Gluten Free Guide to Thai Street Food

If you’ve ever read an article or Lonely Planet introduction to Bangkok, then you’ll know this sweaty city is renowned for its street food. Markets selling fresh produce and silk are abundant, as are Thais congregating street-side to share a meal.

Ferrang, the Thai word for foreigners, often ignore such street restaurants; but with the huge insurgence of money-minded backpackers, more and more travelers are eating with the locals. And of course the food is good – most meals are around 40 baht ($1.32CAD or £0.83GBP) for a bowl of pork spare rib soup with rice noodles or pad thai. Not only that, but street food is plentiful as most Thais prefer to snack or eat when they’re hungry, which is a huge contrast to Western dining practices.

Fried-crickets-001

You can’t say you’ve stayed in Bangkok without trying a deepfried grasshopper or cockroach… can you?

But what if you have Celiac disease? Then my friends, it gets tricky. Sure, it’s great to save money on food so you can spend it on shopping. But is the expense to your gut really worth it?

After living here for a year, I think I have this tricky situation sorted. Some blogs recommend carrying a gluten-free card (which is great for restaurants) or totally avoiding street food full stop. For me though, that’s simply not an option due to my haphazard traveling and equally haphazard budget. As well, Thais are generally unaware that wheat is a common additive in their foods. Specifically, wheat is found in most soy sauces,  some fish sauces, oyster sauce and mushroom sauce. Any item containing soy sauce, therefore needs to be avoided! It was not until quite recently that I found out there is soy sauce in Knorr stock cubes. These cubes from the base of all Thai soups.

The first thing I suggest you do is learn to recognize soy sauce. It’s everywhere and it’s evil. Learn to say “I don’t want soy sauce” – my oww nahm see ew and practice that with a Thai person at your hotel or hostel. Also, learn to say “I don’t want fish sauce” – my oww nahm plaa. It is a good idea to carry some soy sauce, you can find Bragg’s liquid aminos or Master Chef gluten free soy sauces in most supermarkets. And instead of using fish sauce, you can ask the chef to substitute salt.

I can hear you clamouring – but there is gluten free soy sauce out there! And yes, you’re absolutely right! However, I can guarantee that no street vendor will have it as it A) costs 40 baht per bottle in comparison to the meagre 14 baht and B) Celiac disease in Asia is as rare as a chicken milking a cat. However, my theory is that this will change with all the Pizza Companys and McDonalds in the next ten years.

Try to avoid the processed stuff!

Try to avoid the processed stuff!

Next, become discernible when approaching street food. You have to first identify if there is only one wok for cooking. Most street vendors won’t have adequate dish washing facilities. Read: they won’t wash their wok between customers’ meals. This can lead to gluten contamination and the choice is yours. Do you want to spend the next few days feeling like a smashed cockroach on the concrete? No? Walk away. Buy some fresh fruit or juice instead.

som tam

Counts as one of your five a day!

Now, one of my personal favourites is Som Tam. This is a young papaya salad, mixed with shrimp, tomatoes, carrots, chilies, green beans and peanuts. The sauce is made from sugar, lime, Thai garlic and fish sauce. You can ask for no fish sauce, but be sure that they use a clean bowl as you don’t want contamination. You’ll see people preparing this in wooden bowls, often mashing the sauce ingredients, then mixing in the others.

In addition, I would stay away from BBQ meats on little skewers and Chinese type pork and chicken, you know, the red glazed meats that hang from vendors’ stalls. And although rice noodles are everywhere, be very wary of soups due to soy sauce in the broth and wontons as they’re usually made with wheat and not rice. To be honest, I stay away from street soups and sauces. Just another word of caution: if noodles are any other colour besides white, again, I tend to avoid them.

Regarding curries, you need to make up your own mind. Some curries are not safe as they may have soy and fish sauce. Avoid pre-made curries on the street! If in a restaurant, they should make it fresh. Ask them not to use the two sauces, substituting salt. This tastes just the same! I would recommend ordering plain steamed rice (khao – like cow), rather than fried rice which will inevitably have soy sauce.

I also love Thom Kha soup, which is a sour soup made predominantly from coconut milk and flavoured with lemongrass. Served with mushrooms and meat (salmon in the picture), some restaurants will serve it with a spot of chili oil on the top. Deeelish! Just be sure to check if they use Knorr stock cubes!

Fruit stalls are everywhere and an inexpensive way to get 1 of your 5 a day!

Fruit stalls are everywhere and an inexpensive way to get 1 of your 5 a day!

