Traveling with a Gluten Allergy in India
First off, I want to wish you all a wonderfully joyous, healthy, and peaceful New Year. Hope you all had a great time celebrating in your own personal ways to usher in a new calendar year.
I have been back in Canada for one week now from my fabulous trip to India! This trip was a wedding invitation from a close friend from Vancouver, whose son was getting married in Goa. Goa is on the West Coast Of India and is a beautiful tourist destination with its beaches, scenic beauty and awesome seafood. So we used the opportunity and turned this wedding invitation into a holiday trip. We reached Goa three days prior to wedding. The wedding was wonderful with plenty of color and festivities. A Punjabi wedding is not a one day affair. There are several other celebrations besides the wedding such as the Roka (official engagement), Mehndi, Jaago and some other cermonies. In spite of all these functions we managed our time and were able to do some sightseeing, from Old Goa to a spice plantation and Dudhsagar falls at the Goa/Karnataka border. Then we went to Mumbai, Agra and New Delhi.
I often get asked by people what gluten free foods I eat on vacation, so I set out to write a post. India is a great place to try different types of food. Your stomach probably will not be happy if you don’t experience different flavors of Indian foods. Prior to heading on this trip I thought I would take pictures of all the food I eat and document it on my blog. However, the truth is that in the excitement of eating the delcious food, I forgot to take enough pictures. But no worries I am sharing the ones I have and the tips that will help you to eat gluten free anywhere in India. In the last part of the post I have mentioned a few of the restaurants where we ate on this trip. Hopefully this post will help you plan an enjoyable trip to India without the fear of being glutened.
Do your research
Eating gluten free in India is not hard but it does require some advance planning. Look up different food places in the area you are visiting. Make sure you educate yourself on regional food. The cuisine of each region is an artistic representation of its culture and values. Most Indian restaurants in western countries tend to focus on recipes of northern Indian origin but Indian food is much more than that. Examples range from the dhokhlas of Gujarat to the Dosas and idlis of South to the pohas of Maharashtra and makki ki roti of Punjab.
I prefer to stay in hotel or resort with breakfast included or with their own restaurants because I do not want to wander on the streets in the morning looking for a place to eat breakfast. Moreover the restaurants usually open late in India. You can always find out by emailing the resort or hotel if they can accommodate a gluten-free breakfast. If you’re prepared before you get there, it will make the whole vacation less stressful and staying on the gluten free diet much easier.
Learn useful words in the local language -“hindi”
There is not much awareness in India regarding a gluten allergy. It’s a good idea to acquaint yourself with some local words and specific questions for the foods you want to avoid so you can prevent confusion in local eateries. In south India people generally interact in English but hindi is the most spoken and understood language throughout India. So, Bring an index card in English and in the local language stating you have allergies, what they are, and if the waiter or chef could suggest something without those ingredients.
Keep in mind that the person cooking or serving food to you may not be educated or professionally trained so ask questions like, is there gehun or gehun ka atta or rava used in preparing this? (Even the most educated people don’t know that rava is wheat)
Is this poppadum fried in the same oil with poorie or other foods containing gehun?
Wheat flour is called “gehun ka atta” in hindi, barley is “jaun” all purpose flour is “maida”, semolina is “rawa” and oats is “jai”.
As a gluten intolerant, the hardest thing for me is to find a snack. In fact, you can find many snacks in India which are naturally gluten free. But the Food labelling regulations are not very strict so there is always a risk of contamination. I usually pack a bar or nuts in my bag just in case I get hungry while I’m out.
Download the food app Zomato before you step out of the airport. This app is an informative guide to restaurants and cafes which provides users with essential restaurant data including full menus, location and business hours. You can search by location, cuisine and budget, browse through menus and user reviews, and even take an Uber to your chosen restaurant. If you’re lazy to go out you can just order food for delivery.
Items to avoid at Indian restaurants
Gehun-majority of flatbreads in India are made with wheat flour. For example, the roti, phulka, chapati, paratha, kulcha, naan, poorie, pav
Suji (sooji) or rava (rawa) – coarse purified wheat (semolina) used for making dishes like upma, halwa, rawa laddoo or rawa dosa
Maida – finely milled refined wheat flour used in fast food, sweets, conventional breads and flatbreads like naan, kulcha, poorie..
Seviyan or Pheni – a vermicelli dessert made from sweetened milk
Kofta -meatballs made from various minced vegetables or ground meats. Make sure they do not contain breadcrumbs or any other gluten-containing filler
Aloo Tikki– usually made with just potatoes but make sure it does not contain bread for binding or is fried
Hing– a spice called asafoetida, although not very commonly used by restaurants but it should be off-limits to people with celiac or gluten sensitivity because it contains wheat starch. You just have to make sure dishes without onion and garlic and sambar should not contain hing. To avoid any risk of contamination I always leave sambar in South Indian restaurants and eat dosa with chutneys instead or ask for a simple potato curry.
