Attention gluten-free travelers: don’t let gluten limit your adventures. There is a big world out there, and a lot of it is gluten free.
First, choose your degree of difficulty. Most traditional ethnic cuisines are centered around every imaginable root and grain besides wheat, and who doesn’t love Thai food?
Next, use online preparation to progress to more challenging cultures. Yes, you can eat gluten-free pasta in Rome.
Gluten-free travel survival basics
- Before you go, look for gluten-intolerant travel bloggers, as well as the Celiac association of the country you are visiting.
- Apps are available for many countries, but make sure you activate your international data plan before you go.
- For a long-haul flight, bring a substantial amount of back-up food in case your gluten-free meal doesn’t arrive.
- Because TSA enforcement can vary, reduce the chance your food is seized when you go through security by getting a doctor’s note stating you need medical food, and also print and fill out the new TSA Disability Notification Card.
- The Celiac Disease Foundation Marketplace is a great source for snacks for the plane. Pro-tip: squeezable packets of Justin’s Almond Butter are under 3 oz so you can include them in your 3-1-1 Ziploc bag. Double-check the description, not every option is gluten free.
- Gluten and Allergy Language Travel Cards from GlutenFreePassport.com and SelectWisely.com help you explain your dietary restrictions to local restaurant staff.
- Cheese, fruit, vegetables and nuts are widely available and naturally gluten free. The Matador Transit Tote is your packable yet substantial shopping companion for loading up on food for the road.
Interesting and easy: South and Central America, Africa and the Middle East
The traditional diet in South American and Central America is based around tapioca products, rice, beans, and corn. This is a very easy, and tasty, area to explore gluten free.
You’ll find teff, millet, lentils, and cassava (tapioca) in Africa and the Middle East, all of which are naturally gluten free. While you may be familiar with delicious dishes from other great gluten-free traditions like Mexico or Thailand, visiting Africa gives you the opportunity to learn about starches you may have never tried before, and bring those recipes back home.
Gluten-Free Asia and the Pacific
With a little communication (just say no to soy sauce) you are going to eat your way through the cuisine Asia and the Pacific, deliciously gluten free.
Southeast Asian dishes traditionally feature rice noodles, coconut and fish sauce, which are all naturally free of gluten. Thai food rarely contains soy sauce (wheat) but bring your language travel card just in case and always ask. If Tamari is available as a substitute, it’s usually gluten free. You’re more likely to run in to soy sauce in Vietnam or Indonesia, although it’s still somewhat unusual.
Traditional Korean and Japanese food is slightly more challenging, but still doable. The rice, vegetables, seafood, and meat that form the basis of the Korean and Japanese diet don’t contain gluten, but many sauces contain soy sauce. Use your language cards and keep asking for tamari as a substitute. Make sure to skip the udon and ramen noodles, they’re made with wheat.
Key ingredients in Indian food include vegetables, rice, chickpeas (also called gram flour), and curries, which are all naturally free of gluten. That palak paneer -- spinach cooked with lots of ghee (clarified butter) and cheese -- is not exactly a health food, but it won’t trigger your celiac symptoms. But it may become addictive.
The more cosmopolitan cities in Asia can have unexpected finds, so always Google search for Celiac or gluten-intolerant travel bloggers who have written about the area. As an example, if you travel to Phuket to compete in the truly stunning IRONMAN 70.3 Thailand, search out Silvano Amolini. He’s the executive chef at Anantara Layan Hotel and Resort in Phuket. Silvano, an accomplished amateur triathlete, is considerate of restricted diets and health-supportive cuisines, and offers deeply satisfying gluten-free pasta.
Heading even farther southeast, New Zealand has excellent gluten-awareness, and Celiac-friendly restaurant dishes, packaged food and bakeries are easy to find. The largest drugstore chain, Unichem, not only stocks aisles of gluten-free snacks, since 2015 it’s offered on-site Celiac testing.
Level Up: Gluten-free Europe
Most European cuisines are based around wheat as the principal starch. And many European countries have a reputation for less-than-accommodating customer service.
However, allergen labeling, both in restaurants and on packaged foods, is a legal requirement in much of the EU. Most countries have strong Celiac associations, which offer excellent online resources. As an example, the Associazione Italiana Celiachia trains and monitors restaurants at least yearly. You can enter your destination in their online form, or download their app. The best gluten-free pasta in the world is made in Italy.
So do your preparation and have a back-up food plan. But whatever you do, don’t stay home.
An Alternate Perspective (for the gluten-intolerant only)
It is impossible to separate food from culture. Food is a window into another country, and an indispensable way to connect with people and have an authentic local experience, whether you’re sampling street food in Thailand, or trying to blend in at the local Trattoria in Rome. If you have Celiac, of course you should never compromise on going gluten free. But what if you are gluten intolerant? Avid traveler Holly Bennett, creator of the newly launched lifestyle blog VRVE, shares her thoughts on when she watches her diet, and when to let it go.
“I’m gluten intolerant, so when I’m home I stick to a 90 percent gluten-free diet. But when I travel? Unless I’m racing, it’s a different story. On my last trip to Italy, I hiked the towns of Cinque Terre on a self-created Tour della Focaccia, sampling a different style and flavor of delicious bread in each village. I’m heading back to Italy in June, and one of the highlights of my trip will be a private vegetarian pasta master class with chef Antonella La Macchia (I’ll be sure to share the experience on VRVE). I find that traditional flours and breads in the U.S. tend to trouble my stomach, probably due to the fact that most of them are highly processed. I seem to digest gluten much more easily in other countries. Sure, you can find gluten-free ingredients and menu items pretty much everywhere these days. But unless you suffer from Celiac disease, why bother? I can’t imagine enjoying Italy half as much without eating all the pasta, all the pizza, and all the bread.”