Dining Gluten-Free at Restaurants that Serve Global Cuisine

Here are the common gluten-free pitfalls for popular international cuisines

It's getting easier to eat out at restaurants if you're gluten-free—eateries in most urban areas and even in many small towns understand the concept of gluten-free and can prepare a safe and delicious meal for you.

If you're interested in expanding your restaurant repertoire, there is plenty of international fare that is safe for you to eat, since many cultures traditionally use gluten-free foods. The cuisines included here—Thai, Mexican, Greek, and Indian—can offer some tasty alternatives to your standard American fare.

Other cuisines such as classic Chinese can be trickier since wheat-based soy sauce and wheat noodles are common ingredients. However, it's still possible to eat at Chinese restaurants if you have some knowledge about your options.

Here's a rundown of the various global restaurant options available for the gluten-free diet, and what you need to know about each.

1

Chinese Restaurants: Watch Out for Soy Sauce

gluten-free Chinese food
DigiPub / Getty Images

Making certain you stay safe in a Chinese restaurant can present a challenge, as soy sauce is featured prominently in nearly every dish.

Here's what you need to watch out for when eating gluten-free in a Chinese restaurant:

  • Brown sauce: Avoid any brown sauce, since that will contain soy sauce.
  • Cooking methods: Consider sticking with only steamed meats, vegetables, and white rice. Double-check to make sure the water used for steaming isn't the same water used to cook wheat noodles.
  • Fried food: Avoid fried foods, since they're made with wheat flour coatings.
  • Wheat noodles: Consider ordering chow fun and mei fun,
    both of which are typically rice noodle dishes and should be safe to eat so long as they haven't been cooked in the same water used to cook wheat noodles. You'll want to ask to be sure.
  • White sauce: Double-check on the ingredients in any Chinese white sauces to make sure the sauce is not thickened with flour.

Your best bet is to find a Chinese restaurant that caters to gluten-free customers; many in urban areas will include a handful of labeled gluten-free dishes on their menus. P.F. Chang's is one chain that serves American-style Chinese food and that has a dedicated gluten-free menu.

Beyond that, try to find an eatery where you can communicate easily with your server, the manager, or chef. If you're still feeling uneasy about a certain dish, your safest bet is to order plain rice and steamed vegetables.

2

French Restaurants: Talk to the Chef

women eating at french cafe

PhotoAlto / Michele Constantine / Getty Images

If you think French restaurants would be tricky from a gluten-free standpoint, you're probably right: the French are world famous for their bread, and most French sauces typically contain a bit of flour for thickening. 

Still, you'll likely have some options even if you have to forego many of the traditional items on the menu. Here's how to order gluten-free at a French restaurant:

  • Choose a Nicoise salad, which is naturally gluten-free and generally isn't served with croutons (always ask to make certain).
  • Enjoy crème brûlée for dessert, which should be gluten-free (but always ask).
  • Get French onion soup without the bread (often called a crouton) on top. The cheese sinks to the bottom, but it still tastes just as good.
  • Opt for the escargot, which is gluten-free, but make sure they leave the French bread out.
  • Order the cheese plate without bread.
  • Skip the frites (fries) unless you know they're fried in a dedicated fryer (most are not).
  • Watch out for sauces, most of which are thickened with flour. Most restaurants may be willing to omit the sauce at your request.

Many French chefs are willing to talk to customers about their food and may be willing to make changes to dishes so that they're gluten-free and safe to eat. Also, in most cases, French wine is naturally gluten-free.

3

Greek Restaurants: Simple, Grilled Foods Are Safe

greek salad in greek restaurant

 

Maya Karkalicheva / Getty Images

Greek food features fresh fish, meat, and lots of fresh vegetables, all with a healthy dose of olive oil (olive oil generally is gluten-free).

However, Greek cuisine also can include wheat kernel-based salads, pita bread, and filo dough-based pastries, none of which are gluten-free. Meatballs often include bread crumbs, and even custard can include wheat flour as a base.

Here's what you need to know to eat out gluten-free at a Greek restaurant:

  • Ask the restaurant if they can top your Greek salad with grilled meat or fish. In most cases, the doner kebab meat will be gluten-free, as well, but you should double-check, since it's possible (but unlikely) that the layers of meat could include bread crumbs.
  • Avoid any grain-based salad, even if the grain isn't specifically labeled as "wheat." For example, farro is a popular ingredient in Greek dishes. Farro is green wheat and is not gluten-free. Couscous is another grain-based ingredient you might see in salads, and conventional couscous is not gluten-free, either.
  • Consider souvlaki, which when made fresh is simply meat and vegetables with olive oil, lemon juice, and spices. However, be aware that some recipes call for using soy sauce (usually not gluten-free) or Worcestershire sauce (which may or may not be gluten-free). You'll need to check with the chef to see what's included.
  • Trust traditional Greek salads unless they include croutons (which is rare). A classic red wine vinegar-based Greek salad dressing almost always is gluten-free.

