When I think of Chinese New Year, I think of fireworks, red envelopes, dragon dances, and delicious food – lots of it! But, it’s important to note that Chinese cuisine commonly uses major allergens, sometimes in unexpected ways.
For people with food allergies or gluten-intolerance, this means being your own advocate, asking the right questions about ingredients and preparation processes, as well as making sure your host or the restaurant is aware of your food allergy or intolerance and its implications. Understand that cooking techniques common in Chinese kitchens include stir frying foods in a wok and re-using cooking oil. It’s easy to see why re-used cooking oil would be a cross-contamination danger, but a wok? Like cast iron cookware, woks are meant to be seasoned, which means soap and water are generally not used to clean them.
In this post we’ll talk about popular traditional Chinese New Year dishes and the allergens they potentially contain, allergy-friendly ingredient substitutions, and finally at the bottom, some traditional recipes.
CHINESE NEW YEAR DISHES AND ALLERGENS (TOP 8)
Below are dishes and their potential allergens. Please know there are a variety of ways to prepare these dishes. Always take care to ask questions and make sure the food is safe for you.
Dumplings (egg, fish, peanut, seafood, soy, wheat/gluten): These savory crescent-shaped treats symbolize wealth and good luck for the New Year. Yummy pan-fried, steamed, or cooked in soup, these meal-in-one pillows often contain meat, veggies, and your starch (the wrap). Homemade wrapper recipes generally require wheat flour and water. However, most store-bought wrappers also include egg. The fillings vary but you can expect them to contain soy or fish sauce. Some contain egg to hold the meat mixture together. Shrimp fillings are a common dumpling variation. Peanut oil may be used to pan-fry them.
Spring Rolls (egg, fish, peanuts, seafood, soy, wheat/gluten): Spring Rolls symbolize wealth because they are the color and shape of gold bullions. The wrappers are similar to those used for dumplings so watch out for potential wheat/gluten and eggs. Also, like dumplings, the filling varies so be sure to ask your host what it includes. Finally, some spring rolls may contain peanut ingredients, be served with peanut dipping sauce, or be fried in peanut oil.
Buddha’s Delight (egg, fish, milk, peanuts, seafood, soy sauce, tree nuts, wheat/gluten): The Chinese believe that eating this vegetarian dish on New Year’s Day will bring good luck. The exact ingredients for Buddha’s Delight vary, but we’ve found versions that include peanuts, gingko nuts (a tree nut), gluten balls, soy sauce and other soy products like tofu, bean curd, and oyster sauce, broth (potential milk, soy, and wheat/gluten), as well as egg. Also, despite being a vegetarian dish, Buddha’s Delight may include fish and seafood like shrimp or dried oysters. Like many other Chinese dishes, it may be stir fried in peanut oil.
Hot pot (egg, fish, milk, peanuts, seafood, soy, wheat/gluten): The hot pot is a Chinese fondue. The base is generally a broth, which means it may contain milk, gluten/wheat, soy, and even peanut oil. However broth recipes vary so you’ll need to clarify with your host what ingredients were used. Since it is a communal dish, you’ll also need to know about each and every item that goes into the hotpot for cross-contamination purposes. Popular items include thin slices of meat, napa cabbage, meat and fish balls (watch out for egg and fish), fish and seafood, tofu (soy), and cellophane noodles. A wise policy is to avoid dipping sauces as they often hide allergens.
Nian Gao or Sticky Cake (egg, milk, tree nuts): Eating Nian Gao during the New Year celebration is considered good luck. Recipes vary. I’ve seen recipes that require milk, butter, tree nuts, and eggs, as well as those that have no major allergens.
Whole steamed fish (fish, soy, wheat/gluten): Steamed fish served whole symbolizes abundance. Very traditional recipes are simple but often include soy sauce (soy and wheat/gluten). An unlimited variety of whole steamed fish recipes are available though, so make sure to find out ingredient information.
Long-Life Noodles (egg, wheat/gluten): Any uncut noodle dish at Chinese New Year symbolizes longevity. They can be wheat, egg, or even rice noodles. Recipes vary, so be sure to check with your host for ingredient and preparation information.
Tea eggs (egg, soy, fish, wheat/gluten): Tea eggs or marble eggs symbolize wealth and prosperity. Tea eggs may be made with soy sauce (soy and wheat/gluten) and worcestershire sauce (fish).
Please note Chinese cuisine often uses peanut oil. In addition, sauces, whether soy, oyster, or plum, contain soy and often gluten. Finally, fish and seafood such as lobster, shrimp, clams, scallops, mussels, oysters are all traditional Chinese New Year foods.
CHINESE NEW YEAR ALLERGY-FRIENDLY INGREDIENT SUBSTITUTES
Allergy-friendly Chinese New Year dishes are difficult to find, especially for those allergic to soy, wheat/gluten, and seafood. But the good news is that allergy-friendly substitution options are available. A Food and Wine interview with renowned chef Ming Tsai revealed a couple of wonderful ingredient substitutes such as rice paper wrappers to replace wheat dumpling wrappers and veggie oyster sauce.
A great soy sauce substitute for those allergic to soy and wheat/gluten is Coconut Aminos (soy-free and gluten-free). It is bottled in a facility that does not process tree nuts.
For broth substitutions, the Natural And Free blog contains a comprehensive list of allergy-friendly broths.
Those with serious allergies should contact the manufacturers to determine cross-contamination potential.
ALLERGY-FRIENDLY CHINESE NEW YEAR RECIPES
As I said above, allergy-friendly Chinese New Years recipes are difficult to come by. However, there’s a wonderful Chinese New Years post from Get Allergy Wise which includes links to recipes (long-life noodles, nian gao, dumplings, spring rolls, and lettuce wraps) as well as tips for ingredient substitutions.
Below, you’ll find more recipes that can be made allergy-friendly fairly easily.
- Buddha’s Delight from Whole Foods: This recipe from Whole Foods is full of fresh vegetables. It is fairly simple to either omit the offending ingredients or replace them.
- Whole Steamed Fish from Ming Tsai, Food Network: This simple recipe contains six ingredients. It can be made soy-free, gluten-free, and peanut-free by making the appropriate substitutions of Coconut Aminos for the soy sauce and canola oil for the peanut oil.
- Gluten-Free Dumplings from Jeanette’s Healthy Living: You can enjoy dumplings even if you’re avoiding gluten. Don’t feel like making them? Check out our post on Feel Good Foods: Gluten-Free Egg Rolls and Dumplings.
- Egg-Free Chinese Dumpling Wrap and Filling Recipes: Make these soy-free and wheat/gluten-free by replacing the soy sauce with Coconut Aminos
- Nian Gao (Steamed Chinese New Year Cake) Recipe: This Nian Gao recipe is free of all the top 8 allergens EXCEPT for tree nuts (contains almond extract).
We hope you enjoy a safe and happy Chinese New Year! GUNG HAY FAT CHOY!