The Celiac’s Guide to Northern India

Categories Gluten Free, India

A huge part of my excitement over visiting Northern India was, of course, the food. Everyone I knew ranted and raved about dishes throughout the country, their eyes glazing over and unfocussing slightly, minds reeling with memories of tastes and smells. From those who had visited Rajasthan, tales of vegetables coated in spices and crunchy street snacks grabbed wherever possible flowed freely. I imagined tiny corner stalls piled high with treats, fried on-the go.

I wasn’t wrong.

Delhi snack stall

Delhi snack stall, in all its crunchy glory.

With only a few weeks to visit and knowing I would be on a tour where some meals are included, I wanted to get in as much exploration as I could. My mum, to her credit, came along for the ride almost all of the time — from streetside chai tea to fried chickpea flour snacks and more. We did not get sick once, but we certainly tested fate a few times. To be completely honest there was an afternoon of my rolling around clutching my stomach on the bed, the result of a lassi that I was almost certain was extremely watered down, but happily nothing violent came from it. A few hours later, I was back to my usual hijinks, sniffing around for a street dosa for dinner.

Notwithstanding the fact that many Indian meals do have rice, Northern India’s tastes often skew toward wheat — more than I realized. While Punjab is referred to as the “breadbasket” of the country, during our time in Rajasthan we were showered with wheat add-ons to our meals, local breads such as chapatis and rotis for all. Well, except me.

My guide Manu would wrinkle his nose at the rice offerings, explaining he was from Rajasthan where wheat is the chosen carb for his family. “You and your rice,” he would tease, shaking his head.  Of course, this just meant that I offered him rice at every opportunity I could, purely to annoy him. But with Manu’s guidance and a lot of exploring, I was also able to find all sorts of other non-rice carbohydrates to keep me entertained.

I should note that I am extremely sensitive and that I have celiac disease, not a milder intolerance. Eating foods fried in oil that has been contaminated with breaded products will get me sick; anything with even a little soy sauce will do the same. And so on. I mention this in the event celiacs stumble on the site, to make clear that with heightened sensitivity in mind, I have compiled the following list.

Some Dishes to Try

1. Poha

With breakfast included in our guesthouses, many catered to Western tastes, and the staff seemed confused about my refusal of the breads they had on offer. I learned quickly that a fast and easy alternative was poha, a dish made from flattened rice that is fried with turmeric, chili powder, onions, mustard seeds and more.  Easy to make and satisfying, it goes quite well with eggs.

Recipe and photo from the Times of India here.

2. Bajra Roti or Makki ki Roti

While traditional roti is made with wheat, we saw millet growing along the long drives in Rajasthan, a staple food I tend to forget about when I am home. Pre-made bajra (the word for millet) rotis are not advised as often wheat is mixed in the batter. However, many guesthouses and restaurants were more than happy to make a pure bajra roti, which I was then able to use to soak up my sauce from dinner. The breads are a dense and slightly difficult to digest alternative to the lighter wheat version, but went quite well with the more sauce-based curries and stews.

Here is a palak paneeer, a spinach and soft cheese dish famous in Rajasthan, with this celiac-friendly bread.

In addition to millet, some Punjabi restaurants and the occasional street vendor will also make makki ki roti, corn-based bread that is also gluten-free. Occasionally vendors will dust the finished product with wheat flour — or so I was warned. That said, I never found any that did, and I did not get sick.

3. Dosa

Dosas are a South Indian crepe made from lentil and rice batter and spread thin like a pancake and grilled, either with filling or without. For those concerned about food sickness, the chutneys that accompany these dosa on the street ought to be avoided as many are uncooked sauces. The dosa itself, however, makes for a great meal. Despite traveling in the North, there were often South Indian restaurants in town for a sampling. In addition, in the markets of Jaipur and Jodphur and in Bikaner I found small dosa stalls on the street, making a potato-masala filled masterpiece for only 50 cents.

Note that one type of dosa, rava dosa, is made with wheat flour included in the batter and must be avoided for celiacs. For plain dosa recipe, with step-by-step instructions, see here.

4. Papadum

These crispy lentil or black gram crackers taste great when dipped in tamarind or mint and cilantro chutneys, and have long been a staple in my kitchen, no matter where I am in the world. In Northern India they were found at the occasional breakfast table, but usually accompanying a curry or sauce-based meal or atop a plate of thali (see below). Gluten-free, they are the perfect opposite to a fiery main dish, crunchy mixed with soft and savory. As I note below, where meals come with a chapati or roti included, it was never an issue to substitute a papadum instead.

papadum

Extra papadums for meeeee!

