Traveling on a gluten free diet – whether that’s due to celiac disease or gluten intolerance – definitely presents its challenges. It can be even more difficult in developing countries like Nepal. Likely, your native language is not spoken, especially in rural areas, which can make it difficult to communicate your needs. Additionally, celiac disease and even the concept of “gluten” is not well recognized in many Asian countries, including Nepal. This could be due to genetic prevalence (as the HLA-DQ, or celiac, gene is not as prevalent in central Asian countries), but it could also mean that there’s an under-diagnosis among locals in these regions.
Despite these challenges, Nepal is a stunning country that deserves to be seen, even if you have dietary needs. I have had to eat gluten free for nearly a decade, and even I was nervous before my first trip to Nepal. These feelings are completely normal. But I discovered that it’s definitely possible to eat gluten free in Nepal, if you know what to look for.
What to enjoy
Luckily for those of us with celiac disease or gluten intolerance, there are plenty of naturally gluten free Nepali dishes. Focus on these naturally gluten free meals as, due to the lack of celiac disease recognition in Nepal, you will be hard pressed finding gluten free flour-based products.
You will fast become best friends with dal bhat tarkari, the traditional Nepali dish made of lentils (dal), often served with piles of rice (bhat), a vegetable curry (tarkari), and sometimes a meat curry too. This is one of the most popular dishes in Nepal, which most Nepali people eat every day. It is also a gluten free staple, and is a bit different everywhere you order it, so you won’t get too bored.
If you get sick of dal bhat, don’t worry. There are other naturally gluten free meals. Most curries are gluten free, as are eggs, omelets, and potatoes. You’ll also often find the Nepali interpretation of Nordic Rosti – a thick pancake of shredded potatoes. This can make a great breakfast option, especially when served with an egg. Chiya, or spiced Nepali tea, is also naturally gluten free and a must try when in Nepal.
What to avoid
Although many Nepali dishes are naturally gluten free, there are also many that are made from wheat flour. These should, of course, be avoided by anyone who has to eat gluten free.
One of the most popular dishes that should be avoided is momo. Momos are dumplings made from a wheat-based dough, often stuffed with minced vegetables or meat. Yes, they look delicious, but unfortunately are not gluten free. Even spinach momos, which come out a delightful bright green color, are made with wheat and should be avoided. I am not aware of anywhere in Nepal that serves gluten free momos, although there is definitely a market for it!
Other dishes to avoid include dhendo (a thick paste often made from wheat and served in place of rice), noodle soup, and samosas. Also, unfortunately, the iconic Everest Beer is obviously full of gluten.
Those of us with celiac disease need to be aware of cross contact, which occurs when any particle of gluten touches our food. These are the foods you should be wary of, as they might contain gluten:
Papad, often served with dal bhat, are made from lentil flour and are naturally gluten free. However, they are often cooked in oil that may be shared with gluten-containing foods. You should always double check this before eating.
Many Nepali soups, such as garlic soup, are naturally gluten free. You should always ask before ordering, though, as some places may add flour to thicken the soup.
Sel roti, a rice-based donut-shaped bread, and chatamari, a rice pancake, are also hypothetically gluten free. However, many food stalls mix wheat flour in to prevent clumping. Likewise, they may be cooked in shared fryers contaminated with gluten. Always check about these dishes, or avoid altogether.
Fried rice is commonly offered in many restaurants. This will almost certainly not be gluten free, as it is made with soy sauce. However, some places may be willing to make it gluten free by leaving out the soy sauce – just be sure to ask for it to be cooked in a clean, separate pan.
Keep in mind that you also want to also be aware of food poisoning, which can sometimes present similarly to being glutened. Avoid fresh salads that may be washed in unfiltered water. At high altitudes, dairy and meat should be avoided as these products may have gone bad after being carried up by human or animal power.
If you have to eat gluten free, communicating your needs effectively is one of the most important things that will protect you. Especially if you are traveling to remote areas, people may not speak your language, much less be familiar with the concept of “gluten.”
My advice is to use a translation card, such as this one, or this one. Be aware that neither card is perfect. In my experience, the first card does not include soy sauce, and the second card doesn’t discuss cross contamination. As such, if you are trekking and have a guide, you should be sure to discuss your needs thoroughly with them, so they can help you order food.
If you do get glutened, give yourself plenty of time to rest, if possible. Drink plenty of filtered water, and pack electrolyte mix to help you stay hydrated. If you have celiac disease, this is an autoimmune reaction and unfortunately medication cannot help. Time and rest will be your best healer. Although getting glutened is a possibility, if you take the right steps and equip yourself with knowledge, you will have an incredible time in Nepal.
Article by Sarah Bence.