Dining as a Gluten-Free Veg in India: Decoding a North Indian Menu for Allergies

December 5th, 2007 yum Posted in Bangalore, Indian, Indian Flatbread, North India, Punjab, Travel 23 Comments »

meanbanyan.jpgmefountain.jpg uscuties.jpg indiabuilding.jpg
The first time I came to India two years ago, we stayed in an unpretentious guest house with an extensive room service menu of inexpensive, naturally gluten-free Southern Indian dishes like Dosa, Idli, Sambar and Upattham. (Don’t worry, a post on Southern Indian cuisine will follow soon!) However, for this, my second trip, Justin’s work put us up at a more posh hotel called the Nandhana. It’s a lovely hotel with much more privacy than the guesthouse, but the only unfortunate thing is that the connecting restaurant, Ebony, focuses on international cuisine and Northern Indian cuisine more than my favorite (and safe) Southern Indian dishes. However, while Northern Indian fare is more difficult for the gluten-free diner, as it relies on wheat-based flatbreads like Naan and Roti, you can still find reasonably safe and delicious veg dishes with some care. Unfortunately besides the very well known classics like Saag Paneer (spinach with paneer homemade cheese), Channa Masala (Chickpeas in Masala spice sauce), and Mattar Paneer (green peas and paneer homemade cheese), I’m not all that familiar with the name of some of these dishes, so our hotel room service menu was a bit of a mystery to me. hotelroomservice.jpg I thought this might be a good opportunity to learn about some Northern Indian specialties and the gluten-threat offered by each dish, as servers are not always well versed in specific English terms for gluten (or for that matter, the content of each dish), and as they say, forewarned is forearmed. For those of you following along on my gluten-free adventures in India, I thought you might enjoy learning about these dishes along with me. Learning about these dishes may also help you make informed decisions in Indian restaurants at home OR abroad, or inspire you to make them at home in the safety of your own gluten-free kitchen. Many of the dishes I was unfamiliar with on our hotel menu originated in the Punjab region, so this has served as a crash course for me in Punjabi cuisine.

India is one of the best places in the world for vegetarians, as caste and religion informs many aspects of diet, including vegetarianism. Vegetarian food is referred to simply as “veg” and non-vegetarian food is referred to as “non veg.” Simple enough, right? The tricky part may come into play for vegans, as veganism is not a natural part of the “veg” dietary scheme. There is a delineation for a “true veg” but this just means someone who doesn’t eat eggs. It may be difficult to explain a vegan diet to restaurants, and dairy products including ghee, butter, milk, cream, curd (yogurt) and paneer cheese are found in many, maybe even most, dishes. The Lonely Planet recommends street vendors as a source of food, but this may be problematic for those who must also follow a gluten-free diet. One food which immediately comes to my mind is the simple idli, a steamed rice and urad dal cake, paired with sambar soup and coconut chutney. This should be suitable for vegans and those who are gluten free (just avoid rava idli!!! rava=semolina/wheat), but many of the delightful dry and gravy “curries” will contain dairy. Nut allergies would also be tricky in India, as some sauces rely on the cashew nut or peanut for their body and flavor. Unfortunately it is often difficult to discuss allergies with servers, as even someone quite fluent in English might not be well versed in “wheat, rye, oats, or barley.” Here is a very good article about dealing with allergies in India.

Items on the Menu likely to be Gluten-Free
*barring gluten elements in spice mixes, and cross contamination factors. One unavoidable issue with ground spices and flours (even GF ones) in India is that they may be ground on a mill shared with gluten flours. This also applies to imports… Asafoetida is a spice that contains either rice or wheat flour and should be avoided if possible. Read comments for where you might find this ingredient, and check out this interesting article on asafoetida/hing.

rice.jpg Rice Dishes
“People often can’t differentiate between biryani, fried rice, and pulao. ‘For the first, one needs to fry the rice first, in the second the cooked rice is fried with the other sautéed ingredients. In the pulao, everything is cooked together.’”(source:hinduonnet article)

Pulao is a rice pilaf that is probably gluten-free but unlikely to be dairy free.
Variations: Jeera Pulao is a Jeera (Cumin seed) pilaf dish. Recipe for Jeera Pulao. Paneer Pulao is a pilaf dish made with homemade Indian paneer cheese.