Daal Baati and Churma– the tandoor baked discs in the lentil that are also served as a sweet later are made with wheat flour
Beer and some health Drinks-check that they don’t contain barley
ITEMS YOU CAN EAT
- Soups, curries, lentil and vegetables
Indian cooking relies on fresh ingredients like onions and tomatoes for sauces and gravy. If a gravy needs to be thickened it is usually done with cream, yogurt, or lentil flour rather than a wheat based starch. There can therefore be no possibility of gluten in curries, lentils, and vegetable dishes. Soups like tomato shorba or clear chicken soup are usually gluten free but do check if they contain any store-bought stock.
- Gluten Free Breads and crepes
There is gluten free bread and other snack cakes available in supermarkets and bakeries of India. You may not find all information when surfing on the internet however you can check out local supermarkets, or other stores selling speciality products or with the staff of the hotel you are staying at.
In restaurants, you can safely order flatbreads and crepes made with sorghum, millet, ragi, rice, and, maize (corn) flour. They are very delicious. You will most likely find them under the name bhakri, roti, or rotla in bread option. If not, ask if these are available.
Dosas, a southern Indian favorite, are wheat-free crepes made from rice and lentil flours that are often stuffed with savory fillings. Idli, also native to southern Indian cuisine, is a spongy “cake” also made from rice and lentil flour. Avoid if it says rawa idli or dosa.
Besan or Mung Cheela, the two north Indian crepes prepared from lentil flour are good gluten free options.
- Rice based dishes
Rice is gluten-free and forms the base of many Indian dishes. Pulao is a rice pilaf where the rice has been cooked with vegetables and whole spices. Variations on this dish include jeera (cumin) pulao, matar (peas) pulao. Biryani is a popular heavily spiced rice dish. It is often found in vegetarian and non-vegetarian options. Curd rice is a southern Indian rice dish that is made with dairy products, such as yogurt.
- Snacks, sides and appetizers
The variety of gluten free snacks available in India is remarkably wide but there is risk of cross contamination. Vegetable fritters, taro chips, banana chips, vadas and poppadums, amritsari fried fish ( coated with besan) are safe gluten-free options only if they are not cooked in the oil that has been used to fry gluten containing foods.
All tandoori meat and vegetable dishes are safe as they are cooked in the oven and are marinated in yogurt, fresh ingredients and spices.
Raita, chaas/ lassi, shakes and salads are generally gluten free.
Desserts made with rice, sago, carrot, ghiya (bottlegourd) are safe gluten free options.
Here’s brief account of where I stayed and ate at some of the restaurants on this trip
Since our breakfast, lunch and dinner in Goa was included in the wedding plan, all we ate outside was the lunch when we were sightseeing. The Royal Orchid Beach Resort where we stayed had plenty of gluten free options for breakfast- bean sprouts, yogurt, eggs, fresh fruit juices and fruit salad, beans, idli, dosa, dhokla, poha (rice flakes), potatoes, bacon and gluten free bread (you have to ask for it). Once I asked the chef to make gluten free pancakes for me and he did with ragi and rice flour.
For lunch we mostly ate seafood curries with rice or biryani at typical Goan restaurants.
- Martin’s corner- It’s a favorite place with people. Ask any taxi driver about authentic Goan food and he will take you here. They have great menu but since most of the dishes were fried and then added to curry I ordered Fish curry rice and prawn balchao.
- Magic world Goa- This place is next to Palolem beach. Great view and excellent food. Try Prawn vindaloo, fish curry and any biryani.
- NV Eco Farm- Here we stopped for lunch in a guided spice plantation tour after coming back from Dudhsagar falls. Everything was gluten free except for fried fish and dessert.
- Viva Panjim- This place is located in a narrow alley of fountain Haas. We ordered chicken xacuti, shark ambot tik with steamed rice. If you are a vegetarian this is not the place for you.
- Relish- We stopped here because it was a vegetarian Friendly restaurant with vegan and gluten Free Options. I didn’t find anything gluten free special so I tried chicken sizzler with vegetables.
- Zeebop by the sea – We were staying at Royal orchid and found this place at a distance of 5 minute by car. Try their grilled fish with recheado masala and dhingri matar with rice of course. I ate rice twice a day while in Goa.
In Mumbai we stayed in a great hotel which had a lavish buffet breakfast (actually all meals) with live counters with different options every day. I was extremely happy to find gluten free bread, cake and muffins in the bread counter. For evening tea and cocktails there were choices of bean sprouts, yogurt, cakes, chaat, salads, roasted vegetables, meats, and pastries.
