Monday, March 1, 2010

Eating Gluten-Free in Thailand, Part 1

I was intimidated to try travelling to SE Asia for the first time on my own, so I signed up with GAP Adventures because they promise to cater to special culinary needs. I had travelled with them to Peru and hiked the Inca trail and been blown away when they made me quinoa pancakes from scratch on the trail.

I was similarly accomodated in Thailand, even on a 3-day hike into the hill tribe region when our guides packed in all of our food. Although at first, my tour leader tried to talk me out of it.

"Are you sure you can't have soy sauce? Maybe just a little?"

I was pretty firm that I was not willing to try that. Frowning, she asked me, "What do you eat at home?"

Flabbergasted I answered, "Thai food!"

I ended up eating copious amounts of green curry on the trip because that and sweet and sour chicken wer often the only things we knew for sure were gluten free.

Here are some tips I learned about eating safely in Thailand while still getting to experience the local flavor.

  • At restaurants you can almost always have green curry, yellow curry, masaman curry or sweet and sour. Also, coconut lemon grass soup with chicken (Thom khao gai.)
  • Fruit shakes with or without yogurt are a delight and are offered on many street corners and also at restaurants.
  • Fresh fruit is readily available almost everywhere and quite tasty.
  • Rice porridge is a traditional SE Asian breakfast dish that is normally gluten free. You can get this with or without chicken.
  • You can make a good breakfast out of two fried eggs over white rice with butter and jam. It's better than it sounds.
  • If it's hard to tell at a street market what you can eat, look for fried eggs, white rice and fruit.
  • Mango sticky rice is often available on the street or at a restaurant and is a wondeful GF dessert.
  • Grilled bananas on their own or swimming in sweetened coconut milk make a great snack and are sold on the street.
  • If you are going to take an overnight train, your best bet is to get food ahead of time to take with you. The only thing I could find that was gluten free was the green curry and it was lackluster and expensive.
  • Convenience stores routinely carry a variety of gluten-free snacks including pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, nuts, the Original Lays Potato Chips, Fritos, dried fruit, etc.
  • 7-11s in Thailand are a treasure trove of gluten-free eating. They almost all carry ready to eat boiled eggs in two or four packs. Just don't eat the soy sauce included in a small packet. Also, there is the most wonderful yogurt in the world. It has small cubes of young coconut in it and is incredibly rich. When you get to the checkout, they'll give you a small plastic spoon to eat it with.
  • I had cards from Select Wisely printed in Thai and they worked fairly well, but lots of people aren't familiar with hidden sources of gluten. For instance, one cook didn't know soy sauce was an ingredient in plum sauce.
  • Bring any protein bars you want to have, I never found any the whole time I was travelling.
  • I always poke my head into any food store just to see what they have and one day in Ao Nang - in the southern tip of Thailand - I found a tourist specialty store that sold gluten-free cereal and peanut butter. What luxuries! So, keep your eyes open.


henry said...

Hello Jen
Great that you have found coconut yoghurt on your trip.
Can you tell me if it was made from coconut milk or just had chunks of coconut in it.
i have just luanched here in Queensland, Australia a yoghurt made from coconut milk.It is called CO YO and sold in 400gm packs.
It was launched last week and really starting to move.
Any info would be appreciated.
Henry Gosling

Jen Friedberg said...

As far as I know it was just regular yogurt with chunks of coconut in it.

Is your yogurt gluten free?

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Tash said...

Hi, I waas wondering if you learnt how to say no soy sauce and no wheat noodles when you were in thailand? cheers