Traditional Holiday Foods and Meals: A Gluten-Free Guide
Published March, 2021
Food has played an important role in the holidays and religious observances in many different cultures around the world. This Spring, there are three holidays where people share meals featuring specific foods in a manner filled with meaning and tradition: Easter, Passover, and Ramadan.
We’ve looked at the foods typically eaten during these special meals, with an eye toward gluten-free choices, substitutions, and recipes.
Passover (March 27-April 4, 2021)
Passover is a major Jewish holiday celebrated for eight days in the Spring. The Passover meal, called a “Seder,” consists of multiple courses with symbolic foods and storytelling. During the meal, participants read from a text called the “Haggadah,” an ancient retelling of the Exodus of the Children of Israel from Egyptian slavery. The name Passover — or Pesach — refers to the story of the ten plagues when God is said to have “passed over” the houses of the Israelites, sparing their first-born sons.
One notable food eaten during Passover is unleavened bread or matzo, typically made of flour from gluten-containing grains, like wheat, barley, and rye, as well as spelt (a type of wheat) or oats (which may not be gluten-free) and water. Matzo represents the bread that baked in the sun on the backs of the Children of Israel as they fled from Egypt.
If you’re living gluten-free, there are GFCO-certified gluten-free versions of packaged matzo made of tapioca flour, potato starch, or other substitutes for gluten-containing grains. You can also make your own: Gluten-Free Matzo from GFJules.
Here are some other traditional foods eaten during Passover with some suggested recipes to DIY at home.
On a Seder plate (a special plate for symbolic foods eaten and put on display)
Shankbone – A roasted lamb shankbone is not actually eaten but is held up during the reading of the Haggadah. Because it is on the same plate as other foods that are eaten, make sure to roast the shankbone plain. Some substitute a roasted chicken neck to represent the shankbone.
Karpas (vegetable) – Typically represented by parsley, onion, radish, or celery, all of which are naturally gluten-free.
Charoset (Haroset) – A “paste” made of diced apples and optional diced pears with walnuts, cinnamon, and red wine or grape juice. Basically gluten-free, but use cinnamon that is labeled gluten-free if you’re especially sensitive to possible gluten cross-contact in trace amounts. Wine is typically gluten-free. Recipe: Passover Charoset Recipe Made Easy from Good for You Gluten-Free. See our article: Is Wine Gluten-Free?
Maror – The bitter herb, represented by horseradish. Freshly grated horseradish is naturally gluten-free. Read the label on prepared horseradish for any gluten-containing ingredients or opt for one labeled gluten-free in accordance with the FDA or a third-party certified gluten-free version. For a safer option, choose GFCO-certified.
Chazeret – Either romaine lettuce or endive, both of which are naturally gluten-free.
Egg – Roasted or hard-boiled eggs are naturally gluten-free. No substitution needed.
Other Traditional Foods Eaten at Passover
Salt Water – Usually placed in a bowl next to the Seder plate. Both the karpas (vegetable) and egg are dipped into it. This is gluten-free.
Gefilte fish – Poached fish dumplings in gelatinous fish broth. Could be made with matzo or bread crumbs so read the label to confirm there are no gluten-containing seasonings in the fish broth. Seek out jars that are labeled gluten-free in accordance with the FDA or a third-party certified gluten-free version. If you’d like to make your own, try this Gefilte Fish recipe from Elana’s Pantry.
Matzo ball soup – Gluten-free only if made with gluten-free matzo. You can purchase gluten-free brands of matzo. Check the label for either the words “gluten-free” in accordance with the FDA’s regulations or a third-party certified product.
Brisket or roast chicken – Naturally gluten-free and remains safe to eat if prepared with entirely gluten-free seasonings.
Potato kugel – A casserole-like dish made with potatoes, onions, eggs, salt, and sugar – all naturally gluten-free. In case you’re curious how to make this dish, check out a recipe from Food.com for Gluten-Free Potato Kugel.
Tzimmes – A slow-cooked stew made with carrots and prunes. Could also include potatoes or sweet potatoes and raisins with a touch of honey or sugar. All of the ingredients are naturally gluten-free. Here’s a recipe for Tzimmes from The Spruce Eats.
