raw peanuts or cashews
Toss together well in a large bowl. Enjoy!
Noodles represent long life in Chinese culture. Mung bean noodles are a wonderful lighter, gluten-free option to wheat noodles.
2 cups water, boiling
1 small pack glass “bean thread” or 1 cup noodles, cooked
1 cup thinly sliced mixed Asian vegetables (bok choy, Chinese broccoli or chard, carrots)
1 green onion, chopped
1 T minced garlic
2 Tbs gluten-free soy sauce
1/4 cup My Sweet Hottie sweet chili peach dressing
1 tsp sesame oil
1 piece chicken breast or thigh, sliced
Marinade: 1 Tbs gluten-free soy sauce, ½ tsp garlic powder (or 1 minced clove)
Slice and marinate meat 1 Tbs soy sauce in small bowl, set aside. Cover and soak noodles in boiling water until al dente; drain. Stir fry meat in hot vegetable oil until no longer pink, remove from pan. Stir fry vegetables in 1 Tbs soy sauce, half green onions, minced garlic for 1 minute. Add noodles to stir fry, mix in My Sweet Hottie peachy chili sauce, sesame oil. Toss together well. Top with cooked chicken, scallions. Serves 2 medium or 4 small bowls.
Natalie’s published article was reprinted in Atlanta Intown newspaper.