By Leia Parker, 2018 Bastyr Dietetic Intern
Full of dynamic flavor and packed with fresh vegetables, Thai food has become a unique and highly nutritious addition to many people’s culinary repertoire. However, Thai cuisine can be concerning if you are gluten-free because of the many different types of sauces and flavoring components that could potentially contain gluten. Without being well versed in this type of cuisine, it can be difficult to know what is truly gluten-free and the simple gluten-free modifications that can often be made. Whether you are making Thai food at home or getting take-out, this guide will help in navigating Thai cuisine with a gluten-free diet.
Common Thai ingredients
Many of us have become familiar with the vibrant flavors that Thai cuisine brings. With these complex combinations of flavors, though, come foreign ingredients that may not be well understood. The basic premise of Thai food is that it contains a good balance of sweet, salty, sour and spicy which are accomplished with a wide variety of components, some of which may be new to your pantry. But rest assured, we will help you in navigating the assortment of foreign ingredients and also provide a guide to various ways to incorporate these flavors into your daily cooking adventures.
All of the items listed below are naturally gluten-free ingredients that are very common in Thai cuisine. Many of these contribute to the sweet, salty, sour, and spicy profile that is so ubiquitous in Thai food.
Rice: While traditionally white rice is used in Thai cuisine, most restaurants carry brown rice. Not only is rice a naturally gluten-free option, 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 traditionally these are gluten-free, check the labeling on the package or talk with the restaurant to ensure they are truly gluten-free.
Fish sauce: A naturally gluten-free ingredient made from fermented anchovies, this can be an intimidating 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 also 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 most commonly 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’s comprised simply of shrimp and salt that has been fermented to produce this flavor packed ingredient. If you already have fish sauce on hand, then this ingredient isn’t completely necessary. Most commonly, shrimp paste is used in curry, soups, and dressings.
Thai chilis: This is an optional ingredient depending on your tolerance for spicy foods (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 truly can’t be replaced. Typically, you’ll be able to find lemongrass and kaffir leaves at specialty Asian markets and some mainstream markets too. Since these ingredients can be more difficult to obtain, having 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 many soups, curries, and steamed with rice.
Coconut milk: Coconut milk is a staple ingredient in Thai food and is used in soups and curries as a way to make them creamy.
Thai restaurant tips
Luckily, a lot of Thai cuisine is naturally gluten-free and gives the gluten-free community plenty of flavorful and healthful options. Here are just some simple tips to keep in mind the next time you eat at your local Thai restaurant:
- When ordering a noodle dish, choose rice noodles and avoid egg noodles. Just make sure to confirm with your server that the rice noodles are gluten-free. If there is any doubt, steamed rice (either white or brown) will always be an acceptable option.
- 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-contamination.
- Ask for tamari instead of soy sauce.
- Find a restaurant you can trust. Finding a restaurant that allows you to make modifications; ask as many questions as you’d like, and overall provides you with quality food and reassurance of gluten-free offerings is the place that will have your trust.
Thai food and a healthy diet
There are several basic components of a healthy diet: vegetables, protein, whole grains, and healthy fats. Thai cuisine easily encompasses all of these components and even enhances the health benefits with the addition of herbs and spices.
- Thai dishes are comprised of lots of fresh, colorful vegetables like bell peppers, carrots, broccoli, snap peas, eggplant, and bamboo shoots. Eating a colorful plate of vegetables will ensure a wide variety of nutrients and vitamins are consumed, which are so vital for optimal health.
- With a simple substitution of brown rice over white rice, this is increasing the amount of fiber in the meal which is important for regulating blood sugar, reduces cardiovascular risk and aids in gut health.
- Coconut milk is a great, healthy fat and can be a positive addition into our diet. Fat helps us to feel fuller longer, helps regulate blood sugar, and enhances the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins.
- Lean meats and poultry, seafood, and tofu are common additions into many Thai dishes. Protein from animal and plant sources are important for our bodies in building and repairing tissue.
- Thai food is rich in herbs and spices; these are so important in many metabolic processes. Especially during the colder months, eating herbs and spices may aid in building up immunity.
Now that you know more about Thai cuisine and how easily it can be integrated into a gluten-free lifestyle, you can confidently add Thai dishes into your weekly rotation. Have fun trying new flavors and dishes,
experiment with these newly acquired ingredients, and overall enjoy being in the kitchen. Having a dietary restriction doesn’t mean you have to restrict yourself in flavors and culture – to the contrary, learning about other cultures will allow you to realize that there is a whole world of gluten-free options to explore.
Spicy Curry Noodle Soup with Chicken and Sweet Potato
A great example of the delicious Thai balance of sweet, salty, sour and spicy flavors.
A traditional Thai dish and an easy way to try out a new cuisine, Larb is full of flavor and is sure to be a new addition to your dinner meals.