Navigating an Indian Buffet Banquet Meal with Allergies or Gluten Intolerance

condiments.jpgThis afternoon we had the treat of going to a farewell luncheon for one of DH’s co-workers in India. I was a bit nervous about whether I would be able to have the food, given that I cannot eat gluten (wheat, rye, oats, or barley), and at least the first, wheat, is quite common in many snacks and appetizers served at such gatherings. Actually, a few days ago, DH’s branch office here had a party with a feast- but unfortunately, I could eat almost nothing as the ratio of fried, wheaty things and wheat snacks was quite high. I felt even more trepidation about this kind of sit down event, as everything was part of an elaborate set meal with multiple courses and it would be horribly obvious if I declined every dish. Nevertheless, I was looking forward to getting the chance to talk to more of DH’s co-workers. Also, we know the guest of honor personally, as not only had he visited us (and the company, of course) in the US, but he had us over to his house for an amazing feast here in Bangalore. [I hope to write a post about the feast and his wife and extended family's amazing hospitality later.]

restaurantvineet.jpgfishies.jpg 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. salad.jpgI 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. papadam2.jpg 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 two British brands of papad that is labeled Gluten-Free in my local Whole Foods. Look for Sharwood’s or Patak’s gluten free papadum in import markets or health food stores in your area. Also see Maeve’s tips in the comments on how to prepare them! (Thanks, Maeve!)

paneermutter.jpgalooyum.jpgAnd then, as the mains began arriving, my patience was rewarded. (Honest, I have patience! really! ;)) After some non-veg false starts, it was time for some lovely veg “curries.” First was a delicious potato-green pepper dish in a veg “gravy”- no flour, just vegetable stuffs making a delicious sauce. I don’t know how they made it, exactly, but here are some recipes that may help you approximate this tasty dish. Apparently the Hindi for Green Pepper is “Simla Mirch”, and as you will recall from my last post, Potato is “Aloo”. So, here is a Sookha Aaloo Simla Mirch Recipe (Sookha=dry) and a Aloo-shimla mirch sabzi. I liked this dish so much I actually asked for seconds. *blush* Next came a delicious Mutter Paneer (mutter=green peas) in a yummy tomato gravy, as seen in the picture on the left. If you want to make some at home, try this Mutter Paneer Masala Recipe or perhaps Mutter paneer Recipe with Cashews. yumdal.jpg If you are dairy intolerant (or vegan), I would try Amy’s Kitchen trick and use tofu for your paneer and unsweetened plain soy milk for the cream. If you are allergic to cashews or other nuts, be very careful when eating out as many gravies seem to contain cashew to make the gravy more rich and flavorful. And last, but definitely not least, was a delicious dal makhani, or at least that’s what I think it was. Whatever kind of dal (lentil/pulse dish) it was, it was unexpectedly delicious! I’m not generally that crazy about dal, to be dreadfully honest. Both the green dal (mung) and yellow dal (toor) seem to me to be lacking personality on their own, and I’ve had many a plain ayurvedic type recipe that just didn’t quite thrill me. Also, dal is often seasoned with small amounts of asafoetida for digestibility and flavor- it’s a small amount, but better to avoid in case the said spice is cut with wheat flour, as it often is. However, this time I couldn’t help myself from trying a bite- and it was amazingly good. Unfortunately the meal was served with North Indian style breads (unfortunately quite popular here in the South, it seems), but there was a pulao rice dish served at the very end of the main meal. I would have loved some plain steamed rice, but even without the meal was quite good. Next time I think I would ask for some, though, as it would have made a very good meal absolutely perfect. What I have discovered is that it is quite possible to eat out (relatively) safely in India- curries are a generally safe, delicious option- and I’ve learned so many new recipes and gotten so many new ideas that I can’t wait to go home and experiment in my own kitchen.