If you fancy something sweeter, go for fruit or the pancakes or Thai fortune cookies, as I know them. These are both made from rice flour and have a ridiculous amount of sugar. The fillings are usually sweet corn, grated coconut and coconut cream. Fillings can also be savoury but I haven’t tried them. I like my pancakes sweet – hey, I’m Canadian after all! Street vendors also sell thicker pancakes, which is essentially the same recipe with the inclusion of eggs. These are great for breakfast or to include in your pack for a trip.

Crunchy Thai pancakes

Most Thai desserts feature traditional ingredients: coconuts, bananas, sesame seeds, tapioca, rice flour, arrowroot flour, mango and beans. That’s right, I said beans. Mung bean particularly, is used in many desserts because it is quite gloopy and used as a thickener. A common street food dessert is sticky rice topped with coconut cream and served in little squares or banana leaf. Speaking of sticky rice, of course you’re familiar with mango and sticky rice. Well guess what? It’s gluten free! As are bananas boiled in coconut milk and cantaloupe sago.

If you’d like to try a good range of Thai food without the risk of being glutened, I would firstly recommend a funky place called Cabbages & Condoms on Sukhumvit Soi 12 in Bangkok. Please don’t be put off by the name as it is actually a wonderful restaurant that funds several charities in Thailand. Using the advice from this post will steer you in the right direction.

25 thoughts on “Gluten Free Guide to Thai Street Food

  1. Josh says:

    Thank you so much for this guide. I’m a Celiac living in Thailand and I’ve already referred back to this twice. Especially the tip about those crunchy pancakes. I tried some. They are awesome!

  2. Susan says:

    Hi – I appreciate this post. I’m in Indonesia and heading to Thailand soon. I thought curries were the safest thing here, now I’m not so sure. Why are the Thai putting soy and fish sauce in their curries, the Indian curries don’t have this? Can the chefs at the less expensive restaurants in Thailand really make the curries fresh? Can the wait staff actually understand “Knorr stock cubes”?

    • Marley says:

      Hello Susan!

      In response to your questions, I would avoid all soups, unless you go to a Thai restaurant where someone speaks good English. I only found out about the Knorr stock cubes from doing a cooking course.

      As for curries, you should be ok, but make sure you say to them that you don’t want fish or soy sauce. Ask for salt instead. Thai cooking incorporates a lot of soy sauce and fish sauce to get the salty and savoury flavour, which is quite different in contrast to Indian curries. The spices, you will find, are quite different as well. I recommend you try a cooking course to see what ingredients are used and to beef up your knowledge of Thai cooking. It is a great way to spend a day!

      You could try Ariyasom Villa (restaurant is called Na Aroon) on soi 1 and Cabbages & Condoms as they both have staff who speak very good English!

  3. Santosi says:

    I’ve just moved to Thailand and I’m finding this blog useful however I’m confused about the comments about not eating fish sauce. I use fish sauce to cook in the UK regularly because the ingredients listed are just fish and salt and have never been ill so where does the gluten come from? I’m doing my best to avoid soy sauce, oyster sauce etc but have been eating fish sauce. Clearly something I shouldn’t be eating is sneaking in (perhaps knorr stock cubes) as I’m suffering at the moment. Thanks

    • Marley says:

      Hello, thanks for reading the blog. As I mentioned in my post, some fish sauces are ok. However I am quite skeptical if the ingredients are written in Thai.
      You mentioned that you’re feeling ill – perhaps there is some cross-contamination happening (especially deep fried foods and shared woks). As well, the Thai Knorr stock cubes are not gluten free. You need to find the ones that are imported from the UK. Good luck!

  4. Ande says:

    Hi,

    Thank you so much for your post.
    Do you have any idea what flour the thais use in the Roti street pancakes? I googled and I get mixed results.

    • Marley says:

      That’s a very interesting comment. I think it depends on every single person – how damaged their intestines are, how often they are exposed to gluten and their general well-being and immunity. When I first moved here, I was eating soy sauce every day in my meals. Over a period of three months, I lost 20lbs, was extremely tired and sick, then my hair started to fall out. Doctors in Thailand were trying to tell me that I was malnourished and lacking in several vital nutrients. My doctor back in the UK was the one who pointed out soy sauce as a culprit. When I removed it from my diet, my health improved considerably and quickly.

      However, when I went back to Canada this summer and had my inflammation levels tested, my doctor said that my gut has done a lot of healing in the past year and a half. He suggested that I try to re-introduce gluten back into my diet. I told him he was crazy. Some people do that though – and that’s their personal choice.

