Seven weeks through South India as a celiac - is it possible? Of course, it is!
India is a vast, colourful and fascinating country, where chaos and harmony are interwoven in an intricate yarn of intriguing situations and moving moments. In winter 2015, my wife and I Iet ourselves in to this unique world of contradictions and contrasts. The focus of our travels through South India was placed on religion and culture, flora and fauna, as well as on outdoor sports including hiking in the Western Ghats, nevertheless, also relaxing along the shores. History and stories of traditional and modern India, fragrances and aroma on our strolls through bustling markets bursting of marvellous flowers, tasting fruit and varieties of vegetables accompanied us in our discovery of the states of Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala.
Additionally, our mutual passion for cooking and enjoying Indian food was at the forefront. It's well known that Tamil Nadu is the rice bowl of South India. In saying this, wheat and other gluten-rich types of grain play a minor role in the everyday kitchen here, primarily due to financial reasons. Nevertheless, we were not guaranteed of gluten-free dishes.
Luckily we had the chance of planning and accomplishing our trip with the exceptionally experienced travel designers at 'explorIndya. Together with Rajat Kumar (Managing Director), we not only discussed the destinations we wanted to go, but also our specific needs regarding my diet as a celiac. In so doing, we realised that particular attention to special nutrition requests was not readily adhered to in India, as individual tradition and religion play a major factor in food preparation.
I obtained a celiac guide containing the most established Indian gastronomic specialities which also provides information of gluten-free variations. At any time throughout our trip, we could call on Rajat, or his sister Rupa, to speak with the restaurateurs regarding our diet needs. Rupa herself, is a celiac.
Additionally, at the onset of our trip, we received cards in English, Hindi and Tamil with an explanation of the celiac diet. This came in extremely handy especially in Mumbai with its impressive multi-ethnic cuisine.
South Indian cuisine - traditionally all gluten-free
Porridge and toast, a survival of the British rulers, can be smoothly set aside if one indulges oneself with mouth-watering Dosa (crispy crepes made from rice and lentil flour), or Idli (steamed cake made from rice and lentil flour) accompanied by Sambar (spicy soup with vegetables) and coconut chutney. Fresh fruit and freshly squeezed fruit juice as well as Sakkarai Pongal (tasty risotto-like sweet rice dish) and yoghurt, or many other South Indian plates prepared on basis of vegetables, rice and lentils supplemented most of the breakfast buffets additional to the well-known continental specialities which we voluntarily avoided. With its gluten-free food variety in South India, we were able to leave the gluten-free breads, cookies and bars at home!
Onions, in combination with tomatoes and coconut milk play a major role in the delicious curries of South India. Cashew nut paste and cream give the gravies their delicious creamy consistence.
The batter of all the deep fried specialities are usually made of a variety of lentil flour and rice flour. South Indian Thali is typically prepared from the basis of rice and a selection of mostly vegetarian dishes, which are served on a banana leaf. The dish is typically accompanied with Papadam, a crispy lentil cracker or rice Appalam, a crunchy rice cracker. The dish varies somewhat depending on the region.
Gluten-free North Indian specialities - trendy in South India
In comparison to rice and lentils, wheat is much more expensive and therefore not often used in the foods. However, caution is needed as the North Indian tradition and oriental preferences have found their way into South India. South Indian Thali and Korma (vegetable stew) are sometimes served with Chapatti, Naan or Roti which are traditionally made from wheat flour. I always had a look around what other guests ate in a restaurant or a stall. So it was easy to order a Thali without unleavened bread. Sometimes, the information about my special requirements were unfortunately not brought to the kitchen, however, the bread usually came separately and therefore there was no reason to complain. Also sweets like Kesari (Halva) deriving from the Middle East and made of sesame seeds, is in Tamil Nadu traditionally prepared with semolina. Atta, Ravi, Semiya, Semolina and Vermicelly name dishes made from wheat flour.
Our travel designers informed all concerned regarding our special eating requirements in advance. This included the city guides who introduced us into culinary particulars, our hosts to our advanced accommodation bookings, including our luxury hotel and family home stays, and our trekking guides.
In Mumbai (Maharashtra) we stayed in a particular hotel to which a trendy multi-cuisine restaurant was connected. The chief chef personally came to us on each occasion that we booked to propose a gluten-free menu. It seemed that he really liked to create something special for me.
Tamil Nadu, famous for its varied cuisine filled us with delight at every eating occasion. Our first experiences with cooking Dosa, Idli and Paneer (squeezed fresh cheese cut in cubes) were enabled by those open-minded young women in TamilNadu. They absolutely went into my nutrition requirements. Puducherry and the Chettinad Region are well-known for their excellent European-Indian fusion cuisine, where we even found baguette and cake served together. I indulged myself in the naturally gluten-free Indian starters and desserts prepared especially for me. In the aaKRiti family home stay in the district of Nilgiris, I was spoiled not only with gluten-free meals, but we were also asked to lay hand to practise the preparation of mouth-watering gluten-free Indian dishes in our Cooking sessions with Chef Renu.
In Mysore, we discovered some more surprising local gluten-free specialities: Thali, served with a unleavened bread made of Sorghum (type of millet) in a particular restaurant where we were the only foreigners; and, Kesari made from ground rice prepared by a private host exclusively for me. It was so delicious.
On the trekking tours in Kerala, we were surprised again and again by our guide. In addition to fruit, at each break he also provided us with different gluten-free sweets. In this way, we became familiar with Indian sweets made from sesame, peanuts and almonds which could usually be bought in a kiosk at low cost. How else could we have broaden our culinary minds in this aspect ? On former trekking tours in India, we were all to often provided with cookies of well-known multi-national nutrition companies when I was not diagnosed as a celiac. However, India is also moving with the modern world...