Food Allergies and Asian Cuisine: An Alternative Guide for Home Cooking

“We can’t guarantee anything.” I’ve been told this over and over when I ask a server about the presence of nuts in the food that I would like to order.

I have a life-threatening nut allergy and hearing responses like the one above isn’t reassuring. A vague, non-commital response is all too common when I ask about what is safe to eat. This goes across all types of cuisines, restaurants and takeaways. My allergies have made me curious; they won’t stop me from trying something new. If I want something, I make it myself.

My allergies have made me curious; they won’t stop me from trying something new.

I’ve never eaten at a Thai or Indian restaurant but that doesn’t mean I can’t make a savoury and spicy Chicken Makhani or umami-rich nut and soy-free Pad Thai.

The list below is from years of experimentation with trial and error and things I use in my kitchen. My diet is nut-free, mostly soy and sesame-free, and devoid of any lentils or chickpeas. You won’t find any of them on this list.

This is a guide meant to help you find replacement ingredients for things that would be potential allergens when you’re making your dish at home. I’ve provided alternatives for the most common cooking ingredients:

Soy Sauce
Sesame Seeds and Nuts
Peanut Sauces/ Oils

It’s important to keep in mind that not every single one of these ingredients will work perfectly as a replacement. It depends on the recipe and intended use, along with the flavour profile and texture you’re looking for. Some will work better than others and it’s important to experiment and find what works for you.

Replacements for Soy Sauce:

Saltwater: Soy sauce is mainly salt. When leaving it out of a dish, be sure to adjust your seasoning accordingly. I like to mix some salt — the amount depends on what you’re cooking — with a few tablespoons of water until dissolved. This provides an even coating over ingredients cooked in a wok. I recommend using saltwater along with the other alternatives below. Saltwater may give you the seasoning you’re looking for but it won’t’ replace the depth that fermented soy provides. See the other suggestions below to use with saltwater.

Coconut Aminos: A common soy sauce alternative. Similar in colour and saltiness but not suitable for those with a coconut allergy.

Balsamic Vinegar: This provides an umami richness and colour when soy can’t be used. It does have a slightly higher sugar content from the grapes so it will caramelise faster over high heat and provide a sweeter acidic taste which can go well in stir-frys or over roasted vegetables, meat, and fish. Drizzle a little on blanched greens such as Bok Choi or Dim Choy.

Rice Wine Vinegar: A good alternative when there’s rice involved. It provides a mildly sweet and acidic flavour which especially goes well in sticky rice. This vinegar is more acidic than soy sauce so use it in moderation. It does not give the dark, caramelised colour that soy sauce does but I think the flavour can be wonderful when added to dumpling fillings and fish. You can also use it to deglaze a pan when cooking chicken or other vegetables in a wok.

Shaoxing Wine: I always try to use this when I’m making a vegetable stir fry. Creates a lovely depth of flavour once the alcohol is cooked off.

Koji Sauce: See description below.

Tamarind Paste: See description below.

Replacements for sesame seeds and nuts:

Nori: A deeply savoury seaweed that comes in sheets. Crumble and sprinkle over rice, meat, and fish. Nori comes in roasted or non-roasted varieties. When using as a replacement for sesame seeds, I recommend trying to find the roasted kind. Always check the ingredients because sometimes sesame oil is added to Nori for flavour but it’s possible to find it without.

Toasted pumpkin or sunflower seeds: These have a lovely crunch to replace the missed texture of sesame. Roughly chop the seeds and toast in a pan on the stove over medium heat for about 3 minutes until they have a golden colour but are not cooked. Use anywhere you would sesame.

Replacements for Miso:

Koji sauce: One of my favourite new ingredients that I’ve discovered in the past year is koji sauce. It’s made from fermented rice and it can be found in Japanese grocery stores, or online. If you’re ambitious you can make your own by buying the koji starter online and fermenting it. This sauce is full of savoury umami flavour and is delicious swirled into water to make a stock or soup. I’ve also added it to dressings along with stir-frys. It’s easy to play around with and goes well with just about anything that calls for miso or soy sauce.

Tamarind paste: Stick and sweet but with a sour kick. It’s great when added into broth or vegetables. Use in moderation. Provides a dark rich colour similar to white miso or soy sauce.

Veggie or Chicken Stock: This is perhaps an obvious alternative but I had to include it for using as a base broth instead of miso paste.

Replacements for Tofu:

Tofu can be a tricky ingredient to replace because of how changeable it is. Since it doesn’t have much flavour on its own, I find that I try to match it depending on the recipe. For example, if it’s cubed up in soup, I would be inclined to pick a firm texture. Cubed chicken breast would work but I don’t always want to eat meat. Aubergine tends to be softer but does provide a bit of a spongy texture that absorbs the flavours around it. Here are some suggestions:

Aubergine (eggplant): This softens when it cooks but is great at absorbing flavour. It can hold its shape if lightly cooked.

Seitan: A firm texture that’s a great alternative to tofu made from wheat gluten. You can buy this premade at the grocery or make your own using vital wheat gluten. Not suitable for those with a gluten allergy.

Meat: Chicken, beef, etc.

Eggs: This only works for softer, silkier tofu replacements.

Courgette (zucchini): Cubed or shredded and can be eaten raw or cooked.

Peanut sauces/ peanut butter/ sesame oil:

Sunflower butter: When a recipe calls for a spoonful of peanut butter to add into a sauce for things like cold soba noodles or pad thai, I like to use sunflower or pumpkin butter. I’m aware that the flavour is slightly different but it provides the same nutty and creamy taste that peanuts do.

Chilli oil: Make your own by infusing a chilli of your choice into a neutral oil such as sunflower or canola. Drizzle into dumpling filling mixtures, over noodles, meat, and rice.

Coconut oil: I once added coconut oil into a cold soba noodle salad when I didn’t have any sesame oil on hand and thought it had a wonderful light buttery taste. Melt a very small amount and pour over room temperature noodles. Toss well to coat.

Food allergies don’t have to stop you from missing out on dishes that you would otherwise not be able to try. With a little time and experimentation, you’ll be able to find the ingredients that work best for you. Go out and get cooking.

Originally from the US and now living in the UK, I write about food, living with food allergies, travel, eco-friendly lifestyles, and creativity.

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