A Food Map of India for Gluten-Free and Other Special Diets

Posted by Heiko Pfeiffer • Tuesday, March 8. 2011 • Category: In Depth
If you are on a special such-and-such-free diet like me, you know the kind of questions going through your mind before leaving for your next foreign destination. What will I be able to eat? How will I find the dishes that I can eat? How will I explain to people in a polite way that I can’t eat their national dish due to some never-heard-of-before condition? Of course, one answer is to stock up on all kinds of dried foods, muesli bars, packed cookies and nutritional drinks that will, under extreme circumstances, help you survive for a minimum of two weeks. But this is not what my vision of traveling and cultural discovery looks like. I’m not an astronaut. Nor I am travelling to lands that are as plain and arid as the moon. Taking precautions is good. But retreat is not the answer. So every new land is like a barely mapped territory to me, and I’m like the explorer.

Buying Vegetables in India
by Peter Rivera

This is how I came to India: full of curiosity for all the soon to be declared “suitable” treasures awaiting me. The first thing of dire consequence I learned: North India is bread country. South India, however, is rice country. So if your diet, like mine, excludes most items containing gluten, or the protein found in wheat products like bread, pasta, pizza, and cookies, this is interesting for you to know. Obviously, pizza and pasta may not be the greatest concern in North India, but roti, naan, (alu) parata and many other wheat-based breads, served and eaten as a staple dish, soon will be. This can be confusing as you might think of India as a rice-, curry-, and lentils-eating country, right? I did. But it’s not. In many regions, breads prevail over rice.

This does, however, not mean you won’t find anything to eat. Lentils are there, and once you get used to them, I’m sure you’ll soon love and appreciate them for their taste and health benefits like I do. Sabzis are there, vegetable dishes with or without sauce, and I’m equally sure you’ll soon be amazed how exciting and colourful vegetarian cooking in India is. By the way, I say “soon” because you might find the food kind of spicy at first, and obviously if your tongue feels under assault, it won’t be able to send you a more refined impression of what it tastes. But don’t worry. If you can adjust to mirchi, the hot, spicy red and green peppers in your sauce, you’ll soon fully enjoy the food.

If wheat is not a part of your diet, but rice is, the South will be your paradise – or likely something close to it. The South seems to be made for people like you and me. If you ask a waiter in a restaurant to just serve you any typical South Indian dish for you to get an idea, you can spare any of the usual ingredient-related inquiries. Just sit and relax. Most likely, after just a few minutes, you’ll have a steaming, golden rice pancake wrap on your plate, filled with seasoned mashed potatoes and served alongside 3-4 chutneys (kind of like a ketchup, but coming in many more varieties, consistencies, and colours). The filled pancake wrap is called dosa, or masala dosa, and is a breakfast dish or daytime snack for South Indians. It consists of rice and lentils and takes only two minutes to prepare. I thought it was a revelation. It’s yummy, looks beautiful, smells fantastic, and is very simple.

A Plate of Fresh Indian Onion Vadas
by Roopam Garg

Your next plate will be rice buns served with the same chutneys. These cutely named idlis consist merely of rice and urud dal (a variety of lentils). Then there is: Uttapam. I like to think of it as a pizza. A pizza-sized rice dish often topped with onions, sweet pepper, tomatoes, coconut, and even paneer, Indian cottage cheese. It comes in many varieties and leaves you room to figure out what your favourite selection is. Vada looks like a donut, with a hole in the middle, but it’s actually not sweet. Its base is lentils and it’s deep-fried. Try them in a nice place. It leaves you with a better feeling about the oil used, as in some places the oil is often too old to be good. What’s missing? Dessert, right. Try some besan ladoo. Besan is chickpea flower, some sugar and spices are there, and you have a yummy full-mouthed dessert that is not even as sweet as most sweets in India, where sweet usually means really, really sweet.

Let’s look at dairy for a moment. Dairy is big in India. Milk is the primary ingredient of most sweets all over the place (not besan ladoo though); cream used as garnish for some north Indian curries, and also comes in the form of paneer, which you’ll find on the menu a lot. That’s great news if you can do dairy, but bad news if you can’t. My advice, however, is: Don’t mourn over it for too long. There is plenty of variety. Most waiters will understand if you tell them you don’t want cream (malai in Hindi) in your sauce, and all forms of paneer you’ll soon be able to identify yourself on the menu. Just find out if ghee, purified butter that contains no milk proteins and works really well for me, also works well for you. Many dishes, especially in the sauce, are cooked or fried with ghee. Chai, or Indian tea, is cooked with milk, but in many places you can ask for black tea, ginger lemon honey tea, or perhaps basil or lemon grass tea. Opportunities are plenty. Just find your favourite flavour. And for home occasions: Just find out about soya milk. Indian brands are there and they are cheaper than some of the imported brands.

A Selection of Indian Home-Cooked Foods
by Pallavi Damera

So far we’ve looked at some of the traditional Indian cuisine. But the Indian food market also offers some surprises. Join me on a short field trip to Delhi and its neighbourhoods. Are you constantly craving for pasta? Why not try finding a restaurant that serves gluten-free pasta? I ran one day into Flavours, a nice Italian restaurant by the Moolchand Metro station, and their gluten-free pasta was good. It’s a somewhat pricy restaurant, but I’m sure if you ask around, you’ll soon be discovering other options. What about European bread? Among the many bakeries in Delhi that have an Indian version of darker breads, I think the Swiss Gourmessa (just search for it online) near MG Road, started by a Swiss woman, stands out. They have gluten-free bread.

In Defence Colony market, one of the bakeries has gluten-free cookies, but admittedly I haven’t tried them yet. Cookies I must say, are a very bright spot on the list, and in Defence Colony market, you’re perfectly right when looking for them. A little shop called “Health is Wealth” probably has the largest variety of gluten-free, dairy-free, sugar-free, anything-free products I’ve seen in Delhi and their millet and rice-based cookies are really delicious. If you have any diet issues, this shop is for you. It gives you plenty of opportunities to explore. They also have staples such as rice and millet flower, and millet comes in many different varieties in India, among them ragi, nachni, bajri, and sorghum flour. All of them are gluten free. I like them for pancakes and porridge (with soya milk and bananas). A friend of mine from Ireland added ragi flower to his oats and said he really loved it. It has a nice, distinct flavour. If you’re into gluten-free baking, this is also your shop. They’re into organic too. But this is for another article.


Please share your own experiences with food and diets in India and elsewhere!
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  1. There are few Christians in India – slightly more than 2%. Nevertheless, India and particularly Delhi are great places to celebrate the Christmas festival. There is plenty to do in the capital – Christmas is probably the most international festival, cutti


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