Chow mein noodles are a popular ingredient in many Asian dishes, but traditional varieties contain wheat flour and are therefore not gluten-free. For people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, finding a truly gluten-free alternative to these noodles can be challenging. The good news is that several companies now produce chow mein noodles made from rice, corn, or other gluten-free grains. With some careful label reading and brand research, people who need to follow a gluten-free diet can enjoy chow mein noodles and classic noodle dishes.
What are chow mein noodles?
Chow mein noodles are crisp, pan-fried noodles that originated in Chinese cuisine. They are widely used in chow mein dishes and other Asian noodle recipes. Traditional chow mein noodles contain wheat flour, which gives them their distinctive texture and light golden color. The wheat-based noodles are deep fried or pan fried until crispy before being added to stir fries, casseroles, soups, and other dishes. Their crispy, crunchy texture contrasts nicely with soft ingredients like vegetables and meat. Chow mein noodles are sold dried or pre-fried in Asian markets and many grocery stores.
Gluten sensitivity and celiac disease
For those with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, consuming gluten triggers an autoimmune response that damages the small intestine. This can cause gastrointestinal symptoms like pain, bloating, and diarrhea as well as problems with nutrient absorption and an increased risk of several serious health conditions. The only treatment for celiac disease is strictly adhering to a 100% gluten-free diet. People with gluten sensitivity may be able to tolerate small amounts of gluten but generally aim to avoid it as much as possible to prevent symptoms. This means reading labels carefully and researching restaurant menu items to avoid ingesting hidden sources of gluten.
Are traditional chow mein noodles gluten-free?
Unfortunately, most traditional varieties of chow mein noodles are not gluten-free. Because the original noodles contain wheat flour as a main ingredient, they are off-limits for people who need to follow a gluten-free diet. Even many brands of fried chow mein noodles contain wheat. Checking the ingredient list on packages of chow mein noodles will usually reveal wheat flour or bran listed among the first few ingredients. Most experts advise that in order for a food product to be considered gluten-free, it must contain less than 20 parts per million of any gluten-containing grains. Traditional chow mein noodles don’t meet these strict standards.
Gluten-free substitute options
The good news for gluten-free eaters is that several reputable brands now produce chow mein noodle substitutes made without wheat. Here are some of the most widely available options:
Rice noodles are a suitable gluten-free swap for chow mein noodles in many dishes. Major grocery stores now stock several types of rice noodles in the Asian or specialty foods section, check labels to verify gluten-free status. Rice noodles won’t have exactly the same crispy texture, but pan-frying for a few minutes before adding to dishes can mimic the effect. Leading rice noodle brands include Annie Chun’s, Lotus Foods, and Rice Noodles.
Several companies make chow mein-style noodles from corn instead of wheat. These include Fox’s Chow Mein Noodles and Good & Gather Chow Mein Noodles, available at major retailers like Walmart and Target. The corn noodles can be prepared just like traditional chow mein noodles by pan frying until crispy. They offer a gluten-free solution while retaining a similar taste and texture.
Lotus Foods Ramen Noodles
While not called chow mein noodles, Ramen-style noodles from Lotus Foods are made from rice and corn. They are certified gluten-free and mimic the texture of ramen or chow mein after a quick fry in oil. Products like their Pad Thai Rice Noodles can stand in for chow mein noodles in many recipes.
Shirataki noodles are composed almost entirely of glucomannan fiber derived from the konjac plant. This makes them a Zero-calorie, low-carb, gluten-free noodle option. Leading shirataki noodle brand Miracle Noodle offers products like their Rice Shirataki Noodles which can substitute for chow mein noodles after rinsing, drying, and pan frying until lightly crisped.
Some companies make innovative noodle products by slicing and shaping tofu into noodle forms. Explore Asian Cuisine and House Foods both offer bean curd noodles made from soybeans and water. These wheat-free, gluten-free tofu noodles need to be pan-fried but can mimic both the taste and texture of chow mein noodles quite well.
Gluten-free brands of chow mein noodles
In addition to substitute noodle varieties, several manufacturers now produce chow mein noodles made from gluten-free flours:
La Choy Chow Mein Noodles
La Choy recently reformulated their classic chow mein noodles to be gluten-free, using corn as the main ingredient instead of wheat. They have the same crispy texture and appearance as traditional chow mein noodles. La Choy chow mein noodles are sold pre-fried and ready for addition to recipes.
Thai Kitchen Wok Chow Mein Noodles
Thai Kitchen offers a gluten-free Wok Chow Mein Noodle made from rice flour rather than wheat flour. They are fried inexpensively oil that you can easily recreate at home for a fresh crisp texture. Many customers report enjoying the authentic chow mein noodle taste.
Lundberg Chow Mein Noodles
Lundberg Family Farms specializes in gluten-free rice products, including their Lundberg Chow Mein Noodles crafted from a blend of rice flours. They have a milder flavor than wheat-based noodles and need to be pan fried before using in recipes.
Ancient Harvest Quinoa Chow Mein Noodles
For a nutrient-dense gluten-free choice, Ancient Harvest makes chow mein style noodles from organic quinoa. They have an impressive 9g of protein per serving. The quinoa noodles require pan-frying before eating to achieve that signature crispness.