Make sure you have plenty of time to get where you want to go in Mumbai. The traffic is terrible! When we visited places around Gateway of India we mostly chose restaurants which were at a walking distance. It was crazy to walk on the side of the road with no sidewalk and to cross the road with so much traffic around but we did.
- Mahesh Lunch home – 20 minute walking from gateway of India. It’s a seafood specialty restaurant. Try their Balti Fish (surmai), mangalorean shukha crab and almond halwa for dessert.
- Street food at chowpatty – 20 minutes taxi ride from Gateway of India. Eat “bhelpoorie” at Chowpatty without poories ( the small crisp thing in it are called poories that are made with wheat flour). It’s not a very good option for people with celiac as the bhujia used in this doesn’t specifically states that it was gluten free, though it is made with gram flour , salt and spices only.
- Poornima restaurant– perfect for south Indian cuisine like dosa, idli, vada, uttapam and other rice dishes. In sweets try their carrot or ash gourd halwa.
- Kala Ghoda Café – it’s a tiny café but a great place for gluten free and vegans. I tried their boneless mutton in a vinegar-tomato-chilli gravy which was served with oat & flax roti.
- Sequel Bistro & Juice Bar– It was a nice place but we just stopped for a smoothie.
- Maharaja Bhog- 15 minute walk from Hotel JW Mariott. It’s a no frill vegetarian restaurant serving Gujrati, and Maharashtrian thali. Their meal is hearty and filling with a variety of components in small amount. They can make bhakri with sorghum and pearl millet flour and also makka roti on request.
- Ten One– (closer than Maharja Bhog) This is a casual dining place with vegetarian food only. Try their gatta sabzi, mushroom matar and mix veg biryani. They have mung daal cheela, rice bhakri and nachni bhakri, which you can order in place of naan or roti.
- Baluchi- It is one of the restaurants of Lalit. Try their selection of vegetarian kebabs, gram flour bread baked in clay oven and murg handi lazeez. By far the best meal we had while in this trip was had here.
- Hotel JW Mariott Room Service– We wanted to pack and eat something light so we ordered only masala khichdi. It came with a plate of onion and cucumber salad, roasted papad, raita and some pickle.
In Delhi we stayed with a friend so eating gluten free meals was not difficult at all. I ate just like at home. We had planned to go see the Taj Mahal the next day so I thought to check what gluten free baked goods are available in Delhi. While most bakeries carry gluten free cookies and rusks (biscotti), none (the one I asked) have gluten free bread or any other baked goods. I even checked Wenger’s and Defense Bakery at Connaught place, which is an important commercial and business area for Delhites.
Next morning we headed to Agra via road using the Yamuna express Highway. There are nice eating joints and dhabas on the stretch where you can stop to take a bite but there isn’t any gluten free choice for breakfast. I highly suggest to bring on the go gluten free breakfast and stop by for a hot beverage at Costa Coffee on “The Food Street”. Thank Goodness the staff at Hotel Mariott packed me enough breakfast muffins and Fruit cake with fruit and other little stuff to survive me two days (from Mumbai to Delhi on plane and Delhi to Agra by car). On the way back we stopped at “the food street” again and I had Uttapam for a relaxed late lunch. It’s a great place for foodies where you can find a variety of Indian foods to suit every taste. My daughter and husband had (gluten)pizza.
As we toured around New Delhi I saw a push cart selling charcoal grilled corn on the cob which I have missed so much in Canada. I stopped by and had one with a touch of lemon and a hint of salt. It is one of the simplest foods that I have always cherished.
When we were out shopping I also had aloo tikki chaat at a popular eating joint in Rajouri Garden. I simply can’t leave Delhi without trying one street food that was actually gluten free. The aloo tikkis were cooked on griddle and not fried in oil.
We skipped lunch as long as we stayed in Delhi as the breakfast at our friend’s was so satisfying it kept us full until dinner. We (basically me, my daughter and the friend’s wife) spent three days shopping in Connaught place and then the men joined us for dinner at vegetarian restaurants. Every time after dinner we stopped by a small shop (Yamu’s Panchayat) to have a flavorful bite of paan. Paan is essentially a wad of dried fruits, spices, candied fennel seeds, rose preserve and some other stuff wrapped into a large green leaf from the betel nut plant. Traditionally, there are two varieties of paans- meetha (sweet) and sada (plain). By the ingredients you can tell that I am talking about sweet paan. Its gluten free. If you have never tried one you must. It will definitely be worth it! It’s part breath freshener and part digestive aid and as satisfying as having a piece of chocolate after a meal.
In a nutshell, there are lots of gluten free food choices in India but you have to be very careful and clear what you eat and order in a restaurant.
I hope you enjoyed this post and hope it helps your next trip to India. If you have any questions or need more information, ask me in the comments section.
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