Greek food can be one of the easiest cuisines to enjoy gluten-free, as long as you steer clear of the pita bread and wraps, the grain-based salads, and (sadly) the delicious Greek pastry desserts. 

4

Indian Restaurants: Many Gluten-Free Options

gluten-free Indian food
John Rizzo / Getty Images

Like Thai restaurants, Indian restaurants offer a wide variety of naturally gluten-free dishes. Tandoori chicken, fish, and shrimp are almost always gluten-free, as are most of the vegetable side dishes. Beware of dishes with maida flour and with sooji, which means wheat.

Papadum, an Indian flatbread made from lentils, provides a great alternative to the more traditional wheat-based bread that also are available at Indian restaurants.

Here's what you need to know to order gluten-free Indian food:

  • Avoid fried foods (many Indian appetizers are fried), since they're generally coated in wheat flour.
  • Be aware that most restaurants cook their Tandoori meats in the same oven as their bread. If you're especially sensitive, crumbs can be an issue.
  • Make sure the sauces aren't thickened with wheat flour as well. Most are not (traditional Indian cooking thickens its sauces with legume-based flours), but you should check to make certain.
  • Skip the desserts, since almost all Indian desserts are made with wheat flour.

Your best bet is to find an Indian restaurant that makes everything from scratch and one where you can easily communicate with the manager or chef should you need more information on the food you decide to order.

5

Italian Restaurants: Plentiful Gluten-Free Dishes

gluten-free Italian food
Judd Pilossof / Getty Images

It may seem counter-intuitive to think Italian restaurants offer gluten-free fare, since Italian cuisine is so gluten-laden. But incidence and awareness of celiac disease are very high in Italy, and you'll find that many Italian restaurants provide gluten-free alternatives.

Here's what you need to know to order gluten-free Italian food:

  • Choose an Italian restaurant with a gluten-free menu, or check with the restaurant to make certain they can handle cooking for someone on the gluten-free diet.
  • If you're particularly sensitive, be aware of restaurants that make
    their own pasta on site. Working with flour leads to residual flour in
    the air, and airborne gluten can make you sick. (This same caveat applies to pizza restaurants.)
  • Make sure the restaurant doesn't cook your pasta or vegetables in water that's been used to cook gluten-based pasta—the chef may not be aware that this could make you sick.

You might get lucky and find an Italian restaurant that has a gluten-free Italian pastry for you, but in most cases, your dessert will be gelato. However, a cappuccino or espresso will be safe, too.

6

Japanese Restaurants: Stick with Sushi

Sushi

Verywell / Alexandra Shytsman

You'd think that Japanese restaurants would be difficult places at which to enjoy a gluten-free meal due to the many soy sauce-laden dishes. However, you do have many options at most Japanese restaurants... as long as you like sushi.

Plenty of Japanese restaurants also specialize in yakitori dishes, which essentially are grilled meats—you'll just want to make sure they hold the yakitori sauce, which contains gluten. You'll also want to be cautious with cross-contamination from other foods cooked on the grill.

Most sushi is naturally gluten-free. Sashimi (fish without other ingredients) is even safer.

Here's what you to avoid to eat gluten-free at a Japanese restaurant:

  • Any dish with soy sauce unless the restaurant uses tamari, which is a slightly thicker, denser gluten-free soy sauce (most soy sauce contains wheat)
  • Miso soup, since it often contains barley
  • Salad dressing since it may contain soy sauce
  • Stir-fried Japanese dishes, which contain soy sauce

Be careful with sushi, since there are many ways gluten can sneak into sushi. Problematic ingredients include unagi, which is cooked eel marinated in soy sauce, fake crab meat (possibly made with wheat), and any tempura-based ingredients (tempura usually is made with a wheat-based batter).

You're safest by sticking with simple ingredients and by stressing that you cannot have soy sauce. Order yakitori dishes if the restaurant offers them, but request a simple lemon and salt finish instead of the yakitori sauce. For dessert, order green tea ice cream.

Finally, you might want to bring your own soy sauce if the restaurant you've chosen doesn't serve gluten-free soy sauce. Otherwise skip it, as the food may be delicious enough on its own without the added seasoning.

7

Mexican Restaurants: Watch Out for Shared Fryers

salsