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 »

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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.

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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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