Thailand - Traveling as a celiac

In September 2006, I traveled to Thailand for 21 days. This was my first visit to an asian country and I was a little concerned about what gluten free food would be available, as well as the normal concerns with health issues you could expect going into Asia.

On my arrival in Bangkok the first thing that stood out was the amount of people in the city.  Thai people have the knack of being able to balance anything on a push bike or motor bike.  This city is vibrant and is ablaze of color, people, street markets and food stalls. Initially this can be a little over-whelming and can make you want to retreat to your hotel.  Give yourself 24 hours to get over the jet-lag and to take in the new sights – before you know it you will be just like a local.  I was wearing “fisherman pants” and a fake pair of “crocs” within 24 hours, after initially not wanting to leave our hotel in Bangkok. 

When you are preparing for your trip to Thailand the travel guide books are invaluable.  This resource will help you with all the cultural aspects but also give you information on the local food.  Traveling to a foreign country has its challenges especially when you are not able to speak the language and you need to ask questions about the food before you order.  My number one tip is to photocopy and cut out the glossary of food items from your guide book. This, then, is a handy guide you can keep in your wallet for quick reference.

 Travel cards available from the internet or your local celiac society are also very handy.  These cards state you have a medical diagnosed condition and require a gluten free diet. Although these cards are helpful, I have found that for the street vendors they are too complicated, as it contains too much information.  I found it very helpful to have another card saying – NO SOYA SAUCE. NO OYSTER SAUCE.  I organized for the owner of our local thai restaurant to write this in 'thai' and then I had it laminated.  This simple card was very useful.  It still comes back to when you are ordering, you need to make wise choices just as you would when you are back home.

I have very fond memories of Thailand and the food that I was able to eat. Food that you experience on your holidays certainly will make or break your holiday. The Thai experience certainly will be one to remember. Here is a few guidelines to help you decide on what to eat.

Breakfast

In most hotels breakfast is served “western” style. I find this the most difficult meal because toast, cereals that are readily available are off the menu for celiacs. You can normally choose from yogurt, fruit and eggs. When eating fruit, you should choose fruit that has a skin and has been peeled. You should only consume bottled water and fruit juice – this is to avoid any contamination issues with the local water.

Curry dishes with rice are often available at breakfast that can be eaten with eggs to add a little bit of variety. It is always good to take your own savory gluten free biscuits that can be eaten with jam. Sometimes it is just the thing to finish up with or when you are not that hungry or are craving for bread. This is a good substitute if you did not pack any gluten free bread from home.

Lunch/Dinner

You will soon discover an amazing amount of gluten free dishes on offer.

Rice noodle dishes (Kuay tiaw). Most noodles are made from 100% pure rice flour. The most popular dish with travelers is Phat Thai. Rice noodles are also used in soups with chicken or beef stock (if their stock is home made, it should be gluten free but if it is a commercial stock you need to check). Meat and vegetables are then added to the noodle dishes.

There is also a clear noodle (wun-sen) made from mung bean starch and water which is gluten free. It is used in three different dishes – they use it in a hot and tangy salad, bean thread noodles that are baked in clay pots or it is used in soups.

There is a wheat flour noodle (bamii) (usually yellow in color) as it is made with egg that is NOT gluten free. This WHEAT noodle must be avoided.

Curries

Most curries are suitable to eat. When ordering your meal ensure soy sauce is not used in the curry. Usually fish sauce is added but it is better to double check. An example of some curries are: Masaman curry with chicken or beef or Chicken with green curry.

Stir Fries

The stir fry is classified as the simplest dish in Thai food. Stir fries are normally served with fish sauce and not soya sauce as this is more a chinese tradition. The list of stir fries is only limited by you. Stir fries comprise of a variety of meats and vegetables with ginger, garlic and chillies. Cashews are native to Thailand and are therefore a popular choice in stir fries. 

Rice

Steamed rice is consumed at every meal in Thailand. It is classified as the most important part of the meal. Most stir fries, soups or curries are eaten with rice – this is classified as Kap Khao (with rice). Fried rice and chicken biryani are also very popular but are not actually native to Thailand. Fried rice is a great snack to have as a light lunch.

I ordered fried rice in a little beach side restaurant in Koh Samui. When ordering I flashed the no soya sauce/no oyster sauce card – the waiter frowned and said “it will be very pale”!! I smiled back and said “I like it that way”!! Just for the record it was tasty and soon became a staple lunch meal.

The same caution should be used for all travelers in regard to fresh salad, unpeeled fruit, fruit juices with added local water and ice cubes. It is not recommended to consume the local water or products washed in it. Some people traveling to Thailand may experience intestinal troubles and this may be due to the quality of the water and food hygiene standards. Maybe your food has bacteria in it that gives you some form of food poisoning or you had ice in your drinks and you suddenly have diarrhea. The point to be made here is – do not assume you have eaten gluten, as it may be a bug that you or any one of your travel companions can pick up. Use your common sense when ordering food and do not be too scared to try different food – remember that is why you enjoy traveling!!

Some people, whether they have celiac disease or not, would rather eat only in 'western' hotel restaurants and not in local restaurants or from street vendors. I personally think it is a shame not to eat in a wide variety of outlets. To this day, the best Pad Thai I have every eaten was from a street vendor for 80 baht. That is less than $1 or one euro. Common sense must come into play.

A good tip – if eating from street vendors or local restaurants look for high turn over, food being freshly cooked and not sitting for long periods of time in pots. Look around for good hygiene standards. Eat where the locals eat for the true thai dishes and flavor. Some people who have only eaten in 5 star restaurants and not from street vendors or local eateries have still come down with the dreaded 'runs'.

Gluten free pre-packaged snacks such as muesli bars, rice crackers, nuts, packet soups, rice cakes, gluten free cereal, etc are very important to take on every trip if you have the room. These snacks will be very appreciated in times when a gluten free meal or snack is not available. It could be your gluten free meal has not been ordered on your flight or just at a local stop when gluten free is not available. It is always better to be prepared. I had no problems importing any of these into the country.

See the following link for more information on booking gluten free meals on planes and going through customs.

Thai Cooking School

One of my favorite days in Thailand was in Chiang Mai at a cooking school. We were taken to the local markets to see where the local people buy their daily food. We then headed back to the cooking school to start cooking. We cooked three different dishes and all dishes were able to be made gluten free with no problems at all. These dishes were:

  • Grilled fish salad,
  • Masaman curry with chicken
  • Fried bananas with thick coconut toffee

Both savory dishes were made with fish sauce instead of soya sauce and the dessert dish was just amazing. Do not think cooking classes are out of the question – it was some of the nicest food I have every eaten and a very enjoyable day spent with friends, learning new techniques.

All in all Thailand, its people and food are amazing. It is a great country for a celiac to visit and I can't wait to go back some day.