My entry into Thailand, though easy and thrilling, came with some huge food difficulties. Being gluten intolerant, I knew that I was going to have to be really mindful of what I ate, and ask questions about what I was eating. Man, did it turn out to be harder than I expected! At one point I felt so sick, it was as if I was right back 6 years ago in the middle of my health crisis when I didn’t know what was wrong with me, but I was sure I was dying.
Every joint hurt, my gut hurt, my muscles were weak, my head was a fog, my energy and mood were totally blunted and I was emotional. Not fun. In one moment of irrational reaction, I swore off food for 3 months while we traveled through the country. Clearly that didn’t last more than the time it took for me to settle down from my melt down.
Here in Thailand you can find gluten in the following foods:
- Most soups – broths are usually made with bouillon that contain MSG
- All noodles that are not rice noodles – but then even those will usually come in a broth that has MSG in it
- Soy Sauce and Fish Sauce – both contain gluten and are used in almost every dish whether you can taste it or not
- Curry pastes that are not made in house contain MSG – Most of the time a restaurant does not make it’s own curry paste
- Rice – this is hit and miss, and I don’t know why. Sometimes I’m fine, sometimes not at all
Needless to say, I’m not traveling through Thailand tasting all of it’s culinary delights. It took me a couple of days to make peace with the fact that how I experienced this country was going to be limited by my food. Though now, a month into our time here, I’m finding inspiration in the familiar to me ingredients and how they are used in very different ways. This is feeding my culinary soul and inspiring all sorts of ideas on what I can do with my dishes at home when I return to Maui.
If you’re going to travel through Thailand and have Celiacs or you’re gluten intolerant here are a few tips to help you mitigate the food selection:
- Tourist Restaurants – Most major cities or islands that tourist tend to go to have restaurants that cater to a more Western or foreigner diet. This can be extremely helpful because you can buy familiar meals that are most likely to not contain gluten or soy sauce or fish sauce. I’ve eaten my share of omelets, grilled chicken tacos, raw salads with lemon and oil dressing, and even a few gluten free items like chili chocolate cake in Koh Phagnan.
- Be very wary of street food – This is a heart break. Thai street food is insanely delicious and the smells are mind blowing. Most however use soy sauce, or seasonings with MSG. There was this great BBQ stand with kabobs of all sorts of meats. I had the chicken which was marinated in some BBQ sauce and I felt that for 3 days. Yes… it was insanely yummy.
- Smoothies and Fruit Juices – These are everywhere, in every restaurant and countless street stalls. Have at it. They’re fresh, gorgeous and gluten free!
- Learn Thai Phrases – These are hit and miss. It can be confusing to servers and cooks that don’t quite understand what gluten free even is. I’ve asked for no soy sauce and no fish sauce and though I got a lot of head nods, it just didn’t translate and I got soy sauce in my meal anyway. Still it’s worth a shot so here are a few phrases to know:
Gluten Free/MAI mee gloo-ten
Celiac/geen gloo ten MAI DAI
I don’t eat wheat/geen KAO san lee MAI DAI
I don’t eat Soy sauce/geen see iu MAI DAI
I don’t eat Fish Sauce/geen nam plah MAI DAI
- Soy Sauce – It’s in everything. Often it’s used as a substitute for salt in the cooking. I’ve asked for no soy sauce, but often it’s still used. You’ll find Soy sauce in most dishes including rice, sometimes in omelets or scrambled eggs. I’m avoiding most foods that would have it, and only asking for no Soy sauce in restaurants that are use to dealing with a foreign crowd, and are a bit more dietary conscious.
- Fish Sauce – This is easier to avoid, it’s not in all dishes, and because most places are use to dealing with Vegetarian or Vegans, asking to not have this placed in your food seems to get a better response.
- Soups and broths – Most broths, if not all are made with the Knorr bouillons which contain MSG. I’ve heard of places that make their own broth fresh and do not use these, but I have yet to find them. My solution has been to avoid them altogether, which is a bummer as there are quite a few dishes that look phenomenal.
- Breathe – This can be extremely frustrating and sad for most of us. It’s not easy traveling through a country that has amazing cuisine and not being able to eat most of it. It takes a bit, but acceptance is key here. I had my week of boohoos and then moved on. I’m experiencing a spectacular land in a manner that I am able to. Honestly? What isn’t there to be grateful for? So I do what I always do, make mindful choices, ask loads of questions, and when I find a place that can feed me well, I go there… a lot!
As well, I’m only a month into traveling through Thailand and I’ll like spend another 2 months here while also moving on into other countries. I certainly don’t know it all, so if you have done this before and have other tips, please share them here. I both need them, and want to share them with the rest of my readers.