23 Jul 2009

Gluten free guide to Indian food – Part 1

I knew that Indian food was perfect for those living gluten free since the cuisine is largely based on rice, lentils and milk. During my time working for the supermarkets I learnt a lot about real Indian food from one of our suppliers, who showed how wheat is mostly used for breads and not in main dishes and sauces. So, being so spoilt for choice, the whole time I have been living in India, I have behaved like a child in a sweet shop, not knowing which thing to dive into first.

With no work to tie me down, my purpose here has been to learn about the nation’s cuisine. I have explored many areas of Indian food, trying dosa and idli from the south, delving into the Bengali sweet shops for laddu and burfi, sampling the Mogal treasures from the Northern territories, each time finding more and more things I can safely eat. And it hasn’t stopped either. Just the other day, I saw on the menu of one of our favourite restaurants, uttapams, vada and appams which are also naturally gluten free. India is literally food heaven for people with Coeliac Disease!

In the UK, I think we have a surprisingly limited exposure to the variety of Indian food that exists. This country is bigger than the whole of Europe and to think that lamb rogan josh, chicken korma and naan is all they have to offer sells the cuisine a little short in my opinion. There are so many things that I am still discovering and learning about, so here is a little guide to real Indian, and of course gluten free food for you:

Idli – I first experienced these when our maid proudly brought the plump little rice patties, with coconut chutney and sambar for us to taste. She comes from Chennai in the South of India and these are a traditional Tamil breakfast – a fiery one for sure. The patties are made from fermented rice, formed into flattened mounds, steamed and served with fresh coconut chutney which has been tempered with mustard seeds and curry leaves. A little bowl of spicy lentil broth to wash it all down with makes for the most satisfying and spicy breakfast I have ever had.

Dosa – Jacks most favourite thing in the world (along with channa pindi, dal and rice, and to be honest Indian food in general). These savoury pancakes made from fermented rice and black (urad) lentils are cooked on a cast iron griddle to a golden crisp on one side only. These more-ish south Indian pancakes also come with fresh coconut chutney and sambar, but can be filled with a light potato curry (masala dosa), cooked in butter, or sprinkled with grated coconut. Avoid the rava versions which contain wheat based semolina if you are gluten free. Oh and the best bit is, you eat them with your hands, which gets pretty messy, but means you have to lick your fingers afterwards.Shame!

Dal – There is a huge range of dal (lentils) dishes to try including makhani dal – a rich dish of small black lentils cooked on a slow burning fire overnight with cream and butter; tarka dal – an everyday yellow arhar dal, tempered with garlic, ginger, cumin and other spices according to the chef; Masoor dal – a washed pink dal which doesn’t need pressure cooking and is tempered with onion, aniseed and other spices; channa dal – made with split chickpeas which are a harder lentil with a distinctive taste and tempered again with spices. All of these are gluten free, as the cooked lentil naturally thickens the sauce. I make mine in bulk when I make paneer using the whey to cook the dal in, and then eat it over a couple of days, the flavour improving as it ages.

Paneer – A light and simple to make cottage cheese is a great protein if you are vegetarian and essential for Indian cooking. Homemade paneer if far superior to shop bought (not that I even know where to buy it in London) with a creamy flavour when made from whole milk and yoghurt. I can’t wait to try it out with unpasteurised milk from my farmers market when I get back... It’s a versatile gluten free base that can be used to make paneer korma, paneer tikka, or my favourite butter paneer, and I have even used it diced up in omelettes.

Appams – These dense, aerated thick pancakes are another south Indian creation that I happened upon during Jacks birthday dinner at Spice Route. Traversing the route that traders took with their precious ingredients, the menu samples Keralan coastal cuisine via Sri Lanka, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia and across to Vietnam. It was a Keralan Irachi Stew made from lamb that came accompanied with the appams to mop up the intense meaty juices – something I miss doing greatly, especially with a poached egg. They are made from pounded and fermented rice and cooked in a kadhi or wok.

So these are just a small handful gluten free goodies I have enjoyed sampling during my time in India... more about sweets, restaurants and some northern specialities to come. I could go on for weeks I think, as India really is gluten free heaven. You just have to come and taste it for yourself...

Related posts:
Recipe for Rajma / How to make paneer / Best dal yet / Recipe for Channa Pindi

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