Vegetable Handi Biryani is a heavily spiced Punjabi rice dish. Often served with salan, a spicy thick chutney/gravy like sauce, and raita, a cooling yogurt sauce, often with cucumber or other fruits and vegetables. Apparently “A traditional Hyderabadi salan is made in a shallow wide flat bottomed handi. The salan is a sealed in this handi and kept on low fire to cook with all the flavours trapped inside to give that authentic rich taste.”(source: tarladalal.com) tomato salan recipe. Various raita recipes.

Curd Rice seems to be a Southern rice dish made with liberal amounts of yogurt and other dairy products. Spices and additions seem to be a matter of the creativity of the chef, but this simple recipe evokes nostalgia for many bloggers.
Curd Rice at IndiaCuisine. Curd Rice Recipe from Vineela.

curry1.jpgVegetable Dishes
Aloo Jeera is a delicious dish of aloo (potatoes) seasoned with jeera (cumin). It goes well with rice and is highly likely to be gluten-free, barring any suspicious spice mixtures added. Here’s another simple Aloo Jeera recipe, as well as an authentic Punjabi version from Sanjeev Kapoor

Aloo Mutter, or aloo (potatoes) with mutter (green peas) is a tasty, and hearty dish that should be safe, with the usual caveats. Aloo Mutter Recipe.

Aloo Gobhi is a recipe for aloo (potatoes) with gobhi (cauliflower) in a spicy, flavorful sauce. Ahaar’s recipe for Aloo Gobhi. Here’s a recipe by our own Gluten Free by the Bay

Bhindi Do Pyaza is a dish of Bhindi (okra/ ladyfingers) with “Do pyaza” (twice the amount of onion than you might find in other dishes). A Okra with Onions recipe with yogurt.

curry3.jpgDairy-centric Dishes
Paneer Tikka is a snack of marinated, spiced paneer coated in yogurt cooked in a tandoor that is often associated with Punjab cuisine. This appetizer looks so tasty I can’t wait to try it, and seems to not usually be coated in flour, although you should always check with your server.Gorgeous and Tasty Paneer Tikka recipe from the Manpasand blog. And, another Paneer Tikka Recipe.

Paneer Makhani is a recipe for paneer (homemade cheese) simmered in a rich, creamy buttery sauce (makhani) that often has a tomato component. Not exactly low calorie but likely to be gluten free and very decadent. Paneer Makhani Recipe from Arad-daagh an unconventional low-fat recipe for Paneer Makhani from Archana And a recipe for paneer makhani from a Bangalore local!

Soup (Shorba in North India)
Tomato Shorba a tomato water soup which may or may not contain coconut milk but may contain ghee. It does not seem to usually be thickened with flour, although I found one recipe calling for a tablespoon of besan (chickpea flour). Tamater ka shorba recipe Variations: Tomato Dhaniya Shorba: Dhaniya=coriander, so it may have fresh cilantro or coriander seeds added to the soup.

tamarindyums.jpgDal/dhal/dahl/daal is “a preparation of pulses which have been stripped of their outer hulls and split. It also refers to the thick, spicy stew prepared from pulses [lentils]. . . In South India dal is used to make the [spicy] stew/veg soup called sambar. The word Dal derives from the Sanskrit term to split.” (Source: Wikipedia, Dal entry)

Variations:Yellow Dal Tadka Tadka/ tarka (or chaunk/baghar) is a combination of (regionally determined) spices fried in oil. Spices may include: “cumin, chili/cayenne powder, onion, mustard seeds and garlic, asafoetida, fresh or dried chili pods, cilantro, garam masala and cumin seeds.” Like with some chutney preparations, the tadka oil is poured over the cooked dal for serving. (Source: Wikipedia, Dal entry) Fabulous Video and Yellow Dall Tadka recipe

Variations:Dal Makhani (see entry for Paneer Makhani, above). Hearty Dal Makhani from the Punjabi region is composed of black lentils and red kidney beans in a creamy butter, onions, tomatoes, and ginger-garlic sauce. A lighter recipe for Dal Makhani (use lowfat yogurt).

