How does one survive being gluten free in Asia? I am here to tell you.
If you find yourself walking through a mall, you will be quick to realize you are surrounded by Bread Talks and other amazing cafes selling the most extravagant baked goods. If you thought you were avoiding bakeries by traveling to Asia, I’m sorry to say you thought wrong. It’s going to be tough to avoid the overwhelming scent of freshly baked croissants and biscuits, but I promise you, you’ll manage. Asia opens a whole new world of dishes to anyone who is willing to try their flavorful cuisine, and once you get the hang of all the ingredients, the GF person in you will be able to navigate your way through the menu quite easily.
It can be a bit nerve racking to be traveling as someone with Celiac or any another serious food allergy. The nerves and stress only heighten when you are visiting countries where fluent english speakers are a bit harder to find. This is why going into an Asia trip with a basic understanding of the common ingredients and local dishes can be quite important. If you don’t want to read up on dishes before hand, a fun way to learn about the common ingredients that are used is to take a cooking class.
Kyle and I signed up for a cooking class the first month we spent in Bangkok and this actually helped me out so much. It’s hard to know all the ingredients that go into these mysterious and spicy dishes when you are only reading about them online, so this is a great way to get informed and have the opportunity to talk to a chef that can guide you through what you can eat in their country.
Most people with a gluten allergy, intolerance, or preference will probably do the research before they begin a trip, but I am here to make that process easier.
If restaurants in Asia offer a “change to gluten free option” (there are not many of them) it is the same as in the U.S., it will cost extra. Just prepare to be spending more than the average tourist in Thailand because most of the cheap street food offered, will not be something you can eat. Maybe it’s for the best…
Now on to the ingredients. You will find in Thailand especially, a lot of the sauces they use are surprisingly gluten free. Though the fish sauce they put in the majority of their dishes may not smell the best, and when I say it may not smell the best I mean it stinks A LOT, it is 100% safe to consume. This was something I was very happy to discover because as you will see on your trip, this is a very common ingredient in Thai dishes. Now you know you are safe to eat as much Pad Thai as you would like because it is usually cooked with fish sauce and almost always considered a gluten free dish.
Other GF sauces that are commonly used include: chili sauce and a whole heck of a lot of oil.
I would steer clear from oyster sauce, peanut sauce, soy sauce, and any sort of mushroom sauces. This doesn’t mean that you can’t find these gluten free, it just means that the majority of these brands use wheat instead of starch so you just have to be extra careful.
For comfort and to avoid any issues, I recommend putting a translation in the notes section of your phone. This way if no one understands what you are saying (this will happen a lot) then you can just whip out your notes and they can read it.
- I’m allergic to wheat flour – Puum Paae Paeng-saa-lii
- I’m allergic to soy sauce – Puum Paae see-ew
If you think you have seen the word “see-ew” before, it’s because the name of a very popular Thai fried noodle dish is called “Pad See-ew”. My gluten free people, I am sorry to say you cannot eat this. You will just have to watch as your boyfriend scarves it down and hope the the smell alone will fulfill your craving.
Soy sauce is definitely the hidden ingredient you will find is most commonly used in Asia and something you want to be aware of. I can’t tell you the amount of times I ordered something that appeared to be completely gluten free and the waiter ended up coming back to tell me that the meat was soaked in soy sauce before they cook it. This can happen quite frequently, so be especially careful when ordering dishes with beef. Most people will understand you don’t want soy sauce if you pronounce it, “soy-uh sauce”. Otherwise you might get a mix of confused stares, waiters upset with you for wanting to change the recipe of their Thai dishes, and again total confusion. To avoid all of this, use the phrases above or use “soy-uh” and the staff will be able to help you.
Even though there will be a lot of temptation with foods you cannot eat while traveling in Asia, there are also a lot you can. If I can say anything at all, it’s get used to eating rice. You will probably have a meal containing rice at least once a day if not more. This doesn’t just have to be ordinary plain white rice, you will find rice being used in ways only imaginable in Asia. Rice, rice cakes, rice noodles, more rice noodles, sticky rice, dessert rice, ALL TYPES OF RICE. All I can say is thank goodness for the humidity and constant sweating.
Finding cafes and restaurants that offer gluten free options is quite easy thanks to the Trip Advisor app. Downloading this application has been a lifesaver when it comes to finding places to eat in your area. Whether you have a food allergy or not, I recommend getting this app. Kyle and I have found some of the most amazing food at hole in the wall restaurants that we would have never found if it weren’t for this handy application.
SPECIFIC RESTAURANTS, CAFES, AND MARKETS
Theera – This was the first specialty gluten free cafe that Kyle and I ventured to in Bangkok. It is very easy to find and just a five to seven minute walk from the Ekkimai BTS Station. Here you will find amazing GF breads, baked goods, and desserts to take-away along with many other in house dishes that range from from Italian pastas to specialty waffles. Whether you want to stop by for an in house meal or want to come just to shop, this cute cafe has amazing food with great flavor. As we all know, sometimes GF food doesn’t have the best taste or consistency. This is not something you have to worry about at Theera and I definitely recommend you make time for this cafe during your stay in Bangkok. Theera is where I would buy the majority of my baked goods before I found a more conveniently located market for me, the Sunshine Market.
