Two of Selective Asia's writing team get ill if we eat gluten, so we know the drill: avoiding gluten is just another aspect of our daily routines. At first glance, going gluten-free in Asia seems relatively straightforward; staple dishes are often based around rice, fresh fruit and vegetables, seafood and meat, and there aren’t many gluten-containing grains in sight.
But with wheat-based soy sauce used almost universally as a seasoning, and barley or wheat flour often lower-down on ingredients lists, it does take a little bit of planning to avoid.
When you’re on your dream holiday, the last thing you want is to eat something that causes you discomfort or pain, so we’ve put together a few practical tips for enjoying stress-free, gluten-free travel in Asia. These tips are designed for anyone for whom gluten causes dietary problems, but if you have an allergy or are coeliac we recommend contacting Coeliac UK or Allergy UK, who can advise you on travelling safely. If you're travelling with Selective Asia, always tell us in advance if you have a food intolerance or allergy - advance preparation may be required, and we'll make sure that our guides are aware of your needs.
One of the biggest issues when travelling with a dietary restriction is finding the vocabulary to make your requirements understood. These free cards, available in 54 languages, explain clearly and politely what you can and can’t eat; just print out the ones in the relevant languages and carry them with you to show to restaurant staff and hosts. We encourage you to give a donation to the generous people who created them! However, be prepared that there might still be some misunderstanding as to what gluten is (coeliac disease is relatively unknown in much of Asia), and ingredients in sauces etc. that aren’t considered, so always try and chat directly with the cook if you can.
Many people misunderstand what gluten is (and celiac disease is relatively unknown in much of Asia) or aren't habitually on the lookout for ‘hidden’ ingredients in sauces. Always try to chat directly with the cook if you can. One common confusion is that some rice is described as ‘glutinous’ - this doesn’t usually contain gluten, and is simply described this way due to its natural stickiness.
That wheat-based soy sauce is everywhere! If you are still unsure about the contents of a dish, ask for it plain and perhaps take an extra card with ‘no soy sauce or oyster sauce’ translated into the appropriate language for ease of explanation. Most restaurants won’t mind cooking-up some plain rice, potatoes or vegetables, but you may still need to be aware of cross-contamination issues.
Wherever you go, there are likely to be situations in which finding appropriate food at the right moment can be tricky, and you don’t want to miss out on the fun because of your diet. If you take a few well-chosen nibbles, you will always have a quick, tasty and safe option. Dried fruit, nuts and snack bars are good to have handy, and sachets of gluten-free tamari can help brighten up plain dishes.
This is good advice for anyone travelling to warmer climates, but staying well-hydrated when you have a gluten intolerance is especially important as it will ensure a smooth digestive transit and help your body deal better with any accidental gluten consumption.
Vietnam is often said to be one of the easiest destinations in Asia to eat gluten-free, as pure rice flour is used, even in many of the dough-based foods, and Vietnamese soy sauce is often made without wheat. One of Vietnam’s most-loved dishes, Pho, is a gluten-free delight consisting of rice noodles cooked in broth with very thinly sliced meat and vegetables. Banh xeo and Banh khot are both types of filled rice pancakes which can be bought in street-food markets, and the national obsession for eating oc (snails) means there are hundreds of restaurants serving this delicacy alongside a variety of other seafood either plainly steamed or fried.
In Kuala Lumpur, as with many major cities, it is becoming ever-easier to find restaurants catering to gluten-free diets, but once out of the city it is handy to know of a few standard dishes you can order. Nasi lemak (a dish of fragrant coconut rice served with egg, nuts, cucumber and chilli paste) and nasi bubur (a kind of savory rice porridge with chicken) are both often available as breakfast dishes and are perfect to set you up for the day. Other rice dishes, such as nasi goreng, can sometimes be adapted to leave out the soy sauce, so it’s always worth asking. If you’ve got a sweet tooth, there are many gluten-free jelly-based snacks, such as agar agar and seri muka to enjoy in street markets.
As you might expect, expat-favourite Bali (particularly Ubud) has been reported as a good destination for modern gluten-free food, but there are some traditional Indonesian dishes which you can enjoy too. Gado gado and sambal rujak are two delicious salad-style dishes readily available around Indonesia, just watch out, as always, for the soy sauce inclusion! Basa gede is a traditional Balinese spice mix used to season fish and meat, and is naturally gluten-free, so ordering food prepared with this is a good option for getting a spicy flavour hit.
