Exploring Thai Cuisine on a Gluten-Free Diet
Thai food is flavorful, nutritious, and packed with fresh vegetables and often featuring gluten-free rice noodles. However, some sauces and flavorings in Thai cuisine may contain gluten. Whether you are making Thai food at home or getting it from a restaurant or at an event, this guide will help you navigate Thai cuisine when you’re eating gluten-free.
Common Thai Food Ingredients
If you are familiar with Thai cuisine, you know that the flavors are a balance of sweet, salty, sour, and spicy. While many of the ingredients are based on familiar foods, some are particular to the country and region. Most are likely available at specialty food sections of your grocery store or at an international food market.
All food items listed below are naturally gluten-free and are commonly found in Thai cuisine.
- Rice: Traditionally white – or jasmine – rice is used in Thai cuisine, most restaurants carry brown rice as well. Rice is a naturally gluten-free option, and brown rice is a good source of dietary fiber.
- Rice noodles: A great blank canvas to toss with a delicious sauce or to put into soups. While rice noodles are almost always gluten-free, check the labeling on the package or talk with the restaurant to ensure they are rice noodles and completely gluten-free.
- Fish sauce: A naturally gluten-free ingredient made from fermented anchovies, this can be an unfamiliar ingredient but provides a wonderful deep, salty flavor. Add this as a replacement for salt in soups, dressings, sautéed greens, curries, and sauces.
- Palm sugar: An unrefined sweetener with a mild, caramel flavor, derived from the sap of the flower bud of coconut palm trees. This provides the sweet element that is important in balancing the flavors of Thai food. Some alternatives that can be used in place of palm sugar are light brown sugar (more of a molasses flavor) or coconut sugar (a little nuttier and not as sweet).
- Tamarind paste: A slightly sweet and tart fruit paste that is used in making Pad Thai. Can also be used to make chutneys, soups/stews, sauces or glazes for grilled meats, and dressings.
- Shrimp paste: Along the same lines as fish sauce, shrimp paste provides another layer of saltiness and umami to dishes. It is made of simply shrimp and salt that has been fermented to produce this flavor-packed seasoning. If you already have fish sauce on hand, then this ingredient isn’t completely necessary. Shrimp paste is used in curry, soups, and dressings.
- Thai chilies: This is an optional ingredient depending on your tolerance for spicy foods as they are about 20 times hotter than a jalapeno. If you can’t find Thai chilis, red chili flakes are a perfectly acceptable substitution.
- Lemongrass and kaffir leaves: Lemongrass and kaffir leaves provide a distinct flavor profile in Thai cuisine and can’t easily be replaced, at least not for their unique and authentically Thai flavor. You may be able to find lemongrass and kaffir leaves at specialty Asian markets and in the Asian food aisle at some mainstream markets, too. Since these ingredients can be more difficult to obtain, using one or the other would still provide plenty of flavor. Lemongrass is a lemon-scented, woody stalk. When shopping for fresh lemongrass, make sure to purchase sturdy stalks. Kaffir leaves are also citrus scented and can be added to soups and curries, as well as steamed with rice.
- Coconut milk: Coconut milk is a staple ingredient in Thai food and is used in soups and curries to make them creamy.
Thai Restaurant Gluten-Free Tips
Because most dishes in Thai cuisine are naturally gluten-free, you have plenty of potential choices if you’re ordering off a regular menu. Even so, you still want to ask about the gluten-free status of any dishes you are interested in and confirm that cross-contact with gluten is being avoided. Here are just some simple tips for the next time you eat at or order from your local Thai restaurant:
- When ordering a noodle dish, choose rice noodles and avoid egg noodles. Confirm with your server that the rice noodles are gluten-free. If there is any doubt, choose steamed rice- either white or brown).
- Avoid fried items like fried tofu and instead get steamed or pan seared. The batter on the tofu or other food products might be wheat flour based. Also, there is a higher likelihood of cross-contact with gluten if gluten-containing and gluten-free items are fried in the same oil.
- Ask for tamari instead of soy sauce to avoid the gluten present in most soy sauces.
- Find a restaurant you can trust, that allows you to make modifications, and even better if they have a gluten-free menu (or are validated a Gluten Free Safe Spot by GFFS). Ask as many questions as you need to feel comfortable with your menu choices.
Thai Food and a Healthy Diet
Basic components of a healthy diet include vegetables and fruit, protein sources, whole grains, and healthy fats. Thai cuisine easily covers these food groups and even enhances the health benefits with the addition of herbs and spices such as coriander, turmeric and lemongrass.
- Thai dishes are made with fresh, colorful vegetables like bell peppers, carrots, broccoli, snap peas, eggplant, and bamboo shoots. Eating a colorful plate of vegetables can help ensure you are getting a wide variety of nutrients and vitamins.
- With a simple substitution of brown rice over white rice, you can increase the amount of fiber you consume, important for regulating blood sugar, reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease, and aiding gut health.
- Coconut milk is a healthy fat and can be a great addition to our diet. Fat can help you feel fuller longer, helps regulate blood sugar, and enhances the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins.
- Lean meats and poultry, seafood, and tofu are common staples in many Thai dishes. Protein from animal and plant sources are important for our bodies to build and repair tissue.
- Thai food is rich in herbs and spices, providing a wealth of antioxidants that promote overall health and may have immune-boosting benefits too.
Now that you know more about Thai cuisine and how to navigate it to remain gluten-free, you can confidently add Thai dishes into your meal plans. Enjoy trying new flavors and dishes, and don’t hesitate to experiment with these newly acquired ingredients. Following a strict diet doesn’t mean you have to restrict yourself from experiencing new cultures through flavorful cuisines. There is a whole world of gluten-free options for you to explore.
See our articles on Mexican cuisine and Indian cuisine. Looking to try cooking a Thai dish? Larb is a traditional Thai dish and an easy way to try out a new cuisine. Check out this recipe from Bon Appetit.
Contributions from Leia Parker, 2018 Bastyr Dietetic Intern
The information on this website is for educational purposes only. Consult your healthcare team when considering this information.
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