5. Pakoras and other chickpea flour snacks

While many of the street snacks were off limits, pakoras were found in most of Rajasthan, and were occasionally the only available item on the menu that was, as the group started calling it, “Jodi friendly.” Made by taking vegetables or paneer and coating them in spice-filled chickpea (gram) flour and then deep-frying, they were cheap and abundant. While not the healthiest (nothing deep-fried is), they were nonetheless an easy alternative when we stopped for a snack, or in-between main meals.

Pakoras or other chickpea snacks (like the fried dal balls below) were primarily found on the appetizer list at restaurants or at chaat (savory snack) vendors on the street.

Dal motth

Dal motth from a vendor in Delhi, chickpea fritters with jeera (cumin) and served with a mint and cilantro chutney.

6. Thalis

Vegetarian thalis were a great option too, a metal tray filled with small metal cups and containing a vegetable dish, yoghurt curd, dal (lentils), rice and pickled vegetables. Depending on the style of thali (Bengali versus Punjabi versus Rajasthani and so many more) your options will vary, but overall a very safe choice for my stomach. Keep in mind, too, that even if the dish comes with chapati or roti, you can almost always ask for extra rice or a papadum instead.

thali

Thali of champions in Udaipur, at the vegetarian restaurant just across from the main temple in the centre of town. Note: celiacs cannot eat the dessert ball, a sweetened wheat-based treat.

7.  Lassis

Lassi, a delicious yoghurt drink served savory or sweet, was highly recommended by friends who had travelled to India as both a refreshing snack and a way to ensure my intestines stayed full of the right bacteria. From the cardamom and lemon version I tried in Jodphur (THE BESTEST) to the saffron and almond iteration on the streets of Old Delhi, lassis are everywhere. Note: Beware those stalls that use tapwater to water down their lassis. With the exception of one restaurant in Jaipur, I never had any lassi issues and almost all the lassis were thick and creamy, not watered down.

8. Bhujia

I devoted a full section of my Northern India overview post to bhujia, and with good reason. This spiced chickpea flour snack made famous in the city of Bikaner was both addictive and filling, and kept my hunger at bay between meals. While I always asked if it was 100% chickpea (gram) flour, the answer never wavered. Pre-packaged bhujia is also available throughout the region in foil bags, and it too was wheat-free.

9. Biryanis and Pulaos

Not limited to India, biryanis are found and consumed in many different countries, a fragrant, sautéed spiced rice with a recipe that differs depending on location. While pulao is also made from spiced rice and meat or vegetables, there is a difference between the two. Paraphrasing from a chef I met in India, generally biryani contains much more spices and involves boiling the rice separately and then layering the meat and vegetables and cooking it together once again. In contrast, pulao is made with less spices and meat but the rice is added uncooked, a milder version than in biryani. In addition, pulaos are usually wetter as excess liquid after cooking is not drained.

Regardless, both were available throughout Northern India at almost every restaurant, and though I prefer the spices of a biryani, a vegetable and egg pulao became a comfort food during my weeks in the region.

10. Dal

Dal, lentils, are manifold in India and there are far too many dishes to try to list here. Suffice it to say that my favourite afternoon snack was dal tadka, yellow lentils with spices, and jeera rice, which is rice spiced with dry cumin seeds. Simple and delicious. Other tempting dal options include dal makhani, made with black lentils instead of the lighter yellow version.

No matter the menu, dal was a go-to saviour. When we stopped in at a midday truck stop and only wheat options were listed, I simply asked for dal and rice and was rewarded with a flavourful and cheap snack. I saved this for last because it is so ubiquitous that even when not seemingly on offer, you can usually get a plate. In a pinch, it kept me full, gave me protein and was also so much more tasty than I expected

The Rest: Curries, Veggies, and More

Despite being quite wheat-heavy as a region, Rajasathani curries never had wheat in them to thicken the sauces. Chickpea flour was used instead. I asked often, and the reaction was one of confusion – why would we do that? From paneer (soft cheese) cooked in spinach or smoked in a tandoor, to grilled meats or vegetables, to chicken curries, all were available with rice and none got me sick. Sides to meals included grilled okra with cumin or potatoes with spices, with none of the vegetables ever causing an issue.

Another go-to was the halal grilled meat spots I found, which had chicken on the fire, roasted after being marinated in a variety of sauces. From the green mint and chili chicken to masala spiced wings, none had any wheat in their marinades, and we were sure to ask repeatedly.

