My husband and I have developed a real liking for Indian food over the past 8 years or so. We even take our kids to Indian restaurants on occasion. As long as we stick with relatively mild choices, they enjoy everything we order.
It helps that the Indian style of cooking is, by nature, almost entirely gluten free. Of course, you can't have naan, roti, or any of the other breads, but there are plenty of other things that are so delicious, you won't miss the naan!
As in China, there are many styles of cooking in India, depending on the region. Most Indian restaurants in western countries, like the United States, tend to focus on recipes of northern Indian origin like tandoori specialties (cooked in an oven) and curries, both shown in these photos.
Indian cooking relies on spices for flavoring, all of which are gluten free, with the exception of something called "hing." Hing is a very potent spice, and a little bit goes a long way. The owner of Rangoli, the wonderful and highly acclaimed Indian restaurant in our neighborhood, said it is used more in recipes from southern India. He only uses it in one recipe in his own restaurant -- he adds it to a yogurt-based sauce.
Hing is off-limits to people with Celiac or gluten sensitivity because it contains wheat starch. So you'll want to discuss your gluten free requirements with the chef or manager of the restaurant and ensure whatever you order, including masalas, does NOT contain hing.
Other items to avoid at Indian restaurants include:
- Suji (sooji) or rava (rawa) -- This is semolina (wheat) and can be used as a battering ingredient in some Indian dishes like Upma and Rawa Laddoo.
- Maida -- finely milled refined wheat flour used in Indian fast food, sweets, and breads
- Sevian -- a vermicelli dessert from northern India made from sweetened milk, almonds, raisins, cardamom, and pistachios
- Kofta -- meatballs made from various minced or ground meats. Make sure they do not contain breadcrumbs or any other gluten-containing filler.
- Saag paneer -- a vegetarian dish made from spinach or other greens. This may (but not necessarily) contain maida -- check with the chef.
For the most part, avoiding these particular ingredients should not radically limit your choices in a typical Indian restaurant.
We dined at a highly-rated Indian restaurant called Namaste Kitchen in London when on holiday last December. Their own Gluten Free Menu was almost as extensive as their regular menu.
Some Indian restaurants will have specific Gluten Free Menus printed -- or have gluten free items marked on their main menu. However, don't assume that if an Indian restaurant doesn't have a Gluten Free Menu that they don't have many items you could safely eat. Most dishes are probably gluten free by nature (just also ask about the preparation of the food so as to avoid cross contamination risks).
This is the case with Rangoli, the restaurant in our neighborhood. Even though they don't have a printed Gluten Free Menu, almost everything is gluten free, from the tandoor items to the curries to the desserts. (Pictured here is one of my favorite desserts, called Gajar ka Halwa, a traditional Indian pudding of sweetened grated carrots topped off with almond slices -- so unique and pure heaven!)
Indian cooking does not rely on wheat flour for coating meat or thickening sauces. If a flour or paste is needed, they use lentil or other pea flours, and sauces like Makhani velvety tomato sauce are thickened with butter and cream (explaining why they are so wonderfully delicious!)
Steamed basmati rice is typically served with Indian food, which helps cool down your palate from the heat of the spices. Even "Biryani" rice, which looks similar to an Asian fried rice, is gluten free, since it is steamed with spices and meat or vegetables. (I had asked if it contained chicken stock. It didn't at this restaurant, but it never hurts to double check, as some chicken stock can contain gluten.)
If you don't have any Indian restaurants near you -- or you prefer to cook at home -- you'll also be pleased to hear that many Indian simmer sauces available at grocery stores are gluten free (and are labeled as such). They couldn't be easier to prepare. Saute some chicken, pour in the simmer sauce, simmer for 5-10 minutes, and voila!...your authentic Indian dinner is ready. (I usually throw in some broccoli or spinach, too, to get our dose of veggies!). Pictured here is one of our favorite varieties of simmer sauces.
So if you're gluten free and never tried Indian food before, it's time to go a bit out of your comfort zone and discover a great new world of gluten free options!
If you have any favorite Indian restaurants where you've dined, please take a moment to submit a quick review to our website, GlutenFreeTravelSite, or leave a comment below. Thanks!