Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Gluten Free Thailand [Gluten Free Cambodia too]

We can make it that way, but it won’t be very delicious!

I spent two weeks in Thailand in December with a friend of mine. I had an amazing time, but this was primarily due to the things we saw and did, not the dining options.

Buddhist Temple in Bangkok
Before heading to Thailand I did a couple of internet searches on eating gluten free in Thailand (and Cambodia where we went for a couple of days) and really didn’t find much in the way of places to eat or advice. The two articles I did find, suggested that as long as you could say ‘no soy sauce’ and ‘no oyster sauce’ you would be fine. Sadly, this really isn’t true.

Traditional Thai food is indeed primarily gluten free and dairy free.  However, cuisine is not static and recipes shift with outside influences. Chinese soy sauce can be used quite a bit in Thai cooking and I even encountered the western custom of breading and frying meats in more than one restaurant. One night, I successfully avoided a dish that had hidden soy sauce (the waitress double checked) only to order and receive a dish smothered in western style gravy! Overall, there is an almost non-existent awareness of food allergies.

On the upside, Southeast Asians do really want to be helpful. This can have its downsides (see the second tip below) but it means that if you can find someone you can communicate with they will go out of their way to accommodate you. One night in Cambodia, our waitress was more than happy to have my dinner prepared without any type of sauce but she is the source of the quote at the start of this article: “We can make it that way, but it won’t be very delicious!” Ah, the story of my life!

Sunrise over Angkor Wat, Cambodia
Breakfast was the hardest meal for me (as it usually is when traveling). In addition to dairy and gluten, I can’t have pork (so bacon, sausage and ham were out) nor can I eat a lot of egg (so fried eggs and Thai Fried rice (which contains quite a bit of egg) were out). That left me with very little to eat in the hotels that had included breakfast and even at restaurants when trying to eat breakfast out. I had brought a couple of breakfast bars but these were mostly for the flights (I relied too heavily on the afore mentioned reviews and wasn’t as prepared as I should have been).

Lunch and dinner were a touch easier . . . once I found someone who understood my issues. Still, I’ve put together a number of tips for anyone attempting a trip to this region (and I do really recommend that you go)!

  • When arriving at a restaurant, ask to speak to someone who speaks English. I had a number of waiters flounder and not understand (even with my allergen listing in Thai) and they never thought to get someone else until asked. In one restaurant, the chef was from India and spoke English better than most Americans! We stopped at another restaurant off the highway coming back from Cambodia where the menu was only in Thai and our waitress didn’t speak a word of English. When asked, she returned with another employee who had lived in the US and spoke without a discernable accent. He was fully aware of food allergies and that was by far the safest I felt at a meal all trip.

Kayaking in Phang Nga Bay
  • Don’t ask yes/no questions. I was warned before going that Thai people don’t like to say no and that I should be careful asking yes/no questions. What I actually found is that Thai people don’t like to admit they don’t know and will instead give you the answer they think you want to hear. Asking an open ended question will also allow you to judge their English ability as most wait staff had an excellent grasp of the words on the menu but wouldn’t understand if I deviated from normal restaurant words and phrases (yes, gluten and cross contamination were certainly deviations!)

  • Be aware that often the meats were pre-marinated in a marinade that contained soy sauce. Again, just asking for ‘no soy sauce’ did not/would not have caught this everytime.

  • By all means bring allergen cards but use them as an aid when talking with someone who speaks English. Also be aware that a number of restaurants (especially those offering non-Thai cuisine) may have staffs that aren’t Thai and therefore can’t read Thai.

  • Bangkok had a lot of street vendors (including many who had large seating areas and tables) but indoor, sit down restaurants could be a bit harder to find. [I never once tried eating at one of the outdoor vendors so I’m not sure how receptive they are/would have been to my allergen cards.]

  • Soy Sauce packets: If bringing your own soy sauce packets, be sure to double bag them. There is the possibility that the change in pressure on the plane will cause them to burst.

Feeding a baby tiger
  • I recommend bringing at least a good supply of breakfast bars. I never once saw Gluten free bread or specifically gluten free snacks. There were ‘no gluten ingredient’ cookies in the airport duty free shops (never saw them elsewhere). And I found plenty of dried fruit and nuts (again, there were no gluten ingredients listed but these did not bear a gluten free label). [The Gourmet Market in the Siam World Mall in Bangkok did actually have two freezer cases of Amy’s Kitchen organic products (a good number of which were gluten free varieties) but without a way of keeping them and/or reheating them these weren’t useful.]

  • 'Seasoning' is allowable as an ingredient. There was no notice of what it was made from. I did find some chips that were labeled as containing gluten, but again, never anything labeled as being gluten free.

  • Menu tip #1: Fried. Fried is used both to mean breaded and deep fried as well as to mean stir fried as one would expect in Asian cuisine.

  • Menu tip #2: Boiled. Especially with breakfast, boiled chicken / boiled shrimp is actually a soup made with chicken/shrimp, rice, and green onions. I had this twice at the same restaurant. The first time, I guess the waiter understood more than I thought he had as it came with pieces of chicken breast in it. The second day, I assumed it was safe and I ordered it again (asking just that there be no soy sauce) but this time it was chicken meatballs, not actual pieces.

  • Breakfast tip: Plain rice. Even if it isn’t listed on the menu it was very easy to get plain steamed rice.

  • Dessert Tip: Mango and sticky rice should be both gluten and dairy free (do double check).  It is quite good but unfortunatly out of season so hard to find in December.

That’s it for the specifically Thailand/Cambodia tips, if you are looking for some general gluten free travel tips try: Gluten Free Travel Tips (part 1) and (part 2).

Again, this trip was an amazing experience and I am glad I went. I just wish this review was the one I had read before going and I was more prepared for what I encountered. I am not very sensitive to cross-contamination so a lot of what I ran into wasn’t as bad as it would have been for others but it still could be frustrating at points.

I’ll leave you with one final anecdote that made me chuckle: On one of our day tours, I listed all of my food issues to our guide so she could help me navigate breakfast. She looked more and more concerned as I worked my way down the list. When I was done she replied with genuine sympathy, “oh, no one will ever marry you!” Sad but very true!

Update 8/21/13 - I've recently been in touch with a Canadian expat living in Bangkok. She has celiac disease and has been blogging about her experiences and gluten free finds in Thailand. Check out her blog: Gluten Free Thailand. Oh, how I wish I had had some of her advice before going!