I LOVE Chinese food! I really, really love it. But, ever since my son was diagnosed with sesame, nut and peanut allergies, we have avoided it like the plague. Truth be told, our son stood a better chance against the plague.
They say that time heals all wounds. Something that time doesn’t heal? A craving for chicken in brown sauce with a side of lo mein. Commercially available meals were out. There was just no way to guarantee it was safe with all that sesame oil. And, cooking it at home?! Well, let’s just say I’ve burnt soup before. Yes, soup!
Chinese food always seemed mysterious and complicated to me. Any dish necessitating a wok just felt scary. I have no clue what to do with bamboo steamers. And don’t get me started on the ingredients! All those unusual ingredients felt so intimidating – especially when trying to decipher, for example, whether a water chestnut is, in fact, a nut or where to buy ward long beans (nevermind what they look or taste like!).
After ignoring my body’s clear “need” for soy sauce and fortune cookies for far too long, I finally decided to try and tackle the insurmountable and try a few recipes. With only my regular kitchen supplies and a few extra ingredients, I began. And, you know what?! I’m not saying I’m ready to conquer a wok, but Chinese cuisine isn’t as tough to whip up as I had thought! Plus, even with a bunch of ingredient substitutions, the meal was not only edible (miracle) but DELICIOUS! If I do say so myself…
So, if your family is like ours and needs to avoid commercially produced Asian food, there are a few cooking substitutions you can make to keep food allergic family members safe.
1. Water Chestnuts are not nuts! They are marsh inhabiting vegetables and do not need to be avoided by tree nut allergic individuals.
2. To maintain the right flavor, I substituted safflower oil for sesame oil. A little trick I learned from watching the chefs at Japanese steak houses (Thank you, Benihana!)
3. Sometimes there’s no substitution when it comes to nuts and peanuts. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try the recipe! One of my most requested meals is Kung Pao Pork, whose key ingredient is peanut (gasp!). Even without them, the dish is so flavorful you’d never miss peanuts.
4. Use what you have in the fridge. Play around with meats. My Kung Pao Pork is stellar as Kung Pao Chicken. Sub in (or out) tofu, as you like. Chinese sauces make their dishes fairly flexible.
5. Once and a while I cut a few corners with frozen food. Trader Joe’s make yummy dumplings (Trader Joes Pork Gyoza Potstickers), for example.
The best part of cooking Chinese food at home is that it’s generally healthier than if taken out. (Bonus for your hard work!) For us, it exposed my picky, allergic eater to a new world of flavor that he loves!
Try Cooking Light’s Asian recipes as a starting point. Bon appetit! Or as they’d say in China: sihk faahn!