Dining out can be a minefield for those with coeliac disease, especially if you’re new to eating gluten free. The good news is that it does get easier with time, and these days, we have many great gluten-friendly cuisines and establishments out there.
The key to successful gluten free dining is confidence. You need to know what questions to ask, which foods to suspect, and how to communicate your needs clearly. Okay, and sometimes it doesn’t hurt to possess ninja-like gluten-detection skills!
Here at Shepherd Works we live and breathe this stuff. Sue herself is not only a seasoned coeliac diner, but also a researcher and specialist gluten free cook. So we put our heads together to come up with the team’s top 10 gluten free dining pitfalls, and how to dodge them.
1. Chips (or if you prefer, fries)
Are the chips gluten free? Please always check, as unfortunately there are many reasons why they may not be!
Do they use frozen chips or wedges coated in wheat starch or batter? Are they cooked in the same oil as all the other battered goods? Do they dust them in ‘chicken salt’ or other seasonings containing gluten?
If the waiting staff aren’t filling you with confidence, put a big smile on your face, and ask them sweetly if they can check with the chef.
2. Grilled and/or pan-fried fish
Grilled or pan-fried fish are a great option for coeliac diners, but always remind staff when ordering that your meal needs to be gluten free.
Unless you’ve worked in a commercial kitchen, you may not be aware that fish is often dusted in wheat flour (or dipped in batter) to aid cooking and help with browning and texture.
Specifically request that the chef not do this (unless it’s gluten free corn flour or tapioca starch of course!), and request that the grill section used for your meal be thoroughly cleaned prior to cooking.
3. Gluten free pizza
Is your ‘gluten free pizza’ really going to be gluten free? Many establishments order in gluten free bases, or may even make their own gluten free dough, which is a fabulous development. However, you’ll need to delve a bit deeper to find out how safe their kitchen environment is.
Do they have a separate workspace where the gluten free base is prepared? If so, great! But they also need to ensure your pizza is not in contact with the crumbs and semolina flour coating the pizza oven. Your pizza should be cooked on a clean tray. The toppings should all be checked to ensure they are gluten free too (unprocessed meat and fresh vegies are best). And finally, the pizza should be sliced with a clean pizza wheel.
Trust us. It will all be worth it when you bite into that that tasty, cheesy goodness with confidence!
4. Gluten free pasta
Gluten free pasta is available now in many mainstream restaurants, which makes us pretty happy! Our tip here, however, is to let the staff know you have coeliac disease, and check that your pasta is cooked in a separate saucepan of fresh water, and drained in a clean, uncontaminated colander.
It many seem pedantic, but the fact is that many restaurants keep a large pot of water on the boil, which they use to ‘dip’ pasta and other foods in to cook or reheat. As you can imagine, this is NOT okay for coeliac diners, and an easy way to get inadvertently glutened.
5. Know your noodles
The good news first: All rice varieties are gluten free – including the confusingly named glutinous rice! But you knew that. And you probably already know that rice paper and most rice noodles are also safe selections.
Many Asian dishes using vermicelli or rice stick noodles can be suitable. For example Vietnamese ‘Pho’ soups and rice paper rolls, and the slightly thicker, flat white rice noodles (such as those in the popular Pad Thai). Yum. However, some Asian rice noodles can contain wheat flour. For example, the thicker, flatter, ‘gloopier’ variety used in the traditional Pad See Ew and Vietnamese ‘fresh’ or dropped rice noodles.
Japanese Udon noodles and Chinese egg noodles are wheat based and definitely not an option. Soba noodles (traditionally made from buckwheat) can be gluten free, but many varieties contain up to 50% wheat! Bottom line – use your noodle! Always question the waiting staff carefully before ordering.
6. Getting the right tortillas.
Mexican is one of the most gluten friendly cuisines going around, but you need to seek out the corn tortillas. You definitely want the 100% corn tortillas, NOT the wheat ones (which are white and have a softer, chewier texture).
Educate the waiting staff by asking them to double check that tortillas are not only gluten free, but also cooked in a clean pan.
7. Mayonnaise and dressings
Proper mayonnaise is made by emulsifying egg yolk, vinegar and oil, which sounds pretty gluten-friendly, right? Correct. However, a surprising proportion of commercial mayonnaises and dressings have added gluten, from ingredients such as wheat starch, thickeners, and malt from barley.
There are plenty of safe commercial varieties (for example, the traditional Kewpie TM mayonnaise used by many sushi outlets), but you won’t know which one they’ve used in your potato salad, honey mustard dipping sauce, or sushi unless you ask the questions!
8. Soy sauce
And the award for Annoying Ingredient Most Likely To Derail An Otherwise Gluten Free Dining Experience goes to….. Soy sauce! Grrr… (and oyster sauce comes in a close second).
Soy sauce is made from fermented soy beans, but most brands have wheat added in the brewing process (you will see this declared on the label). The frustration here is that many otherwise gluten free Asian dishes such as fried rice, marinated meats and stir fries use soy sauce!
On a brighter note, gluten free soy (and other) sauces are now readily available, and many savvy chefs and restaurateurs are catching on. Sushi Sushi TM is one establishment in Australia who now supply only gluten free soy sauce (as well as clearly marking gluten free options on their menu). We love them! We may also be guilty of stockpiling those little purple-lidded soy-filled plastic fish and stashing them in our handbags and desk drawers, just in case….
The moral of the story here is that if people agitate for change (for example by asking repeatedly for gluten free soy sauce), it often results in a win!
9. Other sauces, gravies and stocks
Béchamel is one example of a sauce traditionally made from flour, butter and milk. Corn flour works fine here, but unless you can be sure it was gluten free, you’d better pass on this creamy delight. (Sorry – you’ll thank us later).
Gravy is another delicious but potentially glutenous condiment which you should always question. It can have wheat flour added to thicken it, and commercial mixes can have ingredients like dextrins, hydrolysed vegetable protein or malt from barley.
Risotto, rice pilaf and congee are a good gluten friendly starting point when eating out, however don’t take them on face value. The stock used to cook the rice must be gluten free!
10. Soy milk
Last but not least, are you a soy milk drinker? You may or may not be aware that many brands of soy milk contain malt (from barley) or maltodextrin from wheat. Ask which brand is used, and if unsure, don’t be shy about asking to see the carton to check for yourself.
There you go folks! Obviously this is not an exhaustive list of everything you need to know about dining out gluten free. And it’s no substitute for an hour with an expert dietitian (eg. the team at Shepherd Works)! But we hope you’re feeling just a little more empowered and invincible in your quest for gluten free dining.
Remember, practice makes perfect!