Grilled meat India

Grilled meat from a halal take-away stall in Jaipur, near the main mosque.

And, let us not forget chai tea, available on the side of the road in tiny clay or plastic cups, boiled fresh with spices and thick milk. I couldn’t smell it being made without clamouring for a cup, drifting over to whoever was crouched over a tiny stove, bubbling tea in front of him.

chai tea india

There is magic happening here. Chai in Chandelao, Rajasthan.

What to Avoid

Despite the large variety of snacks and dishes to choose from, the regions snack foods are predominantly wheat-based. Below is a list of foods that ought to be avoided for those with celiac disease, even though they look absolutely delicious.

Breads: rotis, chappatis, naan, parathas, puris are all off limits. Pani puri, a tamarind water served in a thin, curved wheat puff, is everywhere on the streets and was hard to resist — but I did.

chapati

DO NOT EAT, PEOPLE! (Even though it looks delicious)

Hing, or asafoetida: hing, known in the west as asafoetida, is a strong spice made from the root of an herb called Ferula. Unfortunately after it is ground it is usually mixed with wheat flour. Also unfortunately, it is used quite commonly in Indian food. Always helpful to ask if there is hing in the chutneys or soups.

Samosas: Found throughout the day on the streets and in restaurants, with wheat flour triangle dumpling hosting a filling of either paneer or vegetarian (potatoes and peas and spices).

Pav Bhaji: The bhaji part of this fast food dish — a spicy tomato and vegetable stew — is safe, but it is served with pav, a white flour bread resembling a hamburger bun that is used to sop up the stew. Solution for me was to just ask for the bhaji, to the confusion of the street vendors.

Kachori:  A crispy fried snack filled with mung beans, the outside of kachori is wheat based and must be avoided.

Dal Baati Churma: A popular snack made from lentils, a baked wheat ball and a sweet powdered cereal, this is off limits but available in many Rajasthani cities, most notably Jaipur.

Jalebi and Imarti: Round, bright orange desserts made with fried dough, both are off limits (though they looked so good).  For desserts, I mostly ate fresh fruit or more lassi.

Imarti

NO IMARTI FOR YOU!

Resources & Further Reading for Gluten-Free Travellers in India

Celiac Disease India, which proclaims “Life can be as enjoyable without gluten”.

Celiac Society of India

The Celiac Society of Rajasthan

Gluten Free Travel India, which also has a Hindi gluten-free restaurant card for printing here.

An article about the “impeding epidemic” of celiac disease in India.

For those in Delhi, there is now a gluten-free cafe in town, making pizza, breads and other treats.

General reference for non-wheat flours, with photos.

This is but a short overview (yes, I know — short for me means over 2000 words), listing some of the foods that made India’s wheat basin feel comforting to a celiac like me. While I did some research prior to leaving and asked many questions while on the road, I welcome additional thoughts or suggestions and can update the post accordingly. With only a few weeks there, I have no doubt I’ve missed some other options.

-Jodi

A reminder that I was sent to India to document my journey as part of G Adventures’ Wanderers in Residence Programme. Flights and tour costs were thus absorbed by them.

31 comments to The Celiac’s Guide to Northern India

  1. This post is making me drool…
    What amazing food. Our friend lives in India and says he gets ill all the time from the food but that he’s got used to it.
    Thanks for a great informative blog (yet again)
    :-)

  2. brilliant post! can’t wait for you to visit the south!

  3. Wow…what a wealth of information. Very informative, thank you for posting. I can’t imagine how much time you spent reading up beforehand and taking notes while there. I’m headed that way myself in a few weeks and am looking forward to sampling some of the cuisine you mention. I’ll be revisiting this post again, thats for sure!

  4. Hey , Great Post !! i have been following all your posts on India. its amusing to see your excitement for the things i have gotten so used to…. makes one think about slowing down once in a while to smell the jalebis and the kachori’s.
    one thing though , those are not ‘Jalebi’ in that Pic , the you posted is actually of an ‘Imarti’, its prepared from frying a dough prepared from ground lentils, usually served hot with cold ‘Rabri’ (a sweet prepared from condensed milk).
    Looking forward to your future posts. :)

    • Hi Snehil, thanks for the note. Made the change to both jalebi and imarti, though with this photo particularly we asked what the flour was and they said wheat, not lentils. All of the annatto-died treats (jalebi and imarti) were wheat when I asked, but perhaps some are safe — good to know!

