I have had coeliac disease since birth. Eating out, wherever I am, is always a challenge but it is particularly worrying when you are travelling and have a lot less control over what you eat and how it is prepared.
The good news is that rice is abundant around South-East Asia and rice flour is often used instead of wheat. You may find that things that you thought were definitely off the menu e.g. pancakes, and even chocolate cake, have actually been made from rice flour. It’s always worth asking.
The bad news is that where there’s rice, there’s often a bottle of soy sauce hanging around just waiting to contaminate it. Asking for the dish to be prepared without soy sauce can lead to mixed results but it is always worth a try.
In Java, one of the biggest problems we encountered was the language barrier. We found fewer people spoke English, so we had to get by using the few words we knew (chicken, rice). Sometimes a simple dish, like chicken satay, would be served with a thick sauce and it was difficult to determine whether this was gluten-free or not. If in doubt, I just ate the rice!
This article is based on my experiences travelling in Bali (Ubud and Sanur) and Java (Malang and Yogyakarta), so it is by no means a definitive guide. Indonesia is a big place and I definitely hope to return and add some more dishes to this list!
Here are my top picks for eating gluten-free in Indonesia.
Small kebabs of grilled chicken served with cucumber and a peanut sauce make a delicious starter. Eat with rice for a main meal. Check to make sure the dish does not contain soy sauce before ordering.
• Beef rendang
A rich curry thickened with coconut milk and served with rice. The beef has been cooked for several hours so is very tender. Beef rendang is naturally gluten-free.
• Nasi Lemak
An Indonesian breakfast dish (also found at other times of day) comprising coconut rice, sambal (a chilli-based dipping sauce), cucumber, peanuts, dried anchovies and boiled egg. Be wary of any prawn crackers that accompany the dish – they may not be gluten free.
• Nasi Goreng
Chicken fried rice is ubiquitous in South East Asia. The Indonesian version is made with a sweet soy sauce which is not gluten-free so ask for it to be prepared without. You can make your own at home using gluten-free soy sauce. I follow this recipe, but use gluten-free soy sauce from the supermarket or health-food store.
• Stir fries
Stir fries are a good bet for coeliacs, although as above, be wary of soy sauce in the dish. There is often no way of telling just by reading the menu, so be sure to ask if it can be prepared without.
Barbequed meat and sea food are one of the safest options for people with coeliac disease, as there is little risk of cross-contamination. In coastal areas, you can guarantee that the seafood is fresh and delicious. Be wary of any sauces that accompany the dish, they may not be gluten-free.
• Fresh fruit
You will find delicious fresh fruit across Indonesia. Street vendors also sell unripe fruit with a small bag of chilli and salt to sprinkle on it. Mangoes (when in season) and pineapple are particularly delicious in Indonesia and you will find a range of bananas that you won’t see in the West.
• Black sticky rice
Dessert is not a big thing in Indonesia but look out for black sticky rice (similar to rice pudding) in Ubud, Bali.
• Mango sticky rice
Fresh mango served with sweet sticky rice infused with rich coconut milk and sprinkled with fried mango beans. Delicious.
High quality gelato is widely available and is generally gluten-free. Because it is often imported, the ingredients will be translated so you can always ask to check the packaging. You will find cheaper ice creams and lollies in shops and it is relatively easy to find gluten-free ones.
And, occasionally, you stumble across a little oasis of coeliac heaven. In both Ubud and Yogyakarta, I found cafes selling gluten-free chocolate cake! Yum!