It's getting easier to eat out at restaurants if you're gluten-free — eateries in most urban areas and in many small towns understand the concept of "gluten-free" and can prepare a safe meal for you.
However, there are certain ethnic restaurants where you may find it easier to eat, simply because the cuisines naturally use gluten-free foods. These cuisines — which include Thai and Indian — can offer some delicious alternatives to more traditional dining.
Here's a rundown of the various ethnic restaurant options available, and what you need to know about each.
1. Thai Restaurants
Thai restaurants can represent excellent options for gluten-free dining, since most Thai cuisine is naturally gluten-free — you should be able to find many choices, including most curries and rice noodle-based Pad Thai. Avoid wheat-coated fried appetizers.
However, the language barrier inherent in dealing with the staffs of some Thai eateries can pose challenges if you're trying to question what goes into a dish. For example, while traditional Thai soy sauce is gluten-free, some restaurants use Chinese-style soy sauce in their dishes, which does contain wheat.
Your best bet to eat gluten-free Thai is to find a place where you can communicate easily with the manager, and where the chef makes everything from scratch, including the sauces.
2. Indian Restaurants
Like Thai restaurants, Indian restaurants offer a wide variety of naturally gluten-free dishes. Tandoori chicken, fish and shrimp are almost always gluten-free, as are most of the vegetable side dishes. Beware of dishes with maida flour and with suji, which means wheat.
Papadum, an Indian flatbread made from lentils, provides a great alternative to the more traditional wheat-based breads that also are available at Indian restaurants.
However, Indian restaurants can have the same language barrier as Thai restaurants. In addition, those that use pre-made sauces (as opposed to making their own) may use sauces that are thickened with wheat flour. Again, your best bet is to find an Indian restaurant that makes everything from scratch.
3. Japanese Restaurants
You'd think that Japanese restaurants would be difficult places at which to enjoy a gluten-free meal due to the many soy sauce-laden dishes. However, you do have many options at most Japanese restaurants ... as long as you like sushi.
Most sushi is naturally gluten-free; exceptions include unagi, which is cooked eel marinated in soy sauce, and any tempura-based dishes, which are coated in wheat-based batter.
Be aware that the rice used normally contains vinegar; if you react to grain-based vinegar, ask the restaurant to use plain rice for your sushi. You also can stick to sashimi, which is plain fish. Most wasabi is safe, but bring your own soy sauce.
Avoid stir-fried Japanese dishes and miso soup, since they often contain wheat or barley.
4. Italian Restaurants
It may seem counter-intuitive to think Italian restaurants offer gluten-free fare, since Italian cuisine is so gluten-laden.
But incidence and awareness of celiac disease are very high in Italy, and you'll find many Italian restaurants provide gluten-free alternatives. If they don't offer gluten-free pasta, they may let you bring your own pasta to cook.
There are several potential pitfalls to dining gluten-free in an Italian restaurant. First, make sure they don't cook your pasta or vegetables in water that's been used to cook gluten-based pasta — they may not realize that will make you sick.
In addition, if you're particularly sensitive, beware of restaurants where they make their own pasta onsite due to the residual flour in the air.
5. Chinese Restaurants
Like other ethnic restaurant alternatives, making certain you stay safe in a Chinese restaurant can represent a challenge — soy sauce is featured in nearly every dish.
Your best bet is to find a Chinese restaurant that caters to gluten-free customers; many in urban areas include some labeled gluten-free dishes on their menus.
Beyond that, try to find an eatery where you can communicate easily with the manager or chef. If you're stuck with a Chinese restaurant where you can't communicate, the rice should be safe and steamed vegetables may be safe.
For additional tips on eating out safely gluten-free in a Chinese restaurant, see the article Gluten-Free Chinese Food in Restaurants.