How to Eat Gluten Free in Vietnam

food - Vietnam: yesterday

The latest “magic pill” in the quest for health (lose weight, boost energy, feel better) is gluten-free gastronomy. In many Western countries, the supermarkets, restaurants and cafes are brimming with these readily available food options. Before taking the bait on grain-less living, let’s look at some nutritional info and discover how to live gluten-free in Vietnam.

People diagnosed with celiac disease are the only ones required to maintain a gluten-free diet. When celiacs consume gluten-containing food, it triggers an auto-immune response that damages the small intestine, resulting in the inability to absorb nutrients. A slew of other effects may follow, possibly leading to more serious diseases.

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Only recently in 2013 did the scientific community agree that some people with non-celiac gluten sensitivity can also suffer side-effects such as bloating, low-energy, “brain fog” etc.

“People who are sensitive to gluten may feel better, but a larger portion will derive no significant benefit from the practice,” says Dr. Leffler, who is also an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. “They’ll simply waste their money, because these products are expensive.”

Where to Go in Saigon

Now for the good news! Whether you need to be gluten-free or fall for the “farce”, Vietnam allows gluten-free living relatively easily if you stick to Vietnamese cuisine. Here is a list of common Vietnamese dishes that are naturally gluten free:

Pho, bun bo, banh trang (rice cakes), banh cuon, rice, all the fish, chicken, beef and pork dishes are fine (make sure there’s no soy sauce). Hu tieu, goi cuon, mi quang, com hen (rice with snails) and mien (mung bean noodles) are fine too. Some sauces such as soy sauce usually have added wheat, so be careful there. Those who wish to avoid gluten or are wheat sensitive generally don’t need to worry about small amounts. Celiacs, however, do. Glutinous (sticky) rice contains no gluten, nor do all plain rice products (white, brown or black).

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It is best to avoid fish or meats deep-fried as often they are dipped in flour first. Oils are gluten-free, as are potatoes, but the oils used for French fries may have been used for other deep-fried food dipped in flour. All alcohol is wheat-free except BEER! Oh man, do I miss it! Many micro-breweries abroad have a slew of grain-less swill. A few imported brands are available in Saigon.

Most Western restaurants have yet to adopt specific gluten-free menus, though many Italian restaurants have gluten-free pasta available on request. Some chefs I spoke with are reluctant to display gluten-free options, for risk of cross-contamination. However, it is highly recommended to choose naturally gluten-free foods over the processed gluten-free products, such as gluten-free breads, pastas etc.

Mexican restaurants may be of significant importance for wheat-less warriors.

Mexican food traditionally uses corn flour wraps; however, restaurants use wheat or wheat/corn mixes as a cheaper option. Ask to be sure before you order. This can be challenging as wait staff are often unaware. Even the kitchen staff may not know that many sauces contain wheat.

Saigon has many import stores and Vietnamese and Western supermarkets stocking a long list of gluten-free items including pastas, crisps, bread mixes, pancakes, oats and cookies. But I suggest going for local options such as banh trang, a readily available large round rice cracker, rather than gluten-free crisp breads, as they are far cheaper and locally produced.

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So folks, there you have it. If you are able to digest this highly wheat-sensitive “info-meal”, choose wisely the next time you desire grain-less grub or hear someone asking “is it gluten-free”? Unless a medical professional determines you are celiac or wheat-sensitive, enjoy your durum semolina and embrace your inner gluten gluttony!

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