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Surviving Gluten Free in Chiang Mai

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View of Chiang Mai from Doi Suthip

This lovely walled city is called ‘the rose of the north’ and it is easy to understand why. Less hustle and bustle, plus genuinely friendly people make this a nice destination for travelers. While you may find the cost of travelling here cheaper compared to Bangkok, you will also notice that there is a slower pace, another nice contrast to the capital. Chiang Mai is one of Thailand’s largest cities, though it doesn’t feel too big in the centre. It is easy to get around by bicycle and motorbike – these two travel options are widely available and won’t break the bank.

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Monks chanting at Wat Phra Singh

So now that the preliminaries are over with, how does one go about gluten free dining in Chiang Mai?

1. Do your research. I googled gluten free restaurants and came up with three through various discussion boards and websites. I found the Mexican restaurant The Salsa Kitchen, Butter is Better Diner and Blue Diamond Breakfast Club. While exploring, I also found Kanlaya, Whole Earth and Healthy Veggie. Please check out my reviews of each one.

2. Do a cooking course. Even though I have been living here for a year and a half, this was my first cooking course. I highly recommend Best Trip Cooking Course as the owner, Neung, is now aware of Celiac Disease and gluten free diets.

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Learning about rice at the market

Not only will you learn the ingredients, but most schools will take you to a market and sometimes even a local farm.

We made tofu soup, Thom Kha soup, green curry, pad Thai and mango with sticky rice.

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Tofu soup ingredients

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Green curry ingredients

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Thom Kha soup ingredients

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The end result! Thom Kha & Green Curry

This made me realize that almost all Thai dishes have gluten in them – soy sauce and fish sauce usually have some wheat! So every time I went out with friends for Thai food, no matter how safe I thought it was, it always had soy sauce in it! Now, I’m not talking a lot, but at least a couple teaspoons of soy sauce per dish!

Before I went to the cooking class, I bought some Braggs liquid aminos, which is basically gluten free soy sauce. I found it in a local Rimpini Supermarket. I would also recommend that you bring your soy sauce with you and notify the cooking school before hand. They will be able to read the Thai labels which will give you more information about what will be safe for you to eat. I learnt that the Knorr stock cubes have soy sauce in them (labelling is in Thai but they are actually a German company). Luckily, in Bangkok I can buy the British stock cubes which are endorsed by Marco Pierre White.

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My instructor for the day, Neung. We’re friends on facebook now 🙂

There was a definite silver lining to all these discoveries. Neung confessed to me that she loves pancakes but can’t ever get them right. Since it was just the two of us for the day, I showed her how to make Canadian pancakes, French style crepes and caramelized bananas.

3. The most important thing I learnt on this trip was: just because someone sticks a ‘gluten free’ sign on a cookie does not mean it is gluten free!!

My first food stop was at Butter is Better and their bread was delicious! However, I was horrified to find out that it was toasted in the same machine as normal bread! Luckily I had only had a couple bites before I thought to ask and I evacuated my system just to be safe. I didn’t take another chance with any of their baked items.

My second gluten free friendly stop was Blue Diamond Breakfast Club. They had a selection of gluten free baked goods, but this time I was more inquisitive! As it turns out, the owner could not guarantee that any of them were 100% gluten free! The banana chocolate muffins were made from rice flour, but I was hesitant about the chocolate itself. Then the blueberry muffins were made with oat flour, but there was no indication of gluten free labelling on the flour packaging despite being imported from Australia. Even though my salad and hash browns were delicious, I left feeling very angry and frustrated!

Unfortunately in Thailand, there are no allergen labelling laws. The government only stipulates that snack items need to have nutritional information as national health initiatives are trying to cut down obesity, heart attacks and diabetes. As a general rule, if products come from Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom or the United States, you can trust their gluten freeness. However, in Asia, the only things I trust are rice, rice noodles and mango with sticky rice.

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It’s good to know that mango and sticky rice are safe – I will never starve on holiday again!

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4 thoughts on “Surviving Gluten Free in Chiang Mai

  1. Instead of fish sauce you can use salt in Thai cooking.
    Be careful of a brown Phad Thai seasoned with fish sauce and black soy sauce which contain of wheat
    flour.
    In Chiang Mai, we have gluten free Thai soy sauce as well. You can buy it from supermarket.

  2. Marley says:

    Yes! You can! I buy Masterchef which is Thai made/owned/operated. I found out that all of their sauces – not just soy – are gluten free 🙂

  3. Jim says:

    Hi. Butter is Better rocks. We stopped there for lunch two days ago and breakfast this morning. Gluten Free bread was awesome. Toasted sandwiches and toast done on toasters that have been cleaned, home made corned beef pattie fried seperate to non GF dishes spot on.
    All staff understood. Also had carrot cake, cinnamon buns, chocolate cake, pancakes, biscuits and home made sausages. American owner has trained staff well. After 3 weeks in Thailand this place was great for me and my son both coeliacs. Riverside market restaurant was pretty knowledgeable and out of town cafes can be ok if you can speak Thai and have your own soy sauce.
    Ps tried mango sticky rice. Oh yeah!

  4. Heather says:

    Hello,
    I have lived in Chiang Mai for 4 years and I just got diagnosed with celiacs from a recent trip stateside. If you still live in Thailand I would love to process with you about what you have found that works.

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