Sunshine Market – You will find this darling market located right across the street from the Marriott Marquis Hotel and about a ten minute walk from the Asoke/Sukhumvit Station. This shop is home to the best gluten free items, ingredients, beauty and health products, as well as homemade baked goods, breads, and desserts. When we were choosing a condo to rent out in Bangkok, having a kitchen was a top priority because this would give us the option of cooking food for ourselves. We wanted to make sure that while we were traveling, we would still be able to maintain a somewhat healthy lifestyle. You can read Kyle’s post this week to find out our process of staying healthy while traveling but in the meantime, this health food market is where Kyle and I would often go shopping for sandwich bread, cereals, and gluten free items. The best days were those when we would walk out with a bag full of various cookies in one hand and pancake mix in the other. Not so healthy I know… If you have the option to cook at your place, I definitely recommend you hit this market up.
This island is a gluten free person’s heaven. A gluten free cafe is like the Starbucks of America, you will see one on every corner. For anyone looking to indulge in amazing GF food, Bali is the place to do it.
GLUTEN FREE KITCHEN (UBUD) – Kyle and I probably came here a total of 10 times during our month stay and that doesn’t even include our late night dessert runs to pick up their decadent chocolate brownies. I swear those things melted in your mouth they were so good. Besides their to die for desserts, this cute 3 story restaurant offers just about anything you could think of. After seven months of traveling with a diet of mostly rice, you can imagine my excitement when I found a place that literally has EVERYTHING. We ordered a different thing every time we went and there wasn’t a dish we weren’t satisfied with. If I could recommend anything to you it would be the pesto gnocchi, we are still talking about it. The best part about this place is that the staff and environment are just as amazing as the food. The workers make a conscious effort to remember you and are always extremely welcoming. When Kyle or I needed to get some work done, this became our haven. The owner and staff graciously allowed us to take over the employee seating area so Kyle and I had a quiet spot to teach our online classes. The Gluten Free Kitchen is one of a kind and an absolute must when you visit Ubud.
Hank’s Pizza and Liquor – This is some of the best GF pizza I have ever had, so good Kyle even loved it! If you can get someone who isn’t forced to eat gluten free food to like and even love something GF, that’s when you know you have won. Hank’s is an open deck bar on the second floor in the central hub of Seminyak. The prices are reasonable and they also offer some amazing happy hour deals. If you’re in the mood for a family sized pizza and some live music, this is your place.
Wacko Burger – They claim to have the best burgers in Bali and I have to say they definitely do. Though this place is a bit far out from the main town, it is well worth the 30 minute walk. Kyle and I went hungry because we had heard their burgers were big and man am I glad we did. The waitress brought out quite possibly the biggest burgers I have ever seen and the best part, it had a big, fluffy GF bun!! Lettuce wraps you’ve been kicked to the curb! If you can’t tell already I am a big fan of burgers and this was the first place I found in Asia that had a gluten free bun. You best believe I was one happy camper. What made the experience even better was that the staff was extremely knowledgable about the allergy and were able to help me order to make sure that even the toppings and sauces I chose were gluten free. To get your burger fix, you have to visit Wacko Burger.
Have you gotten sick of me saying gluten free yet? I promise I’m almost done.
La Pasta – This restaurant is the honorable mention of the list. I almost wasn’t going to add it because they accidentally fed me normal pasta and I got sick, BUT we gave it a second chance a few weeks later and I had amazing GF pizza! Though we had a language barrier issue, they do have great Italian food at a reasonable price. Just make sure when you order you specify that you have an allergy and when you receive the food check that it is in fact gluten free. I promise you if you give this place a chance you won’t be disappointed with the flavor and quality of the food. This is also is a great place to go if you are trying to escape from the heat, which trust me this is something you are going to want if you are staying in Siem Reap. The restaurant is small, but has two levels. The second floor is a small closed room with AC! This is the only restaurant we found to have an AC unit in Siem Reap, so for the relief factor alone we loved this place.
I know I have talked a lot about where to go to get good gluten free food, but I also want to acknowledge that it is isn’t always easy to find something to eat when you do go out. Or if you find things you can eat, maybe you get sick of eating the same meals over and over again throughout your trip. This is when bringing some back up food can also be important. I am not saying you absolutely need to do this, but it might be a good idea to bring a few protein bars or shake packages that can provide you with a meal replacement if you need one. I found myself actually lacking in protein during my travels because a lot of the meats in Asia are fried and the common dishes are cooked in sauces that I cannot eat. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I wasn’t getting the amount of protein in my diet that I needed and I was constantly feeling low in energy.
Kyle was able to introduce me to Isagenix and I immediately fell in love with their products. It definitely helps that Kyle’s mom works for the company and has been able to send us products while we have been overseas. Through this we have been able to maintain our healthy lifestyles and always stay fueled. Thank you Beth! With a lot of gluten free protein powders, the products either lack flavor or carry too much. The flavor of these shakes are by far the best I have ever tasted, they are gluten free, and extremely convenient for travelers to pack. It doesn’t get much better than that! If you haven’t heard of Isagenix, contact us now!
I hope this post has provided you with some insight and has given you some food inspiration for your Asian travels! Thank you for reading and if you want to keep updated with our future adventures, click the follow button below!