Much of the cuisine is akin to that of Malaysia and Indonesia, so similar advice applies, but as Borneo has a vibrant fishing industry there is also plenty of fresh seafood on offer. Enjoy fish, veg and meats cooked Iban-style (wrapped in bamboo leaves over an open fire), and the national speciality of manok pansoh – chicken, lemongrass and spices cooked in cassava leaves. Kuching’s famous Top Spot food court has a handful of different seafood vendors gathered around a central eating area and is a good option if you’re on a restricted diet as you can pick and choose from several outlets.
Many visitors to Thailand look forward to sampling Bangkok’s famously vibrant street-food, and this is possible even on a gluten-free diet. Many Thai dishes are seasoned with fish sauce instead of soy, so it is easier to find food that is already gluten-free, and dishes such as pad thai are a good place to start as they have a base of rice noodles rather than wheat. Many street-food vendors specialise in making a single dish, so find a stand serving one which is inherently gluten-free, such as khanom krok and khanom ba bin (two varieties of coconut pancake) or som tam (a salad made from spiced green papaya) and the risk of cross-contamination will be minimal.
Considered Cambodia’s national dish, Amok curry is available everywhere! This generally consists of fish, sometimes meat, cooked in coconut milk with chillies, peanuts and a few vegetables, and is nearly always gluten-free. Along with Amok and plenty of freshly-grilled fish, the stalls on the streets and beaches serve some delicious snacks including fried banana, beetroot chips, kao lam (sugar cane stuffed with rice and beans) and even fried tarantulas (they are gluten-free!) Whatever else is on offer, you can always be sure of a tempting selection of fresh fruits which you can nibble on to your heart’s content.
Much Laotian food shares its roots with Thai and Vietnamese cuisine, offering plenty of rice, fish, salad and spice. Laab (or larb), referred to as Laos’ unofficial national dish, consists of a salad base topped with ground meat flavoured with fish sauce and lime and topped with toasted rice, and it makes a healthy, gluten-free option. It is relatively common for the restaurants here to have open kitchens, so you can point out the ingredients you would like included or left out even if you’re not sure of the translation. Once again, the street-vendors might be your snack-saviours, offering bags of roasted nuts, freshly-cut papaya and barbequed bananas.
As you would expect from one of the world’s legendary ‘spice islands’, Sri Lankan cuisine is fragrant and rich. Lentil and chick-pea dhal, flavoured with cumin and turmeric, is served over plain rice for instant comfort food, and chutneys wrapped in gluten-free dosa pancakes are perfect for eating on the go. For truly authentic Sri Lankan cuisine, you have to try hoppers: crisp, rice-flour pancakes formed into basket shapes and filled with an egg, but do double check they are wheat-flour free. Sprinkle the top with whichever spice mix you desire (pol sambol - a blend of coconut, onion, lime, chilli and fish - is pretty addictive) and devour!
Eating gluten-free in Japan takes a bit of planning due to the high usage of gluten-containing soy sauce (tamari isn't as universally gluten-free as people say it is), barley and wheat-flour in many recipes. It is easier to find gluten-free food among the multi-national dining options in big cities, and there are many food-courts (often in train stations) where you can pick and choose from a wider variety of gluten-free dishes. Sushi, sashimi and yakitori (chicken skewers) can be gluten-free (as long as you ask for them without soy sauce), and soba noodles are usually made from pure buckwheat, but always check the ingredients or ask the chef. One major plus-point is that gluten-free tamari is usually available in supermarkets, so keep a bottle handy and you can order plain rice, fish and veg, and season it yourself.
Myanmar cuisine is simply flavoured, without the heavy spices of some neighbouring countries, with plenty of fresh seafood and vegetables to tempt your palate. Wheat-flour is relatively rare, making it naturally easier to get gluten-free fare, but once again it is soy sauce which can cause the problems! Lahpet thohk is a traditional Burmese salad made from fermented tea leaves mixed with tomatoes, garlic, green chilli, shredded cabbage, fish sauce, peanut oil and lime; check that the pickling vinegar and fish sauce are gluten free, but being one of the only times in your life you are likely to eat tea rather than drink it, this dish is one that must be tried.
Hopefully we’ve shown that, with a little knowledge and planning, gluten intolerance needn’t stop you from enjoying a wide range of Asia’s varied and distinctive cuisines. Contact the Selective Asia team for further information and inspiration, and in the meantime why not try making some of the above-mentioned dishes in preparation for your trip? I’m off to whip up a batch of yakitori skewers…