Celiac in Thailand, an Introduction

Hi All!  So before coming to Thailand, a lot of the information that was shared with us was that Thailand was the gluten-free jackpot.  In theory, Thai food does not contain a lot of wheat/gluten ingredients.  Thai food does not normally have wheat, flour, or a lot of soy sauce. It is also typically made with rice noodles.  

Here’s the kicker, Thailand is a 2nd world country.  Places like Bangkok scream with progression and advancements into a more modern world (and the sometimes overwhelming pollution that comes with that). This is great, but with it comes a huge introduction of western foods.  A big one is the increased use of soy sauce.  But wait! Soy sauce isn’t a western food, why is there more soy sauce now? This is how it was explained to us: western visitors expect a certain coloring and flavor to their food.  Thai cooking uses a lot of fish sauce, which is great.  Fish sauce is almost always gluten free.  It is made from fermented fish and has a sort of unpleasant and pungent smell to it.  Thais quickly discovered westerners aren’t huge advocates of having their food taste good, but smell funny (see: durian).   Unlike soy sauce, fish sauce is lightly colored and it has become customary to then add some soy sauce to give the darker color.  Sometimes soy sauce is completely switched out with fish sauce to prevent the smell from becoming a problem. There is also the increased usage of egg noodles (wheat), instant noodles (double wheat), and wheat into glass noodles (bean noodles). Overall there is just a lot of wheat flying around here (literally if you’re here over Songkran, but that’s a story for another time).

The second major problem is that allergies are generally just not very well understood in Thailand (and some of the other 2nd world countries we’ve traveled to). In the past I have had someone (in front of me) add soy sauce to my dish after I clearly stated not to.  When I protested, they then tried to scoop it out of the dish to save the dish.  Another example was I ordered a burger without a bun and they brought it with a bun.  I sent it back after explaining again and I watched as they removed the burger from the bun and try to hand it back to me.  It is just a lack of understanding and information.  They really could not understand why I could not eat the burger.  So cross-contamination risk is high.

The third and probably most difficult problem is that there is no word for gluten in the Thai language.  Thais will say “gluten”, but if you leave the major cities not a single soul will have an idea what you are talking about.  We speak Thai and can explain there is an allergy to gluten, but that doesn’t help if no one knows what that is.  It also isn’t very easy to explain in general. “Hello sir, I’m allergy to soy sauce, but I can eat soy. I’m allergic to egg noodles, but can eat regular rice noodles.” It just makes for a complicated conversation. When you translate “wheat” into Thai it translates to “rice wheat” which is confusing for everyone involved when you then ask for plain white rice. 

Now with all that said in done, can a Celiac come to Thailand, eat Thai food and not be hungry and/or running for the bathroom (or hospital)? 100%.  Just let us be clear, it is not always easy.  When we moved here we had one expectation and to be so totally wrong was very upsetting.  You just need to do some research and be very prepared. 

Jet setting to Asia? Gluten Free Guides coming soon!

2 thoughts on “Celiac in Thailand, an Introduction

    • There are a lot of places for vegetarians, vegans are a little more limited depending on your take on how things are prepared. Personally, we love to go to Chiang Mai to eat because there are so many options.

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