Gluten-Free in Asia: A Complete Guide to Avoiding Gluten

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A gluten-free diet is a diet that excludes gluten, a protein composite found in wheat and related grains, including barley and rye.

Gluten-free in Asia? It’s a minefield! So many countries, so many customs, so many ingredients. It’s a real challenge for anyone with a gluten intolerance. 

In this article, I’ll share my experience navigating the gluten-free lifestyle in Japan, China, and Thailand. I’ll also share some tips for finding safe food and restaurants.

What is gluten-free

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Understanding the Gluten-Free Diet

A gluten-free diet is a dietary restriction that excludes the protein gluten. Gluten is commonly found in wheat, barley, and rye. People with celiac disease, gluten sensitivity, or wheat allergy follow a gluten-free diet to avoid the symptoms that come with consuming gluten.

What Does Gluten-Free Diet Mean for Diners?

For diners, a gluten-free diet means being careful about the food they eat. Gluten can be found in many dishes, ingredients, and brands, so it’s essential to check the menu or ask the chef if the dish is gluten-free. Some restaurants have a dedicated gluten-free menu or a guide to help people with gluten restrictions find safe dishes.

How to Find Gluten-Free Food?

Finding gluten-free food can be difficult, especially in countries where the understanding of gluten-free diets is still developing. However, with increasing research and learning, more restaurants and artisans are getting on board with gluten-free options. Some tips for finding gluten-free food include:

  • Looking for restaurants that have a dedicated gluten-free menu or guide
  • Checking the ingredients and translation of the dish
  • Being careful when ordering food that is commonly prepared with gluten-containing ingredients, such as soy sauce or starch
  • Explaining the gluten-free restrictions to the chef or server
  • Learning how to cook gluten-free dishes at home by following recipes and shopping for gluten-free ingredients

What Are Some Gluten-Free Brands?

Some gluten-free brands include:

  • Bob’s Red Mill
  • King Arthur Flour
  • Udi’s Gluten-Free
  • Glutino
  • Enjoy Life Foods

Gluten-free in Asia: Navigating Country by Country

Japan is a great destination for gluten-free eaters, with plenty of rice-based dishes and fresh, steamed vegetables. Here are some tips for eating gluten-free in Japan:

  • Look for dishes featuring rice, such as sushi or rice bowls.
  • Miso soup is generally gluten-free, but be careful of added ingredients.
  • Ask the chef to prepare your food without soy sauce or other sauces that may contain gluten.
  • Choose restaurants that specialize in traditional Japanese cuisine, as they are more likely to be able to accommodate gluten-free requests.
  • Be mindful of cross-contamination when ordering dishes that contain seafood, as they may be prepared with soy sauce or other gluten-containing ingredients.
  • Check labels and ask questions about ingredients, as some dishes may contain wheat or barley.
  • Consider bringing your own gluten-free soy sauce or other condiments, as they may not be readily available.

China: Navigating the Land of Soy Sauce

China is known for its use of soy sauce in many dishes, making it a bit more challenging for gluten-free eaters. However, there are still plenty of options available:

  • Look for dishes featuring rice or potatoes, as they are less likely to contain gluten.
  • Choose dishes that are plain or lightly seasoned, as sauces may contain gluten.
  • Be careful of dishes featuring sliced meat, as they may be marinated in soy sauce.
  • Ask the chef to prepare your food without soy sauce or other sauces that may contain gluten.
  • Consider carrying a card in multiple languages that explains your dietary restrictions to show to restaurant staff.
  • Be mindful of cross-contamination when ordering dishes that contain seafood, as they may be prepared with soy sauce or other gluten-containing ingredients.

Thailand: Spicy and Gluten-Free

Thailand is famous for its spicy and flavorful cuisine, which can make it easier to avoid gluten-containing ingredients:

  • Look for dishes featuring rice noodles or rice, as they are less likely to contain gluten.
  • Choose dishes that are topped with fresh vegetables, as they are less likely to contain gluten.
  • Be careful of dishes featuring soy sauce or other sauces that may contain gluten.
  • Ask the chef to prepare your food without soy sauce or other sauces that may contain gluten.
  • Be mindful of cross-contamination when ordering dishes that contain seafood, as they may be prepared with soy sauce or other gluten-containing ingredients.
  • Consider carrying a card in multiple languages that explains your dietary restrictions to show to restaurant staff.

India: Vegetarian and Gluten-Free

India is a great destination for gluten-free eaters, with many vegetarian dishes that are naturally gluten-free:

  • Look for dishes featuring lentils, chickpeas, or other legumes, as they are a great source of protein and are naturally gluten-free.
  • Choose dishes that are plain or lightly seasoned, as sauces may contain gluten.
  • Be careful of dishes featuring wheat-based ingredients, such as naan or roti.
  • Ask the chef to prepare your food without wheat-based ingredients or other sauces that may contain gluten.
  • Be mindful of cross-contamination when ordering dishes that contain seafood, as they may be prepared with soy sauce or other gluten-containing ingredients.
  • Consider carrying a card in multiple languages that explains your dietary restrictions to show to restaurant staff.

