Eating gluten-free in Thailand

Planning a holiday or backpacking trip to Thailand but worried about sticking to a gluten-free diet? No need. South-East Asian cuisine is dominated by rice so finding dishes suitable for those with coeliac disease is not difficult.

I have had coeliac disease since birth and have to stick to a strict gluten-free diet. Eating out anywhere has its risks, particularly due to cross-contamination, but I found eating out in Thailand pretty easy. We spent two months in Thailand, eating out almost every day, and I wasn’t ill once.

The hardest challenge is avoiding soy sauce, which is in a lot of dishes. However, as meals are freshly prepared, ask the cook to leave it out or substitute it for fish sauce, which is gluten-free.

You will usually find English translations on menus and most people speak at least basic English, although communicating the complexities of cross-contamination may be a struggle.

It is hard to find a bad meal in Thailand, and some of the best food can be found at the street markets so don’t be afraid to get stuck in. Although the catering facilities and seating arrangements may be as basic as they come, everything is cooked fresh and the high turnover means that they are often safer places to eat than air-conditioned restaurants where food may have been sitting for some time. Look out for busy stalls as long queues are usually the hallmark of quality and taste.

Here are some gluten-free dishes available in Thailand that you shouldn’t miss! As always, it’s always best to tell the chef about your intolerance to gluten before ordering and ask them to leave out the soy sauce.

Tom Yum soup

An aromatic seafood soup combining fresh herbs and spices, galangal, lemongrass and coconut milk. The consistency is more of a broth than the curries and as such is less filling, so eat with rice to make a full meal.

Pad Thai

Coeliacs may be a little wary of anything containing noodles, but in Thailand they are usually made from rice (but check!). Thin ‘glass’ noodles are made from either rice or mung bean flour. Avoid egg noodles or yellow noodles which are made with wheat. If you’re unsure, point and ask. The word for rice in Thai is ‘kôw’.

Pad Thai traditionally uses flat wide rice noodles, stir fried with garlic, onion, tofu, egg, lime, tamarind juice and palm sugar. Crushed peanuts and half a lime are often served with the meal and it may be topped with fresh coriander leaves.

Green / Red / Yellow curry

You won’t see many Thai restaurants without one, or all, of these types of curry on offer. The difference relates to the composition of the curry paste and doesn’t reflect the level of heat, although yellow curry is often the milder of the three and red curry is the sweetest.
Thai curries are made with coconut milk and served in bowls with a side of jasmine or steamed rice. Try them all and see which one is your favorite! The level of heat depends on how much paste is used so ask for mild or medium if you can’t handle the hot stuff!

Massaman curry

Massaman curry is milder and richer than the other curries you will find in Thailand. The dish actually has its origins in Muslim cuisine. The paste is made from a blend of chili, garlic, coriander, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon and cumin which gives it a rich aroma. Chicken or beef, potato and roast peanuts are added, and the curry is thickened with rich, creamy coconut milk for a very satisfying and tasty dish.

Stir fries

On almost every Thai menu you will find a variety of stir fries. Try the delicious sweet basil for a taste not dissimilar from aniseed or enjoy sweet and sour chicken or seafood, which is quite different from the Chinese version. One thing to be wary of is soy sauce which may be added to the stir fry. Check with the chef before ordering. Oyster sauce is also best avoided.

Larb chicken

Larb chicken

A mouthwatering mix of fresh herbs and chili are combined with minced chicken for this delicious Thai ‘salad’. The crunchy bits in the salad is fried rice powder which some people say has the consistency of sand!

Fried rice

Chicken fried rice

Cheap and filling, you can find fried rice pretty much everywhere in Thailand. The ingredients differ but it is usually a large plateful of rice with some mixed vegetables, chicken, a few shrimp, tofu and egg. A pretty safe option for coeliacs, although watch out for the ubiquitous soy sauce!

Satay

Chicken satay

Satay is usually made from chicken or beef and served with a peanut sauce. It’s great for a snack or a light lunch. You can also find it made from lamb, goat or pork. At night markets you will see the meat cooked on small charcoal barbecues, so you know that it is freshly cooked.

Papaya Salad

Papaya salad (with bacon)

Slivers of green papaya combine with juicy tomatoes, carrots, green beans, peanuts and a fresh tangy sauce to create this mouth-watering salad. I had mine with rice and crispy bacon which was a delicious combination, but you usually find this as an accompaniment to a main meal, or a light lunch. Traditionally, the sauce can be extremely hot so ask for it ‘not spicy’ if you’d rather not lose your taste buds!

And not forgetting dessert….

Mango sticky rice (main picture)

Fresh, juicy mango is served with a sticky rice bathed in a sickly-sweet coconut sauce. The rice is served hot or warm and crispy mung beans are sprinkled on top. You can find this at street stalls, cafes and restaurants across Thailand and it really is delicious.

Kanom Krok (coconut pancakes)

Coconut pancakes

I first discovered these little pancakes in Laos, but then found them again in Thailand. Made from rice flour and coconut milk, they are made in a special pan so there is no danger from cross-contamination. They are quite filling; five or six little pancakes will usually fill you up. The ones pictured here were flavoured with cocoa.

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