Non-Veg Menu Items of interest to a Pescatarian:
Achari Fish Tikka (boneless fish marinated in yoghurt and pickle spices), Ajwani Fish Tikka (traditional fish tikka with ajwain), Pomfret Amritsari (pomfret fish with the chef’s secret spices) and Tandoori Goalda Chingri (tiger prawns in traditional kebab spices).

May Contain Gluten
Kadhi Pakoda is Pakoda/Pakora (Chickpea flour/besan deep fried fritters) served in or with Kadhi, a Punjabi tangy gravy based dish made of gram flour(lentil/dal/pulse flour) and yogurt. In an ideal world, pakoda/pakora wouldn’t contain gluten. However, even if the chickpea flour batter hasn’t had wheat added, it will probably be deep fried in an oil vat with wheat battered items. Ask your server lots of questions, show him or her an allergy dining card, and proceed with caution. Recipe for Punjabi Kadhi. Siri’s Kadhi Pakoda.

Veg Seekh Kabab, a grilled or fried vegetable mash on a kabob. Recipe for Veg Seekh Kabab Note the usage of corn flour, which in British usage may indicate any “regular” flour, including WHEAT flour but alternatively might indicate corn flour or cornstarch. It is probably best to ask your server about this dish, and if possible to provide an allergy dining card. Other recipes I found online called for breadcrumbs or Rawa/Rava (Semolina=Wheat) flour coating.

Hara Bhara Kabab, a fried vegetable mash with potato and spinach as the main ingredients. Has same issues as the Veg Seekh Kabab- may be dusted in flour or breadcrumbs and possibly fried in a gluten-contaminated fryer. Hara Bhara Kabab Recipe

Harechanna Ka Kabab refers to a kind of green gram/dal/lentil vegetable kabob that may have potato and possibly paneer in some permutations. As with the other veg. kabobs, may be dusted with flour or deep fried. Green Channa Kabab Recipe

Absolutely Contains Gluten
Pretty much any of the Northern flatbreads, including roti, naan, paratha, pori/poori is made from gluten-containing flour.
One exception may be the rural roti of North Karnataka, Bhakri, made with sorghum, AKA jowar. Because these roti are more difficult to make due to the absence of gluten in the dough, I would be very careful to confirm that a particular restaurant’s Bhakri is made solely with sorghum and is not baked on a wheat-contaminated surface. Too stressful? Try making your own:
Aayis’ recipe for Bhakri
The Cook’s Cottage’s Recipe for Bhakri with Jowar
Nandyala’s recipe for Sorghum Roti/ Jonna Rotte/ Jowar Roti

[Note: according to Aayi, if you are in Bangalore "don’t miss the “Jolad rotti oota” in Kamat Minerva (at Minerva circle). The taste is superb there. They serve jowar roti with 2-3 sides, one of them is always ‘Ennegayi (stuffed brinjal)‘, and butter." I am dying to find out if they are truly gluten free..]

Southern Indian cuisine also offers some naturally gluten free “bread” options, although they do not tend to be much like flatbread. These include the dosa, idli, and upattham, among others. Post to follow.

*I’m just a novice at sweets, but tend to err on the side of caution. Even the dairy based rasgulla cheese sweet may contain minute amounts of flour, alas.. And gulab jamun, India’s milky answer to the donut, contains unadulterated gluten. Right now I’m more inclined to make them at home than to trust sweet shops… but I’d love to try them if I could find some safe varieties.

Just for fun: List of non-wheat flours commonly used in India

Whew. Figuring all this out has made me realize how much I DON’T know about the diverse food cultures in India… But at least now I can handle our hotel room service menu like a pro- as long as I’m ordering veg! Just don’t ask me about non-veg dishes… ;)

This information was the result of extensive internet research, but there may be mistakes. Please ask your server extensive questions and explain your dietary needs, with the help of travel cards if necessary. You may find that North Indian restaurants in the US are more likely to add wheat flour as a thickener than they are in India- or even that some chefs here add wheat where you wouldn’t expect it. Be careful and if in doubt- just don’t eat it! If you have additions, corrections, or compliments (tee hee) please post in the comments!

