India - Traveling as a celiac

After traveling through Nepal, I then ventured across the border into India for three weeks. The preparation I spoke about in my article on Nepal was the same for India. Grab a travel book and start looking at what food you can eat. The countries are similar in many ways i.e. types of foods, religion, culture and climate.

To try and describe India in a few words is not easy to do; it is a very complicated country!! It is like a big melting pot of people, poverty, pollution, religion, class distinction, history, food and with one of the fastest growing economies in the world. India has some of the most advance communication systems we know but on the other hand, manual labor is still seen in the streets every day. I don't think anyone would disagree - for the majority, life is hard in India, especially for the people in the rural areas. Many daily chores are performed like they were 100 years ago; working the farms for daily survival. If seeing these people with barely enough to eat or working the earth with traditional tools and animals does not change your appreciation for life, nothing will. On the whole the Indian people are delightful and the food and country are amazing.

I flew from Kathmandu to Varanasi with Air India. The airport at Kathmandu (Nepal) is an international airport but in comparison to other international airports, its services on offer were limited. Most of the shops that were open were only selling snack items. The only gluten free items I could find were chocolate, chips, marshmallows and soft drink. Even if I wanted to, I would not have been able to find a gluten free meal.

On the Air India flight the snack served was a sandwich and a piece of cake. No special meals were available for celiacs (or anybody with a dietary need), so this is one of those occasions you need to have something in your bag. I reached for a packet of rice crackers that had traveled nearly 2 weeks in my bag. They may have been a little broken but they tasted good!!


On my arrival in Varanasi, I think I was suffering from cultural over-load. The drive from the airport to the Ganges Hotel was quite confronting. The first sight of cows in the streets, rubbish dumped everywhere, people sitting in streets under poorly built huts and every vehicle blowing its horn. Put all that together and with me starting to experience flu-like symptoms, all I wanted to do was get into the hotel. I was feeling very poorly that evening and did not have the patience or the desire to go to dinner that night at the Hotel. Half of the reason is I thought I could not be bothered trying to explain gluten free. I opted to stay in my room and have a gluten free tinned meal I had brought with me. It is times like these you appreciate the fact that you have gone to the effort to carry gluten free food with you. Times when you are not 100% you can eat with confidence and know you are going to be alright.

I was starting to feel better the next day and my appetite was returning so thought I would give room service a go instead of venturing outside. I rang room service and asked for any options that were gluten free. This was not understood so I asked for food “without wheat flour”. It was quickly decided to send someone to my room to take the order. I was happy, thinking someone would be sent from the kitchen. To my surprise it was the same man who brought my suitcase to the room two days earlier!! He had no idea what I was talking about. When I said food “without wheat flour”, he replied 'What you want cauliflower!!' (I still laugh about it today).

This was going to be one of those times I needed to make a calculated guess. I ordered vegetable pakora and fried rice (no soya sauce). I ate this in Nepal with no problems so I considered this a safe option. It turned out to be very nice with no side effects.

The first day in any foreign country is always going to be the hardest especially if you are on your own and do not have the help from a local guide. I would suggest you give yourself time to adjust to the new surroundings and culture. If you are on your own you will need to try your best with the language barrier and you will need to use your travel cards that states your food requirements in the local language. Also, copy and cut out the glossary of food terms from the travel guide. (A word of warning with travel cards is – India has many different dialects that are spoken in the country but the main official language is Hindi. This would be the most effective card to use.)

I then joined a 14 day Intrepid trip starting in Deli and ended in Goa. The tour was called “A Food Lovers Guide to India”. We traveled to Agra, Karauli, Jaipur, Bijapur, Udaipur, Ahmedabad, Mumbai and Goa. During this time our local guide would take us to various restaurants and local homes. He would converse with them in the local language and tell them that I could not eat wheat flour and I never once had an issue. I ate some beautiful indian meals that you could never copy anywhere else. We also went to local markets and then put all that knowledge to use in a local cooking class. Being gluten free did not worry me at all and I would highly recommend this trip to any Intrepid traveler.

I believe wheat flour is used more in the north of India than the south of India. However, in saying that many dishes are made using chick pea flour (besan) or lentil flour. The options are quite extensive when it comes to food choices. You cannot eat Naan bread for example, but you can eat a North Indian bread that is gluten free called Makki. In southern India you can enjoy a Dosa Pancake. These are made from rice and lentils and can be enjoyed as a savoury or sweet pancake.

A typical day of indian food may include:

Breakfast: Most hotels offer a traditional “western” style breakfast. You can usually choose from yogurt, fruit and eggs. Many hotels have boiled eggs (if they do not offer eggs to order) but if they do you cannot go past a Marsala Omelette. These very tasty omelettes are a mixture of eggs, onion, tomato, green chilli and cumin. When eating fruit, you should choose fruit that has a skin and has been peeled. You should drink only bottled water and bottled fruit juice – this is to avoid any contamination issues with the water. Sometimes fruit juices offered have been watered down with the local water so it is best to avoid it. A great tip is to take with you savoury gluten free biscuits that can be eaten with jam. Sometimes it is just the thing to have with a cuppa.

Lunch & Dinner: Many options were available on tour. I was able to enjoy many 
banquets that were provided by our hosts at our Heritage Palaces. A large selection of curries, mostly vegetarian but not always. The selection included mixed vegetable curry, mutton curry (mutton is actually goat meat), polak paneer (spinach and cottage cheese) and biriyani rice - so many different ways to prepare rice – it is very tasty and amazing. The rice puddings for dessert are also very good. When dining out at restaurants, all the dishes mentioned will be available. A local specialty to try is Thali; it is a selection of different indian dishes served in small individual bowls. The dishes are usually dhal, rice, vegetable curries accompanied with chutneys and pickles. This goes really well with a serve of poppadoms. 

Lighter Meals: Sometimes it is “just a quick snack” that you are after and not a full meal. As always, snack items are a little more difficult to obtain. Some good options are rice dishes, vegetable pakoras [fried – made from vegetable and chick pea flour (gram flour)]. Hot fries/chips are the best quick snack as these are generally hand cut and cooked from scratch.

Snacks: You can buy packets of crisps/chips, nuts and chocolate at most road side shops.

Drinks: One thing you need to try is the Chai Tea. If you get the chance to go to a Chai tea demonstration, do it. It will be the best chai tea you will every taste. Marsala Chai is a spiced tea made up of tea mixed with indian spices, water and milk. It is strained and then served.