Southeast Asia: A Variety of Gluten-Free Foods

Southeast Asia consists of hundreds of different types of cuisine, each with its own variety of gluten-free foods:

  • Look for dishes featuring rice or rice noodles, as they are less likely to contain gluten.
  • Choose dishes that are topped with fresh vegetables, as they are less likely to contain gluten.
  • Be careful of dishes featuring soy sauce or other sauces that may contain gluten.
  • Ask the chef to prepare your food without soy sauce or other sauces that may contain gluten.
  • Be mindful of cross-contamination when ordering dishes that contain seafood, as they may be prepared with soy sauce or other gluten-containing ingredients.
  • Consider carrying a card in multiple languages that explains your dietary restrictions to show to restaurant staff.
  • Bring gluten-free snacks or stock up on basic gluten-free foods to carry with you on your trip.

Unlocking the Secret to Gluten-Free in Asia: It’s All in the Sauces

Soy sauce is a staple in Asian cuisine, and it’s used in a wide variety of dishes. It’s a regular ingredient in many sauces, marinades, and dressings. However, most soy sauce products contain gluten, which can make it challenging for those on a gluten-free diet to enjoy Asian cuisine.

How to Pick the Right Sauce

It’s easy to pick up a bottle of soy sauce at the grocery store, but not all sauces are created equal. Here are some tips to help you find the right sauce for your gluten-free diet:

  • Look for sauces that are marked gluten-free or have a low gluten level.
  • Different sauces have different uses, so make sure to read the label carefully.
  • Sweet soy sauce may contain wheat, so be sure to check the label before purchasing.
  • Organic and premium sauces are often gluten-free, but always double-check the label.

Where to Buy Gluten-Free Sauces

If you’re having trouble finding gluten-free sauces at your local grocery store, there are plenty of online options. Here are some popular brands that offer gluten-free options:

  • Kikkoman: This brand offers a wide variety of gluten-free sauces, including soy sauce, teriyaki sauce, and stir-fry sauce.
  • San-J: This brand offers gluten-free tamari sauce, which is a great alternative to soy sauce.
  • Coconut Secret: This brand offers a gluten-free soy sauce alternative made from coconut sap.

Remember, sauces are the key to unlocking the secret to gluten-free in Asia. With a little bit of research and label-reading, you can enjoy all the flavors of Asian cuisine without sacrificing your gluten-free diet.

Street Food: A Risky Business for Gluten-Free Travelers

As a gluten-free traveler, finding safe and delicious food can be a challenge, especially when it comes to street food. While street food is a staple in many Asian countries, it’s important to be aware of the risks involved, particularly if you have specific dietary requirements.

  • Street food stalls can be found all over the world, but not all of them are accommodating to gluten-free travelers.
  • It can be hard to know what’s in the food you’re having, as different countries have different ways of preparing their dishes.
  • For example, in Hong Kong, many soups and broths are infused with soy sauce, which contains gluten.
  • In Thailand, pad thai often contains soy sauce and fish sauce, both of which can contain gluten.
  • Even if you’re looking for gluten-free options, they may not be easy to find. Some street food stalls may not have any gluten-free options at all.
  • In some rural locations, there may be a lack of awareness about gluten allergies and requirements.

Monitoring the Risk and Planning Ahead

While street food can be a tempting and delicious option, it’s important to monitor the risk and plan ahead to ensure you stay safe and healthy.

  • Joining forums and groups online can be a great way to get personal knowledge and recommendations from other travelers.
  • When planning your trip, research your destinations and accommodation options to find places that are known to be accommodating to gluten-free travelers.
  • In Vietnam, for example, there are many restaurants and street food stalls that cater specifically to gluten-free travelers.
  • In Shanghai, there are also many gluten-free options available, particularly in the more touristy areas.
  • When eating street food, it’s important to ask questions and be clear about your requirements. Don’t be afraid to ask for specific ingredients or to see the packaging of any sauces or seasonings.
  • If you’re unsure about a particular dish or stall, it’s better to err on the side of caution and look for other options.
  • With lots of planning and awareness, you can still enjoy the yum of street food alongside your gluten-free requirements.

Conclusion

So, as you can see, navigating a gluten-free diet in Asia can be a bit challenging, but with the right knowledge, you can do it! 

Don’t be afraid to ask questions, and don’t be afraid to explore the local cuisine. Plus, don’t be afraid to ask for a little extra care when ordering. You’re not being rude, you’re being safe! So, go ahead and enjoy all the deliciousness Asia has to offer!

Check out our new cookbook

Bitemybun's family recipes with complete meal planner and recipe guide.

Try it out for free with Kindle Unlimited:

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Joost Nusselder, the founder of Bite My Bun is a content marketer, dad and loves trying out new food with Japanese food at the heart of his passion, and together with his team he's been creating in-depth blog articles since 2016 to help loyal readers with recipes and cooking tips.