      Similar to grain alcohol, like whiskey and rye, there is a lot of speculation on the internet about the amount of gluten contained in fermented/distilled products. Looking at the website you have provided, it is not maintained by a certified physician or health advisory board such as http://www.celiac.org.uk or http://www.celiac.ca which contains advice from dietitians, health food professionals and doctors. Your soy website is promoting the use of soy without the advice of health-care professionals and is therefore based on opinion, personal experience and conjecture. I cannot verify the legitimacy of it.

      For all my readers and fellow Celiacs, I advise that you monitor your own reactions to food, as we are all affected differently. For my own personal consideration, I will continue to use my gluten free soy sauce in Thailand and Canada.

  5. Susan says:

    I don’t think that’s true. I have felt the effect of soy sauce before. Liquid forms of gluten are absorbed more easily too, making them more problematic for some. I’m at the point now where gluten is affecting me less and if I had occasional soy sauce in my food I’d probably be OK, but when I was at my most sensitive I wouldn’t risk it. If you’re sensitive to gluten but you consume it, I really think you leave yourself open to getting other food/water-borne bugs too, so common in places like Thailand.

  6. Thank you SO much for writing this.
    I went to Thailand for the first time in December last year, only for 10 days on the way back from 2 years in New Zealand – (where I’d become accustomed to organic, clean, free range food).
    So after about 3 days eating vegetable fried rice in Thailand, I was massively ill, every day after that for the rest of my time there.
    The vege fried rice I ate was particularly rich in “soy sauce” taste and so I named that as the culprit.
    When I changed restaurants and started having street food pancakes and fruit smoothies instead, I managed to get the dodgy tummy under control. But I wasn’t there long enough to collect definitive results.
    For reference, in the past I’ve eaten in Egypt and Bali and never got this sick from food – tough times for us with sensitive tummies 😦

    • Marley says:

      Thanks for your comment! Unfortunately this is the common plight for us celiacs – when I travel I stick to bland foods – eggs, steamed veg, rice and fruit. At least now there are blogs and comments online 🙂

    • I’ve been in Thailand since October 2015 and have so far avoided a single glutening! A note saying “No soya sauce” in Thai will work pretty well most of the time. Our main problem has been street vendors who cannot read.
      Curries (except massaman) are gluten free all the time (in my experience) and so are many of the meats on a stick. If there are four or five carts, you should be able to find one that’s okay.
      Final note: The mall food courts are better for coeliacs (especially Tops Flavour) and they’re everywhere in Bangkok. But again, some people there cannot read Thai (or English)!

    • Marley says:

      Hello Ana, there aren’t any gluten free beers that I know of. However someone posted a comment on the site – a company that imports gf beers and delivers them. That might be useful?

      • Brendan says:

        Sorry if I keep throwing out seemingly random posts on GF-friendly places in Southeast Asia, but I’ve googled myself to death searching for such tips and hope another person might possibly benefit. While I don’t recommend Patong as a destination (but I found a massive hotel error rate a few years ago and went for a week), the big grocery store in Jungceylon Mall has fancy GF beer from Belgium at prices comparable to other imported beers that most would consider pedestrian. It’s not Green’s Ales, and I don’t recall the name, unfortunately. I’ve never found GF beer anywhere else in Thailand.

  7. Hi Marley,

    Thank you this was really useful! I’ve recently been diagnosed with celiac disease, I was in Asia (Thailand and Bali) last summer and planning on returning this summer. But I am feeling slightly stressed about eating GF on a budget this has given me some confidence again, I ate pancakes pretty much every day in Thailand last year I had no idea that they were made with rice flour (AMAZING)! thanks again, Lucy

    • Marley says:

      Just be careful – it should be the crispy ones! Get some Thai translation cards – and be careful! Get some charcoal tablets if you know you’ve had something bad!

  8. Roger says:

    Hi Marley,
    thanks for your great help with this page. My wife is having celiac disease and we have moved to Bangkok for a project. With your support we tested already some spots and shops. You helped her a lot.
    I believe you know the Cafe Theera on Sukhumvit Soi 42 in Ekkamai who offers gf food and bread.

    Thank you again.
    Roger

  9. Darren says:

    Hi Marley, Nice site you have here and i am already looking forward to reading more. I have not actually been tested for celiac yet but it seems if i eat gluten free i feel great. Eating anything with gluten i feel horrible the entire next day. Living in Pattaya, Any suggestions for places to eat? I have done the Villa market thing but they are very limited on Gluten free. Been eating a lot of rice, fruits and vegetables. 🙂
    Thanks
    Darren

    • Marley says:

      It’s been quite a while since I’ve been to Pattaya and don’t think it’s on my “need to visit” list. Perhaps printing out a gf card in Thai would be a good idea? If you’re ever in Bkk, I’d stock up on gf supplies!

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