Eating Gluten-Free in Thailand

by Lauren on November 4, 2012

With a little extra planning, it’s possible to eat gluten-free in many international locales. Here’s my take on Thailand, which will give you the general lay of the land. These photos are from my travels in Bangkok:

General Tips:
1) Bring gluten-free restaurant cards with you, spelling out your condition in Thai.
2) Talk to the vendors if you have a question about ingredients.
3) While tipping is not widely practiced, do tip those showing sensitivity to your situation.
4) If the language barrier is too difficult, rely on the stash of back-up food you brought with you.

Thailand’s bustling market scene is unlike any other. Pushcarts serving up freshly sliced pineapple and mango, fried noodles, and grilled chicken and fish treats will delight your senses.

In Chinatown, the streets and alleyways teem with overflowing barrels of pureed beans, dried fish, and fried delights.

While many dishes appeared on the surface to be gluten-free, one ingredient was particularly hard to avoid: soy sauce. Soy sauce is made from wheat, and is used in many meat and vegetable stir-fries.

Even after showing one restaurant owner my Thai restaurant card, I found that the delicious soup I had just consumed had soy sauce in the broth. Yet to my surprise, I discovered that several fish sauces (which some literature tells us to avoid) at the supermarket had no gluten.

That being said, you never know if a street vendor is using a cheaper and gluten-containing version in his deceptively tasty creations. So better ask to see the bottle’s ingredients when possible, and hope they’re in a language you understand.

Difficulties aside, it’s wonderful to learn that Pad Thai is a lightly sweet dish, and not the heavy and overly-sugared version we’re used to in the United States.

Pad thai is made with rice noodles, a personal favorite of mine. Rice noodles are tossed with veggies, pork, or egg at various times of the day for a refreshing and light meal. Make sure to steer clear of egg noodles — though the name indicates otherwise, they are made with wheat.

Spice is a common addition in all dishes. Think of it as a way to awaken the senses, and your zesty dining experience becomes all the more enjoyable!

For those having difficulties with milk, coconut milk is a delicious alternative and a staple in many curries.

Lastly, and if you have as big a sweet tooth as I, I’ll leave you with a few choices to consider. Please note that I can’t speak to the potential cross-contamination of any of the items below.

Sweet Things

– Silky Pork Sweet Rolls, found in Chinatown and local bakeries. They’re made with tapioca flour (though some are made with wheat flour), coconut and shredded pork.

– Delicious nut-based candies resembling peanut brittle. Some have peanuts as a main ingredient and others use sesame seeds.

-Fresh fruits such as mango, papaya, and freshly-cut coconut and pineapple, tossed into a bag with a little extra sugar.

*Beware of potentially suspicious food ingredients in packaged goods, such as “permitted flavorings,” “other,” or my personal favorite, “ivory.”

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Erin Smith November 5, 2012 at 4:32 pm

I am really glad I found this post. I am hoping to get to Thailand in the spring of 2013. Bookmarking this now. Thanks Lauren!

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Lauren Schaad November 5, 2012 at 4:38 pm

Hi Erin! You will love it. The language barrier can be challenging when talking about food allergies, but overall it was such a wonderful visit. Thanks for your comment!

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Erin February 21, 2013 at 7:30 pm

I just got my gluten-free and shellfish-allergy translation cards. I’m headed to Thailand next month!

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Lauren Schaad February 21, 2013 at 9:26 pm

Erin, this is great news. The shellfish one may be a challenge – since many dishes are cooked with fish sauce, some of which are made with shellfish. Good that you’re bringing your cars, and I would pack your fave bars to be on the safe side. Surely you do already. Have an awesome time!

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Siân November 5, 2012 at 6:00 pm

Another wonderful post – these foodie photos are making me hungry for a trip back to Thailand! My husband was celebrating his birthday while we were there (Bangkok and Phuket) and as a special treat I arranged a day of exploring which ended with a meal cooked just for the two for us by the riverbank in the jungle. The beef massaman curry cooked for us (along with other wonderful dishes) is a memory I will always treasure. Simply delicious.

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Lauren Schaad November 5, 2012 at 6:02 pm

And your stories make me hungry for a trip back to Thailand, too! Wow, a meal cooked for just you two in the jungle. It doesn’t get better than that. Thank you for reading, Siân .

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