Easter (April 4, 2021)
Easter is the oldest festival of the Christian Church that celebrates the resurrection of Christ, held on the first Sunday following the first full moon after the northern spring equinox. Easter Sunday is typically spent at a church service followed by fun activities such as egg decorating, egg hunts, and egg-related games like egg rolling and a traditional meal. Some foods included in an Easter Sunday meal symbolize things mentioned in the Bible while others are a nod to the season.
Lamb – There are lamb references throughout the Bible. Eating lamb on Easter Sunday is thought to be a Biblical reference to Jesus being the “lamb of God.” Lamb in a traditional Easter Sunday dinner is commonly roasted and can be entirely gluten-free depending on the seasonings used.
Ham – A classic glazed ham may replace lamb at an Easter Sunday meal because it is often more available and affordable. If you’re using a pre-packaged glaze that comes with a ham, be careful as it may have gluten-containing ingredients. Make your own ham glaze so you know it is entirely gluten-free. This Recipe Girl recipe for the whole ham includes a simple, gluten-free glaze.
Potatoes – While there doesn’t seem to be a religious or seasonal connection between potatoes and Easter, scalloped potatoes are particularly favored, especially in the Midwest, and go well with either ham or lamb. Because flour is a common ingredient in scalloped potatoes, substitute with a measure for measure gluten-free flour mix. Here’s a gluten-free scalloped potatoes recipe from Joyful Healthy Eats.
Spring vegetables – Because of the timing of Easter and early, pre-Christian celebrations at this time, seasonal vegetables, like carrots and peas, are served.
Deviled Eggs – Throughout history, eggs have symbolized rebirth and were adopted by early Christians as an Easter food. Make sure the condiments you use to make your deviled eggs are gluten-free – all are typically gluten-free including mayonnaise, mustard, vinegar, and paprika. You can also substitute sweet relish for vinegar.
Hot Cross Buns – Cross Buns were baked before Christianity to celebrate the goddess Eostre, the Germanic Goddess of Fertility. Some believe the quarters of the cross on top of the buns represent the phases of the moon. The cross represents rebirth after winter. Technically, these buns are eaten on Good Friday, the Friday before Easter Sunday. Usually not gluten-free, you can try this recipe from My Gluten-Free Kitchen spiced with currants, nutmeg, allspice, and cinnamon.
Chocolate – During Lent, the six-week period leading up to Easter, many Christians around the world give up something as a sign of sacrifice and to test their self-discipline. Some people give up chocolate as a way of observing Lent. At the end of Lent, chocolate may be consumed as a celebratory treat, a tradition that may have inspired chocolate Easter bunnies and eggs.
Ramadan (April 12-May 12 at dusk); Eid al-Fitr (May 12-13)
Ramadan is a month-long Muslim observance, following the teachings of Islam, that centers on fasting, prayer, spiritual reflection, and family and community. Muslims believe this was the time that Allah, or God, revealed the first verses of the Qur’an to the Prophet Muhammad. Strict adherence involves eating only before dawn and after sunset for the duration of the month.
Each day during Ramadan, a pre-dawn, nutritious meal – known as Suhoor – is eaten to help people sustain their day-long fast. Iftar – the meal that takes place after sunset – breaks the day’s fast.
At the end of Ramadan, Eid al-Fitr, or the “Festival of Breaking the Fast,” takes place. The foods eaten during Ramadan are traditional foods found in the various regions where Muslims live, including the Asia-Pacific region, South Asia, the Middle East, and Africa.
Here are some of the foods, from various countries and cultures, that could be part of breaking the fasts during Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr.
Dates – Naturally gluten-free. Dates, a staple food in Muslim homes, have a religious significance in Islam, with the date palm mentioned over 20 times in the Qur’an. Be aware that if chopped, dates could be dusted with oat flour to prevent sticking so you may want to chop your own. Use dates for Kleicha, or date cookies, a treat traditionally served on Eid. This recipe from Nadia’s Healthy Kitchen is gluten-free.
