Are any dim sum dishes gluten-free?

Dim sum is a style of Chinese cuisine that involves small plates of savory and sweet foods, often served in steamer baskets or small plates. While many traditional dim sum dishes contain wheat-based ingredients like noodles or dumpling wrappers, there are some naturally gluten-free dim sum options for those avoiding gluten. This article will explore common dim sum dishes, ingredients that indicate gluten, and tips for finding gluten-free dim sum.

What is dim sum?

Dim sum refers to a Cantonese style of serving small plates of food, usually for brunch. The term “dim sum” literally means “to touch the heart” in Cantonese, referring to the small tasty morsels that diners can pick and choose from. Dim sum originated in tea houses in southern China, where travelers would stop for tea and small snacks. Over time, dim sum restaurants evolved into a mainstay for meals and gatherings with friends and family.

In a traditional dim sum restaurant, servers wheel around carts of steaming baskets filled with dumplings, buns, and other small dishes. Diners can pick and choose which items they want as the carts pass by their table. Another common method is to mark selections on a paper checklist so servers know what to bring from the kitchen. Popular dim sum items include:

  • Dumplings – filled with meat, seafood, or vegetables
  • Buns – baked or steamed, filled with roast meat or custard
  • Rice or noodle rolls – wrapped around fillings like beef or shrimp
  • Congee – rice porridge often topped with meat, seafood, or eggs
  • Turnip cakes – pan-fried savory cakes made with shredded turnip
  • Spring rolls – stuffed with vegetables and often shrimp
  • Egg tarts – a sweet pastry crust filled with egg custard

While dumplings, buns, and custards make up classic dim sum, the category has expanded in many restaurants to include small plates, appetizers, and desserts. The essence of dim sum is about variety, made-to-order freshness, and the ability to sample many dishes family-style.

Common sources of gluten in dim sum

Many types of dim sum contain wheat-based ingredients that should be avoided by those with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. Here are some of the most common sources of gluten in dim sum dishes:

Dumpling wrappers

Standard dumpling wrappers are made from wheat flour, even if the filling inside is gluten-free. Watch out for common dumplings like shu mai (open-topped dumplings filled with pork and shrimp), har gow (shrimp dumplings), and chicken feet. Rice flour or tapioca starch wrappers may be available upon request at some dim sum restaurants.

Buns and baked pastries

Steamed buns, baked char siu bao (bbq pork buns), and savory pastries are often made with wheat flour. Sweet egg custard tarts and wife cake pastries also commonly contain gluten.

Noodles and rice rolls

Dishes made with wheat flour noodles or wonton wrappers should be avoided. This includes chow mein noodle rolls, lo mein noodles, and congee (rice porridge) topped with fried wontons or youtiao (fried dough sticks).

Soy sauce

Many dim sum dishes come topped with soy sauce as a seasoning. While soy sauce is naturally gluten-free, many brands add wheat during production. Double check that any provided soy sauce is gluten-free.

Fried items

Items that are fried like spring rolls or taro puffs may be dusted with flour to prevent sticking. Fried gluten-free items can also be contaminated by sharing fryer oil with wheat-based foods.

Tips for finding gluten-free dim sum

While traditional dim sum can be full of hidden gluten, there are some tips to help you navigate the menu:

Research ahead of time

If planning to visit a new dim sum restaurant, read online menus and reviews carefully for gluten-free dish options. Call ahead to explain dietary needs and ask about ingredients or modifications.

Stick to naturally gluten-free dishes

Select dishes made up of ingredients that are naturally gluten-free, like meat, vegetables, rice, and seafood. Examples include roast duck, steamed spinach with shrimp, fried rice, and congee topped with lean pork and egg.

Ask for gluten-free soy sauce

Bring your own gluten-free soy sauce or tamari to the restaurant. You can also request that your server provides genuine gluten-free soy sauce at the table.

Modify dishes

Ask if dumpling wrappers or baked buns can be prepared with rice flour instead of wheat flour. Also request for fried items to be prepared in clean, separate oil with separate utensils.

Avoid cross-contamination

Be aware that shared surfaces and utensils may transfer trace gluten between dishes, even if a dish looks gluten-free. Higher risk items include steamed dishes and fried foods prepared in shared spaces.

Try desserts made with rice flour, fruits, beans, or root vegetables

Some traditional dim sum sweets are made from naturally gluten-free ingredients like rice flour, fruits, red bean paste, coconut, taro, lotus seed paste, and sweet potato. This includes items like sesame balls, coconut jelly, and red bean paste pancakes.

Communicate clearly

Politely emphasize the severity of your gluten intolerance when ordering. With good communication, knowledgeable staff can help guide you to the best gluten-free choices.

Gluten-free dim sum dishes

While selection may be limited compared to traditional dim sum, most restaurants will have some dishes that can be prepared gluten-free. Here are some of the most common gluten-free dim sum options:

Steamed or roasted meat and poultry

Chicken feet, whole roasted duck, bbq pork, and roast pork belly are naturally gluten-free. These meats make flavorful fillings when served over rice.

Seafood dishes

Steamed fish, shrimp, scallops, crab, and lobster are gluten-free. These can be prepared simply with ginger and scallions or in seafood broth.

Vegetable dishes

Ask for steamed Chinese broccoli, sautéed greens like bok choy, roasted eggplant, or mixed vegetable dishes made without soy sauce or wheat-based ingredients.

