Having spent over six weeks in Thailand (with more planned) I feel fairly confident in giving my readers some tips on how to find good gluten free Thai food. In this post I cover the basics of finding delicious gluten free options and in later articles I will list specific restaurants where I have enjoyed meals in some of Thailand’s most beautiful places.
Eating gluten and often even grain free in Thailand has proved to be much easier than I anticipated. Having lived in and visited other Asian countries such as Japan, where the use of soy sauce is prevalent, I was nervously expecting a bit of a battle to find gluten free Thai food that I could enjoy. However the basic ingredients in most Thai dishes are gluten free, fresh and full of flavour. Chilli, galangal, garlic, fish sauce, Thai basil and rice – both as grains and noodles – are fine for those with issues with gluten. Remember to always treat chilli with respect as it can disrupt digestion.
** I have recently become aware that not all fish sauce is gluten free. However, I have also found that in Southeast Asia it does tend to be safe. If you are severely allergic to gluten I suggest doing some research on which brands of fish sauce are safe and then checking with individual cooks what they are using. Many cooks in Southeast Asia are very willing to show you the products they are using so you can inspect for yourself.**
When I visit any country I try to go educate myself on a bit of vocabulary that will help me explain my gluten intolerance. This tends to be far easier in Europe where there is already high awareness of gluten, but in many Asian countries Coealic and gluten sensitivity hasn’t become a major problem (yet).
Explaining gluten free thai food in Thai
I find that the best approach is to just talk about wheat. Gluten isn’t a well-known word and it is unlikely you are going to encounter any rye, malt or barley. Instead if you explain that wheat/ flour and soy sauce is a no go, then I think you have a better chance of being understood.
The most reliable means of communicating your food allergies or intolerances is to have something written down. I always carry a screenshot of the following text on my phone, which was translated for me by one of my Thai friends. You can copy and paste it or just take a screen shot to carry around with you.
Translated it means: “I am allergic to wheat flour and gluten. It makes me very sick. Please do not put anything with wheat or soy sauce in my food.”
“ฉันแพ้ข้าวสาลีและตัง. (ข้าวสาลีกลูเตน) มันทำให้ฉันรู้สึกแย่. กรุณาอย่ารวมถึงผลิตภัณฑ์ทำจากข้าวสาลีหรือซีอิ๊วในอาหารของฉัน.”
* This is my best attempt to help people that cannot eat gluten. I am not Thai and cannot guarantee this will always be undertood correctly. I accept no blame where things are lost in translation and issues occur.
If you want to try your hand at explaining things verbally: Wheat in Thai is K̄ĥāw s̄ālī (pronounced: cow salee). Saying or showing this word and gesturing could be enough to explain that you cannot eat it. Allergy is Rokh p̣hūmiphæ̂ (rock pumpay) so if you attempt to say “Rock pumpay cow salee” you might be able to articulate the fact you cannot eat gluten.
Unfortunately in some places you simply cannot guarantee that you will be understood, and in often the people preparing your food may not acknowledge this as enough of an issue to make any drastic changes to the food. So if you need to be 100% squeaky clean from gluten then there are some dishes that you can trust more than others.
Traditional Thai fare – mostly gluten free
Note: A No Grainer accepts no responsibility if dishes do in fact contain traces of gluten. Whilst I have done my best to research this topic, I cannot guarantee that all dishes are prepared the same and are always 100% gluten free.
Thankfully there are plenty of gluten free Thai food options such as spicy papaya salads.
The basic ingredients that make up most Thai cooking means that those with issues with gluten can pretty freely order dishes from most restaurants and street vendors. Typical fare at restaurants tends to be a variety of flavoursome curries, rich soups, stir fries and noodle dishes, pad thai (with thin noodles) or pad se ew (with fatter wider noodles), and papaya salads.
Red, green, massaman and Penang tend to be a pretty safe bet because most curry pastes are made with chillies, galangal, garlic, coriander seeds, cumin seeds and often some shrimp paste and onion. Many curries also include tamarind water, which is also fine. Of course meat, vegetables and rice, if you choose to eat it, is all gluten free too. I often just have my curry without the rice because the fat from the coconut milk and the other bits fill me up without bloating.
The only thing that you need to watch out for with curries is that on rare occasions curries will come with some deep fried meat, which could have been coated in wheat flour. This happened to me at one restaurant in the north of Thailand, but lucky for me I have an official taste tester in my partner. After we ordered a chicken curry that turned out to be a fried chicken curry, he just ate the whole portion, but he informed me that the curry was so good we had to get it again. We were able to walk over to the lady’s food preparation area and point to the flour and say no. Thankfully I was able to enjoy this dish with normal, unfried chicken and it was well worth the explanation.
