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

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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23 Responses to “Dining as a Gluten-Free Veg in India: Decoding a North Indian Menu for Allergies”

  1. Yum-I love Indian food and this is certainly helpful! Enjoy your trip. Thanks for the post about alcohol, I have enjoyed several martinis successfully and healthily! Thanks for stopping by.


  2. Now I just need to book my trip! What an incredible resource you have put together. There was a restaurant in NY that told me poori and chole batura were gluten-free – they definitely weren’t and I sure felt it later….

  3. It was my understanding that asofetida and hing that is included in many an Indian dish contains a gluten component. Have you by any chance researched that?

  4. Watch out for the hing/asafoetida it is frequently ground with flour of some sort and frequently with wheat flour (at least when sold in the US). I haven’t tried out the rice flour stuff to see if it is GF.

  5. Hi Liz and Ceri,
    Yes, the powdered spice asofoetida/hing often contains wheat flour. Apparently it is also available as a resin that would be less likely to contain flour, but I am less familiar with it in this form. I have found some recipes which use it, but few of the recipes I’ve linked to contain it. If you’re looking to make GF indian food at home and want to use it, it is possible to find a version made with rice flour- one is packaged by Whole Foods and the other is an Indian brand, but you have to look carefully. I never buy anything packaged and labeled which contains asofoetida because the label is not usually broken down into sub-parts. As far as eating out in restaurants in India- communication can be a serious issue, and any spice component (packaged masala, asafoetida etc.) could theoretically contain wheat. See my initial warning re: spice mixes. You may have better luck getting clear answers in the states (MAY although some servers are more helpful than others), but unfortunately eating out here tends to be something of a hit or miss. Some dishes are naturally safer than others, but all the gluten-free traveler can do is try to communicate their needs and hope for the best. One helpful thing to do is go to your local Indian market and read the labels of the packaged indian meal pouches. Few of the wet “curries” (for lack of a better word) sold as packaged meals seem to contain asofoetida. Once you have a dish with asofoetida, you should be able to recognize the smell and flavor- it’s very distinctive! According to Wikipedia, “In India, it is used especially by the merchant caste of the Hindus and by adherents of Jainism, who do not eat onions and garlic. It is used [by these groups] in most vegetarian and lentil dishes to both add flavor and aroma and reduce flatulence.” So, it seems that you might want to be careful of Northern dishes that do not include onion and garlic, in Jain dishes, and some dal dishes. Although pappadam is at base gluten free, it is one dish that almost always has asofoetida in the seasoning so I avoid it. I have frequently found asafoetida used in some vegetarian dry curry recipes, yogurt dishes, and chutneys. There is some argument that you should avoid cold yogurt and cold chutney dishes anyway while traveling in India (unless acclimated) as they may be thinned with tap water containing bacteria likely to cause travelers stomach distress. Because it has a reputation for making beans more digestible, it may also be found in dal dishes, and is sometimes found in the Southern Dravidian spice mixture, sambar podi, used in sambar lentil soup served with rice idli.

    Hope this helps!


  6. As far as rice products, the batter for Rice idli and an ordinary dosa are always gluten free as they are made up simply of rice and urad dal that have been soaked, ground up together, and fermented. Rava idli and Rava dosa are made from semolina instead of rice and so are not gluten-free. With these products, especially the dosa, you have to be careful of the cooking surface- it’s often a hot, flat grill where rava dosa or other flatbreads may also be cooked. The ideal would be to find a restaurant that only makes plain dosa on the cooking surface… but it’s a challenge.

    I will post about them sometime next week :D

  7. Hi Sea
    Thanks for visiting and writing about my Paneer Makhani recipe. You have a wonderful post here on a gluten free diet. There is so much about the gluten which I am learning through your site.

  8. Gooooooo Sea! So wonderful to see you’re enjoying yourself and have time to blog!

  9. Hey Sia, Thanks for putting up the Kadhi pakora recipe up in ur post! Indeed, the post has lots of info.. Great post.. Enjoi!