Strawberry, Pineapple, Mango, and Spinach Smoothie – Yes, a fruit smoothie is not only naturally gluten-free, but it provides a refreshing, nutritious option for either Suhoor or at the start of Iftar. Yvonne Maffei of My Halal Kitchen offers a simple recipe with the recommendations to cut the fruit in advance for faster preparation and to make it close to consumption so the ingredients don’t separate.
Shorba – Means “soup” in Middle Eastern cooking or “gravy” in South Asian cooking. Many soups can be consumed for Iftar and after prayers. Here’s an Iraqi lentil shorba recipe contributed by a user on Food.com, although there are variations of this dish found in other countries.
Ful Medames – An Arabic “breakfast” bean salad with fava beans and chickpeas that can be eaten early for Suhoor and provide sustenance throughout a day of fasting. Check out this recipe from Zen and Zaatar. Hold the pita bread or look for a gluten-free option. This dish is traditionally made with Za’atar, a Middle Eastern blend of spices, is made up of mainly thyme along with oregano, marjoram, sumac, and toasted sesame seeds. In fact, Za’atar is the Arabic word for “thyme.”
Kebabs – All meat is naturally gluten-free, however, watch the seasonings. Meat dishes are suitable for Iftar and Eid. Here’s a turkey kebab recipe from Fufu’s Kitchen as an option.
Fattoush – While this dish is not traditionally gluten-free because it is all about the bread, this salad is a light dish that can be consumed for Iftar or as part of a larger meal for Eid. Check out this recipe from The Fit Foodie Mama where the spice, sumac, takes center stage in the dressing. Serve with gluten-free pita bread.
Kolak – Some Muslims break the fast with this Indonesian dessert made with coconut milk and various fruits, and even sweet potato. Here’s a recipe for Kolak Ubi Pisang, that includes cassava and plantain, from What to Cook Today.
Kheer – A rice pudding dessert for celebrations such as Eid, served with an array of dried fruit and nuts such as raisins, almonds, cashews, and pistachios. . Some Muslims make large quantities of Kheer to share with family and friends to break the fast together. This recipe, from Honey, What’s Cooking, is for a South Asian-style Kheer which is also served during Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, and other religious festivals.
Khoshaf – A dried fruit compote traditionally made with dried apricot, prunes, raisins, figs, and dates and served during holidays, including Ramadan. Try this easy recipe from Amira’s Pantry.
The following are flour or dough-based so make them with gluten-free flours.
Kibbeh – A Middle Eastern dish that is Arabic for “to form into a ball,” although the shapes vary. Although traditionally made with an outer dough of cracked wheat, here’s a gluten-free version of these fried meat dumplings from the Luvele blog using quinoa and tapioca flour. In preparation for Ramadan, you can double or triple the recipe and freeze cooked kibbeh for several months, then heat them up for Iftar or Eid with plenty to share.
Keema Samosa – Keema or minced meat, typically lamb or beef, fills a pastry dough to make samosa. This recipe from Only Gluten-Free makes the dough out of a gluten-free baking flour mix and gets some heat from red chili pepper flakes. Making Keema Samosa for Ramadan can be a family affair, with an all-hands-on-deck approach to help shape and fill the dough. Vary up this recipe by filling the dough with potatoes, vegetables, or cheese.
Beguni – A popular Ramadan dish for Iftar, these eggplant slices are battered and fried in chickpea or rice flour. Check out this gluten-free and vegan recipe from One Green Planet.
Dahi Vada (also called “Dahi Bhalla”) – This Iftar favorite is a fried lentil fritters dish soaked in a yogurt sauce and laced with spices and chilies that provides a good boost of protein. Here’s an aromatic recipe from Shweta in the Kitchen.
Pakora – Battered, pan-fried vegetables with curry. This pakora recipe from The Minimalist Baker takes only 30 minutes to make, a convenience when preparing for Iftar.
Regardless of your beliefs or backgrounds, chances are food plays an important role in your holidays and traditions. What special foods do you eat during significant observances and holidays?
Special thanks to Nour Zibdeh, MS RDN, a functional dietitian who specializes in digestive disorders, for reviewing this article.
Disclaimer: The information on this website is for educational purposes only. Consult your healthcare team when considering this information.
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