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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.