    ~ Siri

  10. [...] When we arrived at the restaurant, it seemed nice, with cute fish in a stone water garden in the entrance. (See if you can find fish #3…) We sat down at a long wooden table covered in magenta brocade strips, and had some bottled water while we waited for all twenty-something guests to arrive. The table filled with people, and count was taken of the “veg” and “non-veg” guests. I love how easy the veg-distinction is here! Slowly the food began arriving- starting with a nice, fragrant tomato shorba (soup). See my previous post for some tomato shorba recipes. It seemed like a nice, safe thin broth, and when we asked, they said they didn’t use flour for thickening it, so I had some and enjoyed the light, delicately spiced broth. This was no thick, gloppy American Campbell soup- it was a million times more subtle and delicious, with a hint of cumin and other spices I could only guess at. Next they brought snacks, which is when I became nervous- a variety of things, many appearing lightly breaded or floured- baby corn in a light batter with red chilis, flat fried disks topped with fresh vegetables and cheeses, potato cubes covered in masala (?) but also perhaps flour and fried- a host of bites that looked like they might contain wheat. I decided not to risk them, and hoped that the future would bring me something I could eat. One thing that surprised me was that they used one plate for this process- the servers would come by and pile servings of each dish on your plate. You could refuse by waving your hand, but several dishes were served to me before I could see them properly, so I ended up with several potentially wheaty things on my plate. I gave a little white moat of plate space around each slightly risky food until it became obvious that everyone cleared the remnants that they didn’t want onto a small plate to the left and then got new food piled on the same plate. After having some of a simple Indian style salad (no lettuce, just fresh veggies sprinkled in salt and chili pepper), I asked for a new plate and got one, which I guarded with my life, or at least, a flutter of hands, until more friendly food came along. One thing to keep in mind about salads is that tap water in India is quite likely to contain bacteria that international visitor’s bodies may not be used to, so raw veggies may pose a risk (of some intestinal distress) if they have been rinsed in said water. I’ve been risking the veggie salads, but not lettuce- the Lonely Planet recommends soaking lettuce and possibly raw veggies in iodized water for 20 minutes before consumption. I’d rather skip the lettuce, and cross my fingers about the (preferably peeled) raw veggies, myself. You may wish to be more cautious. I’ve also been dining exclusively in hotels and mid-to high-range restaurants, so a village experience may be different. The condiments shown as the main photo here include a green sauce (mint or cilantro, I would guess), a numbingly spicy red chutney and some lovely pearl onions- I coveted them but was concerned about the water issue. I should also mention the lovely papadum that was served with the condiments at the beginning of the meal- I avoided it out of a concern for the asafoetida/hing seasoning often used with papad (see comments and previous post), but it looked very crisp and appetizing. If you would like to try papad at home, I found at least one British brand of papad that is labeled Gluten-Free in my local Whole Foods. (If you know the brand, please share in comments and I will edit this post.) [...]

  11. wonderful article and thanks for linking my recipes to your entry :-)

  12. [...] they are usually served with gluten wheat flatbread, you can always order them with rice. Of all the dishes I enjoyed, Aloo Jeera, or potatoes with Cumin, was one of my absolute favorites. I never thought I liked [...]

  13. ummm… I see that the asafoetida thing has gone out of hand. Typically, one would use about 40-50 mg of Hing(asafoetida) in about a kilo of veggies. So if its a ground version, one could expect it to have about half of that as flour. The pure resin, if you can find it, has no flour at all.
    So, basically, if you have a mild form of gluten sensitivity, you dont have to be hypersensitive abut Hing.
    Sout Indian food is generally gluten free, but stay away from parottas which are the same as punjabi paranthas in content. Avoid all flatbreads, to stay safe.

  14. Shabnam, I am aware of the small quantity of hing used in dishes as I often prepare Indian dishes. I have Celiac Sprue, a medical condition which necessitates complete avoidance of gluten in the diet. Basically my body responds to gluten by having an autoimmune response where the body attacks itself. Consuming gluten results in the disease being “activated” and antibody levels rise which can, in the long term, lead to serious complications like stomach cancer. Even small amounts of gluten should be avoided by someone with Celiac- even parts per MILLION. This blog is a gluten-free blog, not a “little bit of gluten is ok” blog, so I include the information for my readers. The pure resin is not available in the US, as far as I know, and even home cooks in India seem to use the powdered stuff- one should not count on it being the form used in restaurants or homes. I’m not sure what a “mild” form of gluten sensitivity is, but for those with Celiac, no amount of gluten is a good idea.