Rice congee

Order basic rice congee or porridge topped with lean meats and egg instead of fried dumplings or wheat noodles.

Fruit plates

Fresh fruit makes a nice light gluten-free option for dim sum. Melon, dragonfruit, mango, pineapple, grapes, and lychees are commonly served.

Coconut jelly

This wobbly translucent dessert is made from coconut milk and agar agar. Served chilled, it makes a refreshing gluten-free end to the meal.

Red bean sesame balls

These sweet dumplings have a chewy rice flour shell wrapped around red bean paste and sesame filling.

Lotus seed buns

Steamed or baked buns can be made with rice flour and stuffed with sweet lotus seed paste.

Taro dumplings

Taro root forms the gluten-free wrapper on these purple dumplings, often filled with pork and shrimp.

Lotus leaf rice

Glutinous rice seasoned with pork or shrimp is wrapped in a lotus leaf into a triangle.

Gluten-free dim sum at home

Recreating dim sum favorites at home ensures you control all the ingredients. Here are some recipes to try:

Shrimp and Pork Shu Mai

Make shrimp and pork dumplings with brown rice flour wrappers. Steam and top with gluten-free tamari or soy sauce.

Baked Char Siu Bao

Prepare fluffy baked bbq pork buns using your favorite gluten-free bread or bun recipe.

Vegetable Spring Rolls

Roll up fresh vegetables like carrots, cabbage, beansprouts, and mushrooms in rice paper wrappers.

Gluten-Free Congee

Cook down rice into a porridge in broth. Top with sliced chicken, shrimp, egg, and green onions.

Fruit-Filled Glutinous Rice Balls

Make chewy rice flour dumpling wrappers stuffed with mango, banana, or other fruit.

Coconut Tapioca Pudding

Serve chilled coconut milk tapioca pudding topped with fresh mango or lychee.

With some targeted gluten-free choices and menu substitutions, those avoiding gluten can still enjoy the fun experience of dim sum. Carefully navigating shared preparation areas is key, so best to visit restaurants that are very accustomed to gluten-free diners. With the growing awareness of gluten intolerance, new dim sum options are emerging that allow everyone to partake.

Nutrition of gluten-free dim sum

When following a gluten-free diet, nutrition considerations are important since many grain-based foods are eliminated. Here is how common gluten-free dim sum options stack up:


Meat and seafood dim sum provide quality proteins like chicken, pork, shrimp, and eggs. Beans, nuts, and tofu can also boost protein in vegetarian selections.

Fruits and vegetables

Fresh fruit plates and steamed, sautéed, or roasted veggies add vitamins, minerals, and fiber without gluten.

Grains and starches

Rice noodles, tapioca, rice flour, and cornstarch replace wheat flour in dumplings, congee, and baked goods. Potatoes and taro also add gluten-free starch.

Dairy and fats

Coconut milk, eggs, nuts, and cooking oils provide energy density and satiety. Be mindful of high salt and sugar levels in sauces.

Calorie density

The small serving sizes of dim sum make it easy to overeat. Be mindful of high-calorie fried foods, sweet custards, pork dishes, and heavy sauces.

Focus your dim sum choices on lean proteins, fruits and veggies, and moderate gluten-free whole grains. Round out meals with yogurt, nuts, seeds, or beans for fiber, protein, and healthy fats. Avoid fried and highly processed dishes and limit sugary sauces. With balanced selections, dim sum can be part of an energizing gluten-free diet.

Global variations of dim sum

While Cantonese-style dim sum originating in southern China is likely the most well-known, similar small plate dining traditions exist across Asia. Here are a few examples of dim sum-style dining around the world:


Izakaya dining serves small shared plates called otōshi alongside sake. Popular items include skewers, sashimi, fried foods, and dumplings. Look for gluten-free options like edamame, grilled fish, and salads.


Vietnamese snack shops serve bánh mì sandwiches, phở noodle soup, spring rolls, and sweets. Go for phở with gluten-free rice noodles and fresh herbs.


In Thailand, street food vendors sell snacks like grilled satay skewers, spring rolls, and rice dishes that can be gluten-free.


Indonesian street food includes otak-otak (spicy fish cake), steamed chopped chicken (siomay), and sticky rice packets (lemper).


The Philippines has merienda snack meals featuring rice cakes, shrimp fritters (ukoy), and grilled skewers (isaw).


Chaat snack carts in India serve fried dough (puris), chickpea snacks (sev puri), and chutneys. Opt for fruit or chickpea-based chaats.


In Malaysia, kuih stalls offer treats like steamed glutinous rice cakes (kuih seri muka) and tapioca custards (kuih sago).

From dumplings to skewers to porridge, each Asian country has its own spin on small plates and street snacks. When dining out, look for naturally gluten-free options emphasizing whole foods like produce, rice, meat, fish and eggs. With the right choices, you can enjoy dim sum traditions from around the world.


Dim sum offers a delicious variety of small dishes that can be tricky to navigate with food sensitivities. While many traditional dim sum items include gluten, there are still ways to enjoy these bite-sized treats through modified dishes, thoughtful ordering, and global inspiration. Focus on fresh whole food options, ask questions to guide your choices, and enjoy the diversity of east Asian cuisines safely. With some care taken around ingredients and cross-contamination, those avoiding gluten have much to explore within dim sum.

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