Chinese sweet and sour chicken is a popular Chinese takeout dish that typically consists of bite-sized pieces of chicken coated in a sweet and sour sauce. The sweet and sour sauce is made with ingredients like vinegar, soy sauce, sugar, and pineapple or other fruits. This tasty dish is a go-to order for many people who enjoy Chinese food.
However, for those who need to avoid gluten for medical reasons like celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, Chinese food can present some challenges. Gluten is a protein found in grains like wheat, barley and rye. For people who can’t tolerate gluten, it’s important to know whether popular menu items like sweet and sour chicken are safe to eat or not.
So does Chinese sweet and sour chicken contain gluten? Let’s take a closer look.
Gluten in the Chicken
First, let’s examine the chicken itself. Chicken is naturally gluten-free, so plain chicken meat does not contain gluten. However, there are a few ways gluten can make its way into sweet and sour chicken via the chicken:
- Breading – Chicken pieces are usually coated in a light breading before frying. This breading helps the sauce stick to the chicken. Unfortunately, most restaurant breadings contain wheat flour, which means they are not gluten-free.
- Marinades – Some chefs marinate chicken in soy sauce before cooking. Many soy sauces contain wheat and are not gluten-free.
- Cross-contact – Even if the chicken is not breaded or marinated, it could pick up traces of gluten during processing or cooking if it comes into contact with other gluten-containing foods.
So in most cases, the chicken in sweet and sour chicken is likely to have some level of gluten cross-contact at a minimum. Only if the menu specifies the use of a gluten-free breading or marinade could you be sure there is no gluten present.
Gluten in the Sauce
Now let’s look at the sweet and sour sauce itself. Here are some potential sources of gluten:
- Soy sauce – Many recipes call for soy sauce, which often contains gluten.
- Teriyaki sauce – Teriyaki sauce is used in place of soy sauce in some recipes and usually contains gluten.
- Thickening agents – Cornstarch or arrowroot are commonly used to thicken the sauce. Watch out for recipes that use wheat flour instead.
- Bouillon – Some chefs add chicken bouillon to flavor the sauce. Many bouillon cubes contain gluten.
The main culprit in most sweet and sour sauce recipes is soy sauce, which is used both for its color and salty flavor. Tamari is a gluten-free substitute, but not all restaurants use it in place of regular soy sauce.
Risk of Cross-Contact
Even if a restaurant uses gluten-free ingredients to make their sweet and sour chicken, there is still a risk of cross-contact occurring. Here are some ways gluten could make its way into a supposedly gluten-free dish:
- Shared fryer – Chicken pieces are typically fried in a deep fryer. If breaded items containing gluten are cooked in the same fryer, cross-contact can occur.
- Shared cooking equipment – If the same pans, woks or utensils are used to cook multiple dishes, traces of gluten can transfer between foods.
- Shared serving utensils – The use of the same tongs, ladles or other serving utensils for gluten-free and gluten-containing dishes can cause cross-contact.
Even very small amounts of gluten can cause issues for those who are highly sensitive. That’s why many with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity prefer to avoid dishes with any shared cooking equipment or surfaces when dining out.
What to Ask the Restaurant
Because there are so many potential sources of gluten in sweet and sour chicken, your safest bet is to speak directly with your server if you need to avoid gluten. Here are some questions to ask:
- Do you have a gluten-free menu? If they have specifically labeled gluten-free dishes, these are good choices.
- Is the chicken breaded or marinated in soy sauce? Request plain, unmarinated chicken.
- What thickening agent is used in the sauce? Request cornstarch or arrowroot instead of wheat flour.
- Does the sauce contain soy sauce or teriyaki sauce? Ask them to leave it out and use tamari instead.
- Are you willing to make my dish in a clean wok and serve it with fresh utensils? This reduces cross-contact risk.
Keep in mind that language or cultural barriers can sometimes make special requests challenging. If you keep your requests simple and direct, restaurants are often willing to accommodate. Know that there is always some remaining risk of cross-contact as well.
If the restaurant menu doesn’t offer any gluten-free accommodations for sweet and sour chicken, there are a few simple swaps you can request:
- Sweet and sour shrimp – Request the sauce without soy sauce or wheat flour.
- Sweet and sour tofu – Ask them to fry plain tofu instead of breaded chicken.
- Steamed chicken and vegetables – Get a simple plate of plain chicken with steamed veggies in a light sauce.
While not exactly the same, these dishes capture the sweet and sour flavor profile without the common gluten pitfalls. They make a servicable substitute when you’re craving Chinese food but need to stay gluten-free.
Gluten-Free Brands to Look For
When picking up Chinese takeout or browsing the grocery store, keep an eye out for these gluten-free certified sauces and condiments:
- Kari-Out Soy Sauce
- Tamari soy sauces by San-J, La Choy and Kikkoman
- Lee Kum Kee vegetarian stir fry sauces
- Annie Chun’s vegetarian stir fry sauces
- Panda Brand sweet and sour sauce
Choosing certified gluten-free brands gives you confidence that due diligence has been done by the manufacturer to avoid cross-contamination. You can use these sauces to whip up gluten-free sweet and sour chicken at home.
Making Gluten-Free Sweet and Sour Chicken at Home
When prepared at home, you have full control over the ingredients. Here is a simple recipe for gluten-free sweet and sour chicken:
- 1 lb boneless, skinless chicken breasts or thighs, cut into 1 inch cubes
- 1/2 cup cornstarch
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1/2 cup white vinegar
- 1/4 cup gluten-free tamari
- 1 (20 oz) can pineapple tidbits in juice
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- 1 large bell pepper, chopped
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 tablespoon ginger, minced
- 1 tablespoon arrowroot powder
- Toss the chicken pieces in the cornstarch to coat. Shake off any excess.
- Heat oil in a large skillet or wok over medium high heat. Add chicken and cook for 2-3 minutes per side until browned. Remove and set aside.
- To make the sauce, combine the sugar, vinegar, tamari, pineapple juice, onion, bell pepper, garlic and ginger in the skillet. Bring to a boil.
- Whisk the arrowroot powder with 2 tablespoons water. Add to the sauce and boil for 1 minute until thickened.
- Add the cooked chicken and pineapple chunks to the skillet with the sauce. Toss to coat. Serve over rice.
Making it at home lets you control all the ingredients and avoid the risks of cross-contact from restaurant preparation. You can use chicken breast for a lighter option or thighs for more flavor. And feel free to add any extra veggies you like such as carrots, water chestnuts or snap peas.
So does Chinese sweet and sour chicken contain gluten? The answer is likely yes if ordering it from a restaurant. The chicken is usually breaded, the sauce typically contains soy sauce, and cross-contact is highly likely during restaurant prep.
To enjoy gluten-free sweet and sour chicken, your best options are:
- Order a modified version off the gluten-free menu
- Request plain chicken and simple substitutions
- Make it yourself at home with certified gluten-free ingredients
While you may have to tweak the classic dish, there are definitely ways to get your fix of sweet and sour flavor while sticking to your gluten-free diet. With some thoughtful modifications and precautions, you can feel confident enjoying this tasty Chinese favorite.