English-Hindi Ingredient Dictionary

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6 Responses to “Navigating an Indian Buffet Banquet Meal with Allergies or Gluten Intolerance”

  1. What you did get to eat looks tasty! Sounds like a fun (if occasionally trepidatious) experience.

  2. Both Sharwood’s and Patak’s do a wide range of poppadums in the UK and both offer gluten-free selections- I am a big fan, and I just microwave them. 40 seconds each, turn half way, and as they cool, they crisp. And there are lots of gluten-free chutneys to go with them…

  3. Still Learning GF Says:

    You’re brave!! I have been admiring your gumption as I have read your recent posts on eating outside your “comfort zone.”

    I have lived abroad for more than twenty years but it is only more recently that I have had to go gluten-free. I have given up eating out of the house … We were guests at the head table of a friend’s wedding the other week and I just kept waving the waiters on. I did bring out some homemade GF crackers and fruit just so I could “join” the meal. Don’t think I’d even do that next time as it proved to be a bit awkward.

    I have been surprised by gluten tucked in all kinds of places. And, that’s not counting the unusual places one won’t expect, except that I know the food. My husband’s work takes us out of the house fairly often … but I’ve given up on eating food that I haven’t seen prepared or can specifically order at a restaurant.

    Any suggestions? I’m jealous that you seem to be doing so well!!

  4. Hi Sally! Yep, in the end the meal was quite tasty. Thanks for commenting!

    Hi Maeve- perfect, thanks for the info. I modified the post to include those brand names. :)

    Hi Still Learning, Where are you located? I’ve found that each country I’ve visited or lived in has its own dangers- and unfortunately, weddings and festivals can be the most difficult for eating gluten-free. Actually, even in the States weddings can be a real headache- I’ve brought my own food many times, and been glad to have it. Isn’t it annoying how gluten can hide in so many dishes? And even if there isn’t gluten, cross contamination can be a real pain, too. *sigh* I’m having a good time, but definitely testing my limits- and I will be relieved to be back in my own kitchen… in another couple of weeks. *eeek!*

    As far as suggestions go- I think it really depends on the situation and country’s cuisine so much, that I’m not sure how valuable my advice will be. Except- don’t be afraid to advocate for yourself and your own health, don’t be pressured into trying something that you feel is risky, and do bring your own food in situations where safe food may not be available. Also, it never hurts to ask for special dishes to be made from, say, head chefs at restaurants. The nicer the place the more likely they will be to accommodate you, in my experience. I am sometimes too quick to assume that people can’t or won’t be willing to make special accommodations, and then when they unexpectedly volunteer sometimes it’s too late… if that makes sense. :)

  5. Still Learning GF Says:

    Thanks for your thoughts. I especially understood your last comment about well-meaning friends trying to accommodate your diet … and not getting it right. Once you’ve eaten it … it’s too late!

    I live in the Philippines … and soy sauce finds its way into most dishes. I have only found one locally made soy sauce that doesn’t have wheat or caramel color (something I’ve been told may have wheat when it is made outside the US).

    Actually, eating gluten free is not a hardship for me. How could I want to eat something that makes me feel badly!? But it often is a problem for people around me, in a culture where food is so important, when they can’t share their enjoyment/bounty with me. They feel badly which, in turn, effects me.

    Hope you enjoy Austria! The cuisine may be more familiar but it seems like it would be much more wheat-based than the food in India. I’m sure the GF pension house will be a great respite.

  6. These look yummy, Sea. Glad you found something to eat. A person has to take a chance when you’re out of your own environment, as you are doing, or you don’t eat. And that’s not good. :) But you seem to have done a lot of research to make educated decisions. A good strategy!

    I have the “dreaded” Christmas party season coming up, where I go to restaurants with students for a meal. One is my local Indian restaurant, which I requested because I know what’s safe. But the other is a pasta restaurant! About all I will be able to have is coffee and juice. Guess I’ll eat before I go, and keep talking so no one notices. :)

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