ASK ME! gluten-free Thai, food safety

I’ve been meaning to rejuvenate the ASK ME! department for months, so when I received two questions about Thai food from gluten-free readers on the same day, I figured it was time….

My daughter has celiac, and I noticed you mentioned you are gluten intolerant. I have bought her Thai Kitchen brand noodles a lot, and I enjoy making curry chicken and rice with Thai Kitchen coconut milk. With all of the recent news about the safety of Asian food processing, would you still think it safe to buy these imported products? I know everything isn’t perfect, but I really rely on this particular import because of its good taste. Gluten-free cooking and rice go well, so Thai is a good match. —Deena

Most of the recent food scares have originated in China. It may be news to Americans, but many Asians have long treated Chinese food imports as suspect (see my posts on this topic at Gourmet’s Choptalk, here and here). Of particular concern are fruits and vegetables susceptible to pesticide poisoning, fish and seafood from contaminated waters, and meat injected with steroids.

The good news is, Thailand doesn’t have quite the reputation for food poisoning that China does. I lived in Thailand for several years, ate on the street and shopped in the wet markets regularly. I also bought from the Royal Project, which was established to give hilltribe farmers an alternative to opium production. Many of the Project’s foods are organic, and they’re tested for safety. The Thais do care about what they eat and how their foods are grown.

But I also exercised caution. I didn’t buy mandarin oranges or strawberries unless they were organic (both are heavily sprayed in northern Thailand). And I took the advice of a young Thai woman who told me to look for veggies with holes. Holes = bugs, bugs = no pesticides. I’m wary of farmed shrimp from anywhere in Asia (for reasons of health and ethics).

Bottom line: I think you should be OK with imported Thai Kitchen foods. The company was founded by an American. That’s not a guarantee of anything, of course, but I think it is important to consider cultural thought processes in this whole issue of food safety. You can also check the company’s online chart of food allergy information to ensure your purchases contain no gluten. If nothing else, you can rest assured that Thai Kitchen’s founder comes from a country that has long-established food-safety laws. In theory, anyway.

If you’re really concerned, you can usually find organic rice-based foods at your local health-food store. Look for certified organic.

I lived in Phuket for a while and loved everything about it. However, that was before I realized I am allergic to gluten! So I ate all the green curries, the phat thai, the stir fries…. everything! Now my family is planning a trip to Koh Samui in about a week and I am wondering if you can give me tips on what you eat there? I know I won’t be able to explain that I am gluten-free to the Thais at the food markets, and those are absolutely my favorite places to eat! In your experience have you found certain dishes that you know will never contain gluten, or is it always a risk in that sauces and their ingredients change from place to place? —Erica

Erica, you’re in luck. Gluten is not a big part of the Thai diet. Wheat doesn’t grow readily in Thailand (not like rice), so using it as an additive in processed foods is not nearly as common as it is in the United States. The diet is based largely on rice and soy, as opposed to corn and wheat in the Americas. Most traditional Thai dishes are completely gluten-free.

That said, you will want to watch for soy sauce (which often contains wheat), a common ingredient in some stir-fries, fried noodles and dishes with Chinese origins. Soy sauce is also used in vegetarian dishes in place of fish sauce. Your phat thai should be fine, but avoid Chinese-style yellow noodles.

Western-style flour-based desserts are becoming more and more common, even on the street. Instead, stick to traditional Thai desserts, based on rice or mung bean flour, palm sugar and coconut.

Go ahead and eat those curries. A note of caution, however: while your phat thai and green curry may be gluten-free in Thailand, that’s not necessarily the case at your neighborhood Thai restaurant back in the States. Wheat is an easier find in the US, and gluten often creeps into packaged goods (e.g. soup stocks and sauces). Many traditional recipes that call for fish sauce are made with soy sauce in the US. Read your labels carefully and ask questions. A Thai cook in Thailand may make her soups and curry pastes from scratch, but the US restaurant version may come from a can or bottle.

3 thoughts on “ASK ME! gluten-free Thai, food safety

  1. This is so helpful, my dear. Thank you.

    We don’t have any trips to Thailand planned in the near future, but both Danny and I would dearly love to go. When we do get there, we will be able to eat well, because of you.

  2. Glad the info was helpful, Shauna. The Southeast Asian diet is generally very friendly to those of us with gluten issues.

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