Stir fries and mixed vegetable dishes are available in various sauces. These vary between oyster, basil and fish sauce and then there are some other mysteries that I have no idea about the ingredients. If trace amounts of gluten are going to have a detrimental effect, you will need to watch out for soy sauce, which is traditionally made with wheat. There is also the risk that other gluten containing ingredients have been used to thicken stir fry sauces. In these situations you can show your translation or perhaps just try and get the vegetables and meat cooked without a sauce and then flavour it yourself. There is always chilli powder, fresh chillies in vinegar and fish sauce available on tables for you to flavour your own food.
Thai soups are definitely a safe bet. Tom yum is flavoured with chilli and ginger, whilst Thai coconut soup is also extremely tasty and gluten free. For a safe meal you could order a soup with a side of plain vegetables and rice.
Papaya salads are also a great, tasty and lighter meal. Made with fresh green papaya (similar to cucumber in texture), carrot, tomatoes and a dressing of chill, lime juice, fish sauce, garlic and peanuts they often have quite a bit of kick. Papaya salads are one of my favourite Thai dishes, but can be hit and miss, particularly if you get a green papaya that isn’t fresh. However, they are a good gluten free option if you’re looking for a lighter meal.
Thai noodles made with thin noodles tend to be a safe choice and this is lucky because Pad Thai is a staple everywhere and is absolutely delicious. Pad Thai will either come with very thin rice noodles or slightly wider ones that most of us are familiar with from Thai food in the west. Fear not though, all of these noodles are made with rice and the sauce is gluten free. These dishes usually come topped with a generous serving of bean shoots and peanuts so if you have trouble with nuts then you will need to make yourself understood.
Fat noodles or Pad se ew however, are usually cooked in a sauce that contains soy sauce, so be more careful with these.
I was pleasantly surprised to discover that even some Thai egg noodles are not made using wheat. I learned this when I went to Khao Soi Islam in Chiang Mai and explained to the lady in the restaurant, who spoke excellent English, that I cannot eat anything containing wheat. She told me that the egg noodles used in Khao Soi, a curry based soup were made using tapioca and other gluten free flours. This won’t be the case for all egg noodles, so make sure you have a proper understanding and dialogue with the cook before you order anything like this.
Red curry and pad thai – two of my absolute favourites for gluten free Thai food.
In this same restaurant I also learned that I could eat the spring rolls and samosas because they were made using rice paper and chickpea flour respectively. This was excellent news as it opened up a whole new range of options and street food that I could enjoy with my friends. While I wouldn’t advise eating spring rolls or anything deep-fried regularly due to the nasty seed and vegetable oils that they are cooked in, it is nice to be able to eat a bigger range of the tasty treats on offer. Additionally, I guess you cannot all be sure that your spring rolls are 100% so always treat these kinds of food with caution.
One of my favourite things about Thailand is the abundance of street vendors – selling all kinds of things from full buffets including curries and stewed meat, pad thai – to simple skewers with meat and vegetables on sticks. I have heard people say that street food can’t be trusted, but in my experience this is simply not the case.
Street food tends to be cheaper than eating in restaurants and is very convenient. If you’re on a tight budget then you will inevitably find yourself doing as the locals do and grabbing some food from the side of the road. Chiang Mai and Pai in the north of Thailand are great locations for street food.
With street food you can see exactly what you’re getting and in most cases meat and vegetables are going to be just fine. You can quickly ascertain if something is cooked in sauce and then choose to engage in a conversation about whether there is wheat or sauce in the ingredients. This might be a tricky understanding to reach so in most cases if you’re not sure I would just choose something else that looks ok. For me skewers with massive pieces of grilled chicken and a bit of tomato sauce were a reliable favourite in Pai.
On the street you will also see some weird shaped meatballs and what appears to be tofu, but is actually pressed fish, on sticks. I think most of these are meat and fish, but like with many processed meats back home you can never be sure as to whether they contain gluten as a binding agent. I have also had a few experiences where I think it was one of these things I could trace back to a bad bout of food poisoning so perhaps I have an unfair bias against them. However, in my eyes do look slightly dodgy and not like real food. Personally I just avoid them.
Final words on gluten free Thai food
I hope this brief snapshot on gluten free Thai food has helped those of you looking for options when in Thailand. Please read my articles on specific locations for more tips and ideas on the best places to visit and eat when searching for gluten free Thai food.