  5. Great perspective, if there’s an upside you get to try these foods in a different ways (like the rotis) and places are becoming more and more accomodating to people with celiac.

    The dishes looking amazing though. Indian cuisine is my fav after Thai. Lebanese is a close third.

  6. after a year in india, i finally had my first dosi at a south indian restaurant in bangalore. i ordered a plain one which was fantastic with some dipping sauce!

  7. Thanks for this post, Jodi. I’m sending the link to my friend who also has Celiac’s and is a fellow traveler. Your food posts rock and the photos make me hungry…

  8. You should, of course, try to visit south india. As far as I can tell, Tamil Nadu eats nothing BUT rice (seriously, I’ve never eaten that much rice in my life).

  9. THANK YOU!! THANK YOU!!

  10. This is wonderful! Such a detailed guide. I do not have celiac’s disease, but I do have family members who do not eat gluten due to ADHD. This will be helpful for them on their travels. Thank you!

  11. Thank you so much for this in-depth research—and all of the graphic photos! Everything looks delicious. As a celiac, it’s always daunting to travel to a new place, but information like this makes traveling so much easier and more fun. I’m hoping to travel to India next year, so I’ll definitely be referencing this!

    • Glad to hear Anna! Wanted to provide a thorough overview in one place. Will be doing the same for Vietnam as well, though happily much of the food is gluten-free here!

      • Really excited you’re doing the same for Vietnam. This makes me think I actually could go to these places! It’s always my first thought and hesitation when my husband and I dream of travels.

  12. Hi Jodi,

    Great post! Even though I am familiar with all of the foods and do not have Celiac’s disease… It was still fun to read. It’ll be such a helpful resource for so many. I didn’t think pani puri would be off limits, since there is a version made with semolina (and another version made with wheat flour), but I guess they probably mix some all-purpose flour in the dough. You must try out some Indian sweets while you are there, even though jalebis and gulab jamuns are off limits. Do try rasgullas, rasmalai, sandesh, etc.

  13. It’s posts like these that make me want to head over to the Indian restaurant tomorrow. I think their food is almost as much of a draw as the Taj Mahal. Mmmm paneer.

  14. Hi,

    I work with a travel company in India and your article is really informative – especially since celiac disease is not known in India at all.

    But I would really not suggest Lassi to first-timers in India. The general rule we follow regarding liquid-based-foods is to suggest all liquids where the water has been boiled with chai being a good example. But we would not suggest juices or lassi as you are not sure about the water used. Yoghurt is strongly recommended though – especially since it neutralises the reaction to spice.

    Hope this helps.

    Cheers.

    • Thanks Anindya. Friends who had travelled in India said lassis were highly recommended and that they were never an issue as they were widely consumed within the country. As I noted, it is best to make sure they are not watery but as I said we did not get sick (and boy did we eat a lot of lassi). I understand the caution but advice from others was contrary. Of course, if you are truly wanting to be conservative, any street food might want to be avoided. (I didn’t want to be so conservative though ;) )

  15. WOW! On the behalf of Gluten Free girls everywhere…THANK YOU

  16. Hi Jodi,
    thank you a lot for the post!!! Although I am “just” vegetarian, I really appreciate this precious deep overview and am looking forward to try it by my own :)

  17. I love Indian food, especially the different tastes of spices. But I only tried them in China. Hope I will step my foot on India like you to taste the real Indian food. Thanks very much for your food tips.

  18. I haven’t been to Northern India but am currently in Nepal (close enough?) and have had some of the best Indian food of my life here. I’m very sad you can’t have naan – if you can invent a gluten-free version that tastes the same you’ll be a gazillionaire!

  19. Love your food photography! That Imari looks delicious!

  20. Wonderful blog! I’m so glad people are talking about allergy to gluten. I have this allergy since I was a baby and even now still find it difficult to find a nice meal in restaurants for me. I love Indian food and definitely want to go there one day so thank you for your blog, it all looks very tasty. :)

  21. I am an Indian and have enjoyed all of the food items which you have mentioned in article above. Lassi is my favorite drink. I love your post. It was really a mouthwatering experience.

  22. The food all looks amazing. I have a gluten intolerance which is far from Celiac. But I take it super seriously as I believe an intolerance is a strong indicator and warning sign and if you keep eating the food, the consequences and harm done to the body can be dire.

    Traveling can be tricky (obviously). It’s great to see how you adjust and still enjoyed certain foods.

    Haven’t made it to India…yet but I will definitely be coming back to this post when I do. Thank you.

  23. Awesome post and the list. looking forward for your article on south india..

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