In October 2009, I had the pleasure of traveling to Nepal for 10 days. Like all celiacs, you soon reach for the travel guides to see what food you can eat. Travel guides like the “Lonely Planet” and “Rough Guides” books are an excellent source of information. These books will help you decide what tourist sites you want to visit plus it will also cover the local food available.
We also went to some local Nepalese restaurants prior to our travels to taste the food and get some ideas – at least we were able to discuss the menus with an English speaking person.
In Nepal there is a lot of food available for someone with celiac disease. In general, Nepal is a poor country and many locals rely on eating daal bhaat twice daily. Many Nepalese do not feel they have eaten unless they have had daal bhaat. Daal bhaat is a staple of white rice and lentil soup. To mix it up a little – Daal Bhaat Tarkaar – lentil soup, white rice and curried vegetables. This may not seem very exciting to a westerner but surprisingly it is very tasty, filling and gluten free.
Many Nepalese are vegetarian; meat is available but it is a “luxury” item for most local people. You need to be selective when eating meat – this has nothing to do with “gluten”; it is purely a food hygiene and handling issue. As electricity is sometimes rationed within Nepal, refrigeration as we know it in the western world does not work as well so once you have walked around the streets and seen raw chicken and other meat hanging uncovered in the sun, you will quickly do what the locals do and become a vegetarian. Nepal is a haven for vegetarians with some restaurants having a totally vegetarian menu.
The hardest part traveling as a celiac is trying to get the message across to the locals. That is why it is very handy to get a travel card that states your gluten free requirements in the local language. These are available from the Celiac Society or the internet. Also, copy and cut out the glossary of food terms from the travel guides. This is very handy when reading menus as you can work out what the food is made from.
For example in the travel guide it states - Pakauda – vegetables dipped in chick pea flour batter and deep fried.
With this information you would be able to enjoy Pakauda. These cards are great when you cannot communicate and this will give you a chance of ordering safely.
If you are sticking to the major cities you will not have too many worries with finding suitable restaurants, but if you are trekking, more planning will be required.
Along many trekking routes many local teahouses advertise a 'large international menu' but once you enter the teahouse to eat, these items are 'unavailable'!! It is a good trick used to get you inside. Many of these items like porridge, pancakes, pizza crusts, spring rolls and packet needles contain gluten and are not suitable anyway. You can normally get fried rice, potato chips and eggs. On less-traveled routes, you will find a good supply of daal bhaat and potatoes. Once again, the daal bhaat is not exciting but it will normally have a high turnover so it will be fresh and filling.
It is highly recommended to take a good supply of gluten free meals suitable for trekking instead of totally relying on local sources if you intend to do serious trekking or mountain climbing. Some examples would be freeze dried meals.
If you are doing a private hike/trek, ensure you communicate very clearly your requirement for gluten free food. Do not assume they know what that means; you will need to ask them what type of food they will provide.
Gluten free snacks are a must for everyone. This makes it easy for those times you are stuck and are unable to eat safely or are unsure. Great snacks are gluten free muesli bars, rice crackers, packet soups, plain biscuits (great with jam for breakfast).
I had no problems getting these gluten free products through customs/quarantine into Kathmandu with me. You really need to take these snacks with you from your home town as they are not available locally. A supply of tinned tuna, fruit are available at local stores. Just ensure that they are all fully packaged/tinned and that they are not loose or the packets are opened.
A typical day of Nepalese food may include:
Breakfast: I feel breakfast can be the hardest meal for a celiac. This is whey you really miss not having any gluten free bread. Breakfast is not the same when you cannot eat toast or enjoy a bowl of cereal. Most hotels serve a “western” style breakfast so bread, cereal, sausage, bacon are off the menu. It is easier and safer to order than eat from a buffet. Eggs, served any style, tend to be a staple food for breakfast but after a while you quickly become sick of them. Cooked sliced potatoes and fried tomatoes are a popular breakfast menu item.
Fresh fruit is also a good option. Taking your own crackers and having them with jam is a tasty change, especially when you are craving bread and getting a little sick of omelettes. If you have the room in your luggage you could always take a box of gluten free cereal (from home) to add to your breakfast choice.
It is possible to have rice porridge and corn bread at some tea houses if you are lucky enough to come across these places on your travels.
Lunch: There is a little more variety available for lunch. Teahouses in the Kathmandu Valley offer pakauda (chickpea flour only- check!!), chips, fried rice (no soy sauce) with egg and of course daal bhaat is always on offer.
Curries are also gluten free but you do not always want that for lunch and again at dinner. Sometimes it is best to have more of the snack items.
Dinner: Lots of variety is available if you are in Kathmandu. Take the time to investigate the many restaurants available. I had dinner at KC's – a place that was recommended by my local guide. We dined out on the patio, with the neon lights from other nearby shops. The food was good and our group enjoyed the meal. I chose to have the sizzling buff (buffalo) and a vegetable plate. It was very nice and it was good to have something other than eggs and rice. After four days of walking through the Kathmandu Valley a meal containing some form of meat was necessary for me.
A nepali dessert to try in khir sikarni. It is a rice pudding with yogurt and cinnamon, raisins and nuts. Beautiful and yummy!!! Another evening I could chose between local nepali food or indian food. With indian dishes you can eat tandoori or the curries. I settled with chicken tiki and rice which was very enjoyable.
In Kathmandu you will find many restaurants that do international food like chinese, french, mexican, swiss and thai. It should be pointed out that not all places do this foodwell. So be cautious when selecting your restaurants. You need to look for somewhere that has a higher turnover – this way the ingredients will be fresher and less chance the food is just re-heated.
A risk when you travel to Nepal is the possibility on having intestinal troubles whilst you are on your trip. This is because the water is not suitable to drink and the food standards are lower than what we are use to. Maybe your food had bacteria in it that gives you a case of food poisoning or you have had ice in your drinks (made out of the local water) and you suddenly have diarrhea. The point is – don't automatically assume you have eaten gluten – it may be a bug that you or any of your travel companions can pick up. So be careful but don't stress too much and enjoy the holiday – that is why you are there in the first place!!