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Gluten Free Travel Tips: Gluten Free Airline Meal Reviews, Gluten-Free Airport Meals (Chicago and London)

December 3rd, 2007 yum Posted in Airlines, Bangalore, Indian, London, Special Feature Article, Travel 18 Comments »

biscottiairport.jpgAs you may know, this month the Book of Yum is On the Road, in a big way. This last Thursday we got on a plane to Bangalore, India, and will be spending two and a half weeks here in India, and then continuing on to Europe for two weeks. DH and I love to travel, but I always wonder what the gluten-free meal situation will be like en route. This time it worked out fairly well.

On this leg of our journey we flew on American Airlines and then British Air. Although we requested special meals, I also brought tons of food, keeping in mind the no-liquids or gels issues. (The London Heathrow airport is especially strict, and so I kept in mind the fact that we would be changing planes there). The night before our trip I made a batch of Bette Hagman’s biscotti from “More from the Gluten Free Gourmet” and two batches of Rebecca Reilly’s graham crackers. I thought not only would it be good to have these things on the plane, but they would also undoubtedly serve me well once we reached our destination for quick snacks or even work as a meal when paired with a breakfast cappucino or piece of fruit. Of course I could just buy snacks (and in fact, did buy some), but generally homemade baked goods taste better and are substantially less expensive. I packed my biscotti in a big gallon ziploc bag and the homemade graham crackers in tupperware packed carefully with paper towels to keep them from moving around and breaking. [Update: None broke!] I also brought snack bars, fruit leather (ate them on the plane before arriving in case even dried fruit was a problem), Ever-g Foods GF pretzels, garden of eating cheese curls (not exactly healthy, but at least no trans-fats and they satisfy cravings for a savory snack), chocolate, Nana’s no gluten lemon cookies, and Ian’s GF individually wrapped 140 calorie snack packs of Chocolate Chip Cookie Buttons. Speaking of Ian’s Natural Foods, I don’t know if you are familiar with their products, but lately they’ve really expanded their gluten-free product lineup to include frozen Gluten Free French Toast Sticks, Popcorn Turkey Corn Dogs, Battered GF fish, and even GF and DF Soy Cheesy French Bread Pizza. Some of these products are still hard to find- I only found the cookie packs recently at my local Whole Foods and haven’t seen many of the others. I keep hoping to find the French Toast sticks, but so far no luck. So just in case the airlines completely failed me, I would have been reasonably well off, although a little, er, nutritionally deficient. Also, in security at the San Francisco airport, Heathrow airport, and finally Bangalore airport, there were absolutely no comments or notice paid to my food. I put it all in my carry on to avoid mishandling by baggage handlers and to keep it accessible during the flight, as well as to answer any questions in person if necessary. I think if you just avoid fresh produce, meat, and any liquid/gel foods like yogurt you can manage to bring GF food on a flight without too much hassle. While it is probably recommended to bring a doctor’s note about Celiac to help explain the surplus of food stashed in your bag, I personally have never done this and I haven’t had any food confiscated. It helps to try to find out as much as possible about food regulations in the countries you will be stopping in and try to avoid anything that might be questioned.

