Dining Gluten-Free at Ethnic Restaurants

Thai, Indian, Japanese, Italian and Chinese Restaurants Gluten-Free

It's getting easier to eat out at restaurants if you're gluten-free — eateries in most urban areas and in many small towns understand the concept of "gluten-free" and can prepare a safe meal for you.

However, there are certain ethnic restaurants where you may find it easier to eat, simply because the cuisines naturally use gluten-free foods. These cuisines — which include Thai and Indian — can offer some delicious alternatives to more traditional dining.

Here's a rundown of the various ethnic restaurant options available, and what you need to know about each.

Thai Restaurants: Naturally Gluten-Free

gluten-free thai food
Thai food is pretty gluten-free friendly. Tony Robins/Getty Images

Thai restaurants can represent excellent options for gluten-free dining since most Thai cuisine is naturally gluten-free — you should be able to find many choices, including most curries and rice noodle-based Pad Thai. Avoid wheat-coated fried appetizers.

However, the language barrier inherent in dealing with the staffs of some Thai eateries can pose challenges if you're trying to question what goes into a dish. For example, while traditional Thai soy sauce is gluten-free, many restaurants use Chinese-style soy sauce in their dishes, which does contain wheat.

Your best bet to eat gluten-free Thai is to find a place where you can communicate easily with the manager, and where the chef makes everything from scratch, including the sauces.

Indian Restaurants: Many Gluten-Free Options

gluten-free Indian food
Many Indian dishes are naturally gluten-free. John Rizzo/Getty Images

Like Thai restaurants, Indian restaurants offer a wide variety of naturally gluten-free dishes. Tandoori chicken, fish, and shrimp are almost always gluten-free, as are most of the vegetable side dishes. Beware of dishes with maida flour and with suji, which means wheat.

Papadum, an Indian flatbread made from lentils, provides a great alternative to the more traditional wheat-based bread that also are available at Indian restaurants.

However, Indian restaurants can have the same language barrier as Thai restaurants. Those that use pre-made sauces (as opposed to making their own) may use sauces that are thickened with wheat flour, and the Tandoori oven represents a major potential source of gluten cross-contamination since gluten-based bread is baked in it along with other dishes. Again, your best bet is to find an Indian restaurant that makes everything from scratch and one where you can easily speak with the manager or chef.

Japanese Restaurants: Stick with Sushi

gluten-free japanese food
Beware of hidden gluten in Japanese foods. Pinnee/Getty Images

You'd think that Japanese restaurants would be difficult places at which to enjoy a gluten-free meal due to the many soy sauce-laden dishes. However, you do have many options at most Japanese restaurants ... as long as you like sushi.

Most sushi is naturally gluten-free; exceptions include unagi, which is cooked eel marinated in soy sauce, and any tempura-based dishes, which are coated in wheat-based batter.

I elaborate more on what to watch out for when ordering sushi here: 

Avoid stir-fried Japanese dishes, which contain soy sauce, and miso soup, since it often contains barley. And, bring your own soy sauce for your sushi if the restaurant you've chosen doesn't have gluten-free soy sauce.

Italian Restaurants: Plentiful Gluten-Free Dishes

gluten-free Italian food
Many Italian restaurants offer gluten-free choices. Judd Pilossof/Getty Images

It may seem counter-intuitive to think Italian restaurants offer gluten-free fare since Italian cuisine is so gluten-laden.

But incidence and awareness of celiac disease are very high in Italy, and you'll find many Italian restaurants provide gluten-free alternatives. If they don't offer gluten-free pasta, they may even let you bring your own pasta to cook.

There are several potential pitfalls to dining gluten-free in an Italian restaurant. First, make sure they don't cook your pasta or vegetables in water that's been used to cook gluten-based pasta — they may not realize that will make you sick.

In addition, if you're particularly sensitive, beware of restaurants where they make their own pasta on site due to the residual flour in the air. Yes, airborne gluten can make you sick.

Chinese Restaurants: Watch Out for Soy Sauce

gluten-free Chinese food
Chinese food can be tricky gluten-free. DigiPub/Getty Images

Like other ethnic restaurant alternatives, making certain you stay safe in a Chinese restaurant can represent a challenge — soy sauce is featured in nearly every dish.

Your best bet is to find a Chinese restaurant that caters to gluten-free customers; many in urban areas include some labeled gluten-free dishes on their menus.

Beyond that, try to find an eatery where you can communicate easily with the manager or chef. If you're stuck with a Chinese restaurant where you can't communicate, the rice should be safe and steamed vegetables may be safe.

For additional tips on eating out safely gluten-free in a Chinese restaurant, see the article Gluten-Free Chinese Food in Restaurants.

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