Eating gluten-free in Southeast Asia
AVOIDING gluten while travelling can be a challenging task especially when you might not even be able to read the menu let alone ask for specific requirements, that being said you can try to eat gluten-free in Southeast Asia and China, you just need to remember a few key ingredients. Having a wheat and gluten intolerance and irritable bowel syndrome I have learnt how to handle these at home but when I was about to start travelling in Asia I thought I was going to have to eat gluten every day and just try and put up with the symptoms. Luckily when I arrived in Southeast Asia I discovered that there are lots of dishes that not only don’t have gluten in them but you are guaranteed not to miss out on flavour. These dishes make it easy to eat gluten-free in Southeast Asia, so if you have a wheat intolerance, are on a gluten-free diet or have Coeliacs Disease then here are some tips to help you while travelling through Southeast Asia and China.
When in doubt eat rice! A staple food all over the world, rice is a cereal grain but thank god it is gluten-free. There are so many types of rice dishes in Asia that you won’t get bored with it. Another staple food is rice noodles, which come in different shapes and sizes. Here are some traditionally gluten-free dishes, sorted by location, that you could try.
Known for its mix of Malaysian Chinese and Indian dishes there is a lot on offer and many are traditionally made without gluten. Try a South-Indian Dosa, which is a thin and crispy savoury pancake made from rice and chickpea flour. It is rolled up with curry inside and usually comes with some chutneys / sauces that you can dip the pancake into. It is one of my favourite dishes and I always order this at Rasa a favourite restaurant of mine in my hometown Wellington. Make sure the dosa is just made with rice and or chickpea flour, doesn’t contain wheat flour and if you are ceoeliac make sure it isn’t made next to other wheat breads. You can do this by showing a card with your intolerance / allergy written clearly in the local language. Dosa (or Thosai or Dosai as it is can be called) is usually served for breakfast but some restaurants serve it all day. It is filling and super cheap at around NZ $1.50 for a whole meal. You could also try pakoras, fried fritters with vegetables that are traditionally made with chickpea flour. Considered as Malaysia’s national dish Nasi Lemak is also traditionally gluten-free. It is a combination of coconut rice served with boiled egg, spicy sauce and curry. There are many combinations so depending on how strict your diet is make sure no soy sauce (containing wheat) has been added.
Thailand is known for its freshly ground spice pastes and use of kafir lime leaves and palm sugar, which help give its reputation of beautifully flavoured and aromatic dishes. Pad Thai, fried rice noodles with vegetables, meat or seafood is served everywhere and is a common street food. The rice noodles are fried with sticky tamarind sauce, palm sugar, fish sauce, egg, lime juice, chilli, garlic and vegetables or meat and topped with chives, bean sprouts and peanuts. It is a favourite for tourists and is quick, extremely tasty, cheap and gluten-free. There are many varieties so again make sure no soy sauce is added. An interesting gluten-free dessert to try is mango and sticky rice. CAO LAU: Fluffy gluten-free noodles served with pork, herbs and crackling. Picture: Alpha – Flikr
This country makes eating gluten-free in Southeast Asia easy. One city that has exceptionally good gluten-free cuisine is Hoi An. A small city known for its tailor made clothing and beautiful old town it has some speciality dishes that you can only sample in this region. Banh Xeo meaning sizzling cake is a savoury crispy pancake made from rice flour and coconut milk among other gluten-free ingredients. It is traditionally filled with pork, prawns and bean sprouts. It is served with an assortment of leaves and herbs including mustard, mint and lettuce. The pancake can be dipped into a sweet fish sauce or wrapped in rice paper before eating. Banh Xeo is served in other parts of Vietnam too but in Hoi An a special pancake is made, which I was told is much crispier than usual. Cau Lau is a noodle dish that is a specialty of Hoi An. Despite being thick and fluffy its noodles do not contain wheat. The dish is a mix of noodles, pork and greens with a topping of pork crackling and fried scallions. It is simple and delicious. Soy sauce is used so if you can tolerate a bit of wheat in your diet then this dish is definitely worth a try or you could try asking for it without. Fresh and fried spring rolls are available throughout Vietnam. With an array of different filings from vegetables, seafood and pork there is something for everyone. The fillings are rolled up in rice paper and either served fresh or fried and served with sweet and sour sauce made from fish sauce, sugar, lime and sometimes chilli. For something more hearty try Pho – a popular Vietnamese meal regarded a national dish. It combines rice noodles, soup, meat (usually beef, chicken or pork) and fresh leafy greens and herbs. It is a popular meal for breakfast and both comforting and filling.
Amok fish or chicken is one of Cambodia’s signature dishes. Traditionally catfish is used but it is now common to see chicken on offer. The meat is mixed with aromatic ingredients including kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, garlic and shallots. Traditionally it is wrapped inside banana leaves and steamed in coconut milk producing a fragrant curry that is served with rice. Full of flavour and very satisfying.
While it’s not in Southeast Asia, if you do venture a little further into China you may become bewildered by the wide variety of cuisine styles that change by region. Soy sauce will be hard to avoid but one way to navigate your way through China’s detailed and non English menus is to visit a restaurant where you get to choose the ingredients of your meal. Lots of Chinese restaurants will display a fridge with large glass windows showcasing fresh vegetables and meats. If your Mandarin is limited you can simply go up to the fridge and point (with a smile) at the vegetables and meats that you would like. What comes out is an array of small dishes (perfect for sharing) cooked to their individual style, which combine your chosen ingredients. These dishes are usually served with a large bowl of rice to share and a pot of tea. It can be exciting to order this way as you never know exactly what you are going to get but at least you know the main ingredients. Once you have ordered in this way a few times you will get to know the local style of cooking and get to know your favourite dishes. Chances are there will be at least one dish that you really like so you can’t really go wrong with this method. A couple of favourites of mine are egg cooked with tomatoes, potatoes grated and fried into a salty hash brown and simple stir fried vegetables. If you can’t have soy sauce (Jiàngyóu ) because it contains wheat write down that you are allergic to it in mandarin. They may look at you very weird but there are plenty of dishes like my favourites listed above that don’t contain it. You can also ask for no MSG (monosodium glutamate), a popular seasoning in China that can have some negative side effects depending on the individual. It’s the ingredient that can make you feel dry and very thirsty after eating Chinese food and can cause side effects such as insomnia in some people. It is possible to eat gluten-free in Southeast Asia and beyond while still being able to enjoy local cuisine. Depending on your condition and how strict your gluten-free diet is will of course determine what you eat but rest assured there are options and luckily wheat is not as widely used in Asia as it is in Western countries.
With a bit of research into the countries you are travelling to you can safely eat gluten-free in Southeast Asia while still enjoying the food on offer. Happy gluten-free travelling.