heathrow.jpg Unusually, I was also able to find food at both the airport in Chicago, pre-made packaged sushi: available both in sashimi varieties and vegetarian, and at the London Heathrow airport. The latter was just pure luck, as I stumbled on this family style English/American restaurant called Garfunkels, saw the menu and saw several possibilities that inspired me to try it. Not only did they have several very tasty looking salads including a goat cheese, avocado, and grilled eggplant dish or a fresh basil mozzarella salad, but they also had a delicious and simple meal of a perfectly baked potato with a cheese omelet and simple salad. I ordered the latter, as after 15 hours or so in the air, I was really craving a wholesome baked potato. The meal was very, very safe and very satisfying, if not especially gourmet. I loved that I could order a basic potato with the meal. 3D Virtual tour of one of their restaurants here

airplanemeal.jpgairplanecookie.jpgNot only was I able to eat at the airports, but the gluten free meals on both flights were quite palatable. We generally request a vegetarian meal and a gluten free meal for both flights, figuring that between the two of them there will be enough food for me to get by. It’s unfortunate that you can’t combine dietary requests in a special meal order, but I guess things would be complicated for the airline if you could. DH is willing to eat the vegetarian meal if it doesn’t work for me, and he can usually request a leftover ordinary meal for seconds if it isn’t substantial enough. For long international flights I err on the side of caution and if anything looks suspect about the vegetarian meal, just avoid it. Happily for me as a sometimes-pescatarian, both flights served salmon for their gluten-free meal, and although I had to pass on the vegetarian meals, the gf meal worked out. One note- the lengthy flight from San Francisco to Chicago skipped serving a meal entirely, although they offered us the option to buy a sandwich a few other gluten options, and potato chips (possibly GF) for a VERY hefty sum. The American meal on the flight to London was great because it had grilled salmon on rice, super yum, with steamed baby bok choy and some tasty nutty sauce on the rice(just a dab). It also came with a German Chocolate Sun Flour cookie- nicely labeled gluten free with ingredients. Although I’ve had some negative experiences with the Sun Flour cookies (based on pinto bean flour), the coconutty chocolate cookie was downright tasty. On the flight from London to Bangalore the British air meal was not quite as tasty, but they served plain salmon with pretty good mashed potatoes and some very, uh, well cooked veggies in a buttery sauce. While the GF meal just had some rather nasty prepared pears for dessert, the vegetarian meal came with kick-patootie rice pudding from Ireland, labeled, that I gobbled half of- DH ate the other half.. It was awesome and confirmed my faith in the advantage of ordering the vegetarian meal in addition to the gluten-free meal. Breakfasts were less satisfactory. American Airlines served me a suspicious looking bagel in the American airlines meal carelessly wrapped in saran wrap with no label. While it might POSSIBLY have been GF and it was different than the regular meal’s croissant, DH (my official guinea pig/ taste tester) thought it tasted wheaty so I avoided it. Personally, I never eat bread products that aren’t labeled because I have had careless stewards throw on a roll from the regular meal onto the special meal. (Flight to Paris, 2001- scary but they did serve very tasty cheese and luckily I didn’t eat the roll.) I so never want to embark on a marathon gluten-inspired barfing session on a plane. The British air breakfast was
decent, but light (left me still hungry) with some more potato mash and i think eggs. Unfortunately it had a big fat slice of ham on the bottom of the dish which I threw away- not ideal, but what can you do.

The point of this post is not necessarily to tell you what you can expect from any gluten-free meal on American airlines or British airlines, as they differ by day and destination. But I did want to let you know the type of meal options you can expect and also a few tips I’ve picked up on these kinds of marathon international trips.

When traveling gluten-free internationally:

1) PACK GLUTEN-FREE SNACKS. These snacks should be hardy and unlikely to be damaged by humidity, dryness, or being shook around in your bag. I like to pack homemade biscotti (check Bette Hagman or Rebecca Reilly’s cookbooks for some great recipes), Bette Hagman’s parmesan toast points, and homemade GF crackers. Prepared snacks are great too- you can try packaged nuts, dried fruit (may not be appropriate for customs), prepared GF cookies or crackers found at Trader Joes or a health food store (Glutino’s round crackers are great), your favorite GF chips or GF cereal, or any packaged treats that will last well.

2) READ UP ON AIRLINE REGULATIONS. Lately liquids and gels are serious issues- you may be able to pack them in your checked bags but they will be an issue in carry on. You may be able to get small amounts of gel/liquid food in by packing them in a clear, quart sized bag, but anything over 3 oz. won’t be allowed. Also, it’s highly doubtful you will be able to take juices or water from home through security, so don’t count on it… you may be able to purchase water or juice once you’re past security, and may be able to take these on the plane, but it’s not a sure thing, and regulations can change.