OrgraN Gluten-Free Chinese Style Noodles
OrgraN offers Chow Mein style noodles made from organic corn starch for a gluten-free crunchy texture. Their Chinese style noodles are pre-fried for convenience.
Tips for preparing gluten-free chow mein noodles
Gluten-free chow mein noodles typically need some cooking preparation before you add them to dishes. Here are some tips for getting the right crispy texture:
Pan fry them
Most gluten-free chow mein noodle options need pan-frying in oil before eating. This helps crisp them up and mimic the texture of wheat-based noodles. Fry for 1-3 minutes over medium high heat, tossing frequently until lightly browned and crisped.
Rinse first for less oil
To reduce the amount of oil needed for crisping, first rinse the dry noodles under water and drain well. Pat thoroughly dry, then fry in just enough oil to lightly coat the pan, about 1 Tbsp. The small amount of added water creates steam to help noodles crisp up with less oil.
Toast them in the oven
You can also crisp chow mein noodles in the oven instead of pan frying. Spread them in a single layer on a baking sheet and toast at 400°F for 5-10 minutes, tossing once, until browned and crispy. Use cooking spray or brush with oil for best results.
Microwave for convenience
When you need chow mein noodles in a hurry, the microwave can work in pinch. Place the noodles in a microwave-safe dish with 2 Tbsp water. Microwave for 1 minute, then drain the water and microwave for 30 seconds more to dry them out.
Gluten-free recipes with chow mein noodles
Gluten-free chow mein noodles open up many possibilities for Asian-inspired meals. Here are just a few recipes you can make:
Of course, these noodles are ideal for making traditional chow mein dishes full of sautéed vegetables and proteins like chicken, beef, or tofu. Serve over the crispy noodles or toss everything together.
Jazz up coleslaw by swapping in your favorite gluten-free chow mein noodle variety for the cabbage. Toss with shredded carrots, sesame dressing, cilantro and almonds.
Thai Salad Rolls
For the wrappers, dip softened rice paper sheets in water to soften them, then overlap chow mein noodles on the bottom third before filling and rolling up.
Crispy Shrimp Tacos
Fill corn tortillas with sautéed shrimp, avocado, shredded cabbage and crispy broken up chow mein noodles for added crunch.
Top stir-fried veggies and protein with both broth and crispy pan-fried noodles a la noodle soup. Sprinkle on green onions, herbs, chili sauce and lime.
Noodle Pad Thai
The crispy noodles lend themselves perfectly to stir-fries. Make a classic pad Thai with rice noodles and crunchy chow mein noodles on top.
Are store-bought chow meins safe?
When buying prepared chow mein dishes from restaurants and takeout spots, caution is still needed. Cross contamination with gluten containing ingredients is common in commercial kitchens. Here are some tips for enjoying chow mein takeout safely:
Ask about ingredients
Don’t be afraid to inquire about the ingredients used to make menu items. Many restaurants are happy to accommodate dietary needs. Ask if they use gluten-free soy sauce and cook the dish in oil separate from wheat-based foods.
Check for noodles
Some restaurants use regular wheat noodles in their chow meins. Check whether rice noodles or other gluten-free varieties are available. Better yet, request your chow mein without noodles and add your own gluten-free ones at home.
Avoid added sauces
Many pre-packaged dipping sauces or drizzles added to chow mein may contain gluten. Opt for sauce on the side so you can determine if it’s safe.
Look for certification
If a restaurant advertises gluten-free menu options, check that they have a gluten-free certification which requires strict standards to avoid cross-contamination with gluten.
Gluten-free Chinese noodles
While we’ve focused on chow mein noodles, several other types of Chinese noodles are naturally gluten-free or come in gluten-free versions:
Also called glass noodles or bean thread noodles, these are made from mung bean starch and water. Major brands like Dynasty and Explore Asian are gluten-free. They become soft and gelatinous when cooked.
Thin rice noodles can substitute for wheat-based vermicelli. Rice vermicelli offer the same soft noodle texture perfect for soups, stir-fries, and rice noodle salads. Look for brands like Royal Elephant, Lotus Foods, or Kim’s Rice Noodles.
Noodles made from tapioca/cassava starch are another gluten-free find. Leading options include Su-lin Asian noodles and Otto’s Naturally cassava flour noodles. Tapioca noodles have a chewy, sticky texture.
Sweet potato noodles
For a flavorful gluten-free pasta option, noodles made from sweet potato starch have a mild sweetness that pairs well with Asian flavors. Try Taste of Thai and Simply Nature sweet potato noodles.
Despite the name, buckwheat is gluten-free and ground into flour for noodles like soba. Look for 100% buckwheat soba from brands like Eden Foods, Elevate and Lotus Foods to avoid cross-contamination.
For people avoiding gluten, finding substitute noodle options opens up a world of delicious Asian recipe possibilities. Thanks to better awareness and labeling, several brands now offer wheat-free chow mein noodles made from rice, corn, quinoa and other gluten-free flours. With some preparation like pan-frying, these gluten-free noodles can achieve that signature crispy chow mein texture. When buying pre-made chow mein dishes, care is still needed to ensure no cross-contamination with gluten ingredients. But overall there are now many healthy and delicious ways to enjoy classic chow mein using specialty gluten-free noodles.