Venturing into Indian Cuisine
By Madison Service, 2019 Bastyr University Dietetic Intern
Curries, tandoori, tikka masala, oh my!
Packed full of flavor and chock-full of nutrients, Indian food is gaining popularity in the western world. Many people seek out this colorful cuisine that offers a wide spectrum of flavors. Adventuring out of one’s comfort zone and stepping into a new food culture is exciting, but may create unease with those who avoid gluten. Fortunately, the majority of Indian food is naturally gluten-free (GF) due to its heavy reliance on rice, veggies, meats, lentils and other beans. However, it is important to know hidden sources of gluten and overt gluten-containing foods while expanding your palate. Whether eating out or experimenting with this new cuisine in your own kitchen, this guide will help you navigate this varied and delicious cuisine.
India is the seventh largest country in the world and is home to an array of cultures, languages, religions, and traditions so it comes as no surprise that food vastly changes from region to region. Restaurants in the United States generally emphasize either northern Indian or southern Indian cooking, with a majority leaning towards the northern region influence. While this list hardly scratches the surface of the intricacies of Indian cuisine, it gives you an idea of the variance.
- Meat-based dishes
- Wheat is staple crop
- Wheat-based breads:
- Dairy products
- Tandoor oven (a round clay oven, often used to cook chicken)
- Paleek paneer (spinach and cheese)
- Aloo ghobi (potato and cauliflower)
- Garam masala spice
- Yogurt, onion, tomatoes, and garlic
- Chai tea
- Vegetarian-based dishes
- Rice is staple crop
- GF breads
- Dosa (lentil and rice crepe)
- Idli (steamed lentil rice cake)
- Spicier foods
- Coconut, native fruits, and curry leaves
- Chicory coffee
Indian cuisine basics
Indian cuisine often fosters a sense of community due to its family-style meal ritual. Many restaurants encourage ordering a variety of dishes and sharing with those around the table. If you decide to sample multiple dishes, make sure everything at the table is GF. Enjoying your own entree is fine as well.
Indian meals are generally crafted of a few basic components:
- Basmati rice A great GF foundation for your meal! Basmati rice acts as a buffer to the spicy main dish and helps cool the palate. Opt for the brown rice for a boost in fiber intake, if available.
- Proteins Lamb, chicken, and goat are the most common meats due to a variety of religious dietary restrictions in India. Lentils are commonly used as well (lentils which have been certified or labelled gluten-free are safest, due to risk of cross-contamination).
- Vegetables Many delicious vegetable side dishes to consider.
- Ghee A traditional cooking fat made from clarified butter (butter without milk solids or water).
- Chutney A popular type of relish made from fruits, herbs, chilies, and spices.
These are common Indian food options that you may see at a restaurant or recipes you may decide to make at home:
- Tandoori chicken This popular dish is cooked in a tandoor, hence the name; a tandoor is a round clay oven. You can still make this in your own oven! A variety of spices are added to this dish which enhances the flavor profile.
- Chicken tikka Translates to “bits of chicken” and is traditionally cooked in a tandoor. Perhaps one of the most popular Indian dish in the western world.
- Biryani This is a Basmati rice staple that is similar to a Chinese stir-fry with vegetables. Some people enjoy this as their main meal or in a smaller portion as a side dish.
- Raita A perfect partner for spicy dishes since this creamy cucumber-yogurt helps cool down the pungent spices.
- Masala Translates to “blend of spices” and is up to interpretation of the chef. Expect this to be spicy! You can buy this spice blend at the store.
- Curries A mixture of meat, vegetables and spices, usually served with rice; there are vegetarian options too.
- Paneer A rich cheese similar to ricotta or cottage cheese and cut into cubes with a strong flavor.
Indian restaurant and GF eating
Some Indian restaurants may have their own specific gluten-free menus or items labeled gluten-free on their regular menu. However, do not assume there are no gluten-free options if you don’t see anything specifically labeled. As mentioned earlier, many dishes are inherently gluten-free. Remember to ask about possible cross-contamination risks and preparation of your dish. Check out this education bulletin located on GIG’s website for more information on questions to ask while eating out (archive.gluten.org/resources/lifestyle/restaurant-dining-seven-tips-for-staying-gluten-free/).
Hidden gluten in Indian food
Watch out for these gluten-containing ingredients that may sneak their way onto an Indian restaurant menu:
- Spices A vital ingredient in Indian cuisine, providing not only a delicious flavor, but packing in extra nutrients as well. Luckily, pure spices – whether Indian or otherwise – are naturally gluten-free. But there is a potent spice called hing which is often processed with wheat and could hide in chutneys, soups, and sauces. Make sure to let your waiter know about your gluten-free needs and make sure you do not accidentally eat something that is not gluten-free.
- Suji or rava Semolina (wheat) based and often used as a batter for Indian dishes such as Upma and Rawa Ladoo.
- Maida Refined wheat flour found in some Indian desserts, breads, and other menu items.
- Sevian A northern Indian dessert made from noodles often containing wheat
- Kofta Meatballs that may or may not contain breadcrumbs or gluten-containing fillers.
- Fried foods Increases the risk for cross-contamination; ask your server.
- Tandoori meats Are often cooked in the same oven as bread. Crumbs and cross-contamination may be an issue.
- Although the majority of Indian sauces are NOT thickened with wheat flours, ask your server about this detail to confirm.
- Partaking in Indian buffets exponentially increases your risk of cross-contamination, but use your best judgement. It is generally preferable to order off the menu.
That’s it! Most of the remaining menu items should be fair game, but remember to always inform your server of your dietary needs.
Bring Indian cuisine home
Try Indian cuisine in your own kitchen! Good news – you do not need to make everything from scratch. There are pre-made spice mixes and sauces that will allow you to take some shortcuts. Explore the web for Indian dishes! There is an abundance of delightful GF Indian cuisine recipes online, but here is one to get you started: www.watchwhatueat.com/easy-chicken-biryani/
Congratulations on discovering a whole new world of gluten-free cuisine!