3) REQUEST YOUR GF MEAL as early as possible. Most airlines require at least 24 hours notice, and it’s hard to make it through a long flight without a supplementary hot meal, IMO. Flying is tiring enough without being hungry too.

4) GRAB A MEAL WHEN YOU CAN. If you see something at the airport you can eat, get it and eat it or take it on the plane. You won’t be sorry (except maybe at paying exorbitant airport prices). You never know when you’ll be able to find a decent meal- and with airline penny pinching you may be surprised at how often they DON’T feed you. This is especially important on a layover before a long second leg of a flight. You’ve probably eaten any prepared meal that you brought with you already and you can’t necessarily count on a palatable GF meal on the plane. Good bets are: sushi places, fries (if you trust McDonalds), and some prepared salads- fruit salad is especially likely to be safe. You might be able to grab and eat a yogurt at this point, even if you can’t get it on the plane.

5) RESEARCH YOUR DESTINATION, especially in regards to their regional cuisine and any gluten typically found in that cuisine. Contact the Celiac Association for the country that you will be visiting and see if they can’t provide tips on restaurants, housing, and shopping. Many European destinations may surprise you at how many options they have for the gluten free tourist! Print out gluten free dietary cards in the language of the country you will be visiting. It can’t hurt to learn how to say “celiac” or “gluten free” in that country’s language. You may also find helpful tips from locals or experienced travelers/expats by posting on travel forums.

6) PACK SOME EMERGENCY MEAL STAPLES, especially if you can arrange hotels with microwaves. I like to bring Thai Kitchen noodle pouches (in onion or garlic) for a 3 minute microwave meal. If you know you’ll have a kitchen and your destination is not likely to have such things easily available, it may be worth it to bring gluten free pasta or powder pasta sauce mixes in your checked baggage. (Mayacamas will turn a boring hostel pasta into WOW satisfying pasta. They served me well when traveling around Japan solo. You can find them in some health food stores or on Amazon.

7) BE FLEXIBLE! It’s especially hard when we have needs or dietary requests that don’t fit neatly into one category. Being gluten-free while traveling can be difficult, but being gluten-free and vegetarian or dairy-free etc. can be even harder. Try to be creative- have your plane companion order a special meal that fits your other dietary profile and then combine the two for something edible. If restaurants and plane food aren’t working for you, try an airport convenience store- treat yourself to some chocolate bars or chips that you wouldn’t ordinarily indulge in. Hey, all those calories may just keep you going! Do be careful with airport trail mixes- the odd brands they often carry can contain oat flour on the chopped date component. Also, in the airport check out regional specialties for an impromptu snack. Sees candies is just one example of a regional food that is sold as a souvenir but just might make a fabulous treat for a forlorn and hungry GF veggie. If you have access to the internet, you can verify gluten free status on a site like the SillyYaks Yahoo group or GF forums. (Do a keyword search on google and see what comes up).

and most important,

8) HAVE FUN! I have to admit, travel is one of the few times being gluten-free can get me down. But, if you prepare well ahead and roll with the glutenous punches, you can travel safely and in good health. And while sometimes travel is all about the food, sometimes it really isn’t. Take a good long look at the Taj Mahal… Enjoy the tranquility of a Zen garden… Go on a jungle safari in Africa- and what you eat or don’t eat won’t seem so significant anymore. The world is an amazing place, and we can’t let any pesky diet get in the way of exploring it!

I’ll keep you posted on our trip one bite at a time- right now I’m at my husband’s company’s branch office in Bangalore, looking out the window at another building with a “Shabari Bakes N Sweets” sign for a restaurant selling snacks… We’re having a wonderful time and I’m so glad I came!

Check out
Catherine’s Gluten-Free Travel Tips
Biggie over at Lunch in a Box has some great tips on packing a bento for the plane!Read them here

Please post any recent GF travel experiences in the Comments! Had any tasty Gluten-Free Airline meals? Any atrocious ones?

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