  15. Have just read with interest your blogs in preparation for a trip to Chandigarh In the North for a friends wedding. Thanks for all the info

    I am quite concerned myself as I am very sensitive to a trace of wheat being a coeliac. A mistake will end up in 24 hrs of hell and another 24hrs recovery
    I love eating and cooking Indian food at home where a certain level of control can be enjoyed but eating out in Great Britian is hard enough so am hoping that all will be Ok.

  16. Thank you so much for posting this. We are heading to India on Tuesday. I am a new to be Gluten Free and have a slight intolerance to it as well as dairy. I am mostly vegan. I found http://www.indianvegan.com
    When we are in the north maybe we will find some Jain restaurants???
    We will be doing video blogs of our travels while we are there. We are flying into Delhi and traveling north and than heading north to Rishikesh and other points north.
    This was so very help and noted all that you had mentioned.
    Thank you.

  17. Jyothi Mcminn Says:

    These flat breads also can have grated carrots, boiled potatoes grated and cheese and spinach or peas cooks and pureed. Try adding plenty of cilantro , adding a tsp. of cumin powder.One has to experiment to like the taste to try again.

  18. hi my daughter is celiac requiring her to have a very strict gluten free diet. we are going to india for the first time since she has been diagnosed. more so my daughter than myself is worried of whats available as main meals and how much should we take from home to cater for the the time we are there which is two weeks, also taken into account that my daughter is type 1 diabetic.

  19. Hi Shaz,
    I also have Celiac so I understand her concern. I don’t know what her typical diet includes, so I can’t advise you on what she should bring, but I imagine most healthy fresh foods that are required by diabetics are available in India from grocery stores. You might consider a situation where she can prepare her own meals. Personally I survived well on curries, dal and rice. White rice is typical, which may be too high on the glycemic index for your daughter. However, she might try a high protein diet with dals, veg and non-veg dishes (if non-veg). My friends and I had issues with food poisoning so I don’t recommend seafood (Refrigeration is an issue, especially if you are not on the coast with fresh seafood), and if she eats prepared restaurant food there is likely to be small amounts of cross contamination with ground spices and ingredients like asafoetida/hing. If your daughter was not born in India she may also be wary of fresh salads washed in the water also. Some small amount of contamination is probably unavoidable while traveling (kitchens will not be gluten-free) but it should be manageable. If you are able to stay somewhere with a kitchen or hire a cook that can be made to understand the diet, she may be able to avoid higher risk situations. On the other hand, I was able to travel in India for several weeks without noticeable gluten contamination (although a few instances of food poisoning shared by my non-celiac traveling companions). Best of luck to your daughter and I hope she enjoys the trip!


  20. This was a very informative article. Thanks so much for it. Nowhere has anyone talked so well about a gluten-free diet in the indian context.

  21. A slight correction there.. where you have mentioned a dish called upattham… It is actually pronounced and spelt as uthappam… I am an Indian from the Southern Region and thanks for visiting our country and elucidating on its various cuisine treasures.

  22. Wow! I am an Indian myself, and I have never read anything so beautifully categorizing and calling out the various food based buckets!!

    Not only is it highly interesting but also very useful, considering, most health based articles, tips, guides online or magazines are in line with international specifications, tying them back to Indian diet plan was nearly impossible – (like the idea of what indian food has gluten, or the vegan diet plans) … here is a huge first step for people like me to understand what best we can eat when trying to match a good diet plan suggested by a nutritionalist from another country!!


  23. I loved reading your blog. I recently found thati am a Celiac.Being Indian I find that I can cook a variety of foods that do not contain gluten.I live in the US and don’t have access to good sorghum or bajra so I have taken to eating corn tortillas. They pair well with Indian foods.

    Most of the fritters that you are served in restaurants and in homes are made with besan, essentially a chickpea flour which is glutenfree. A word of caution- the tempering in most south indianfoods have hing which is not gluten free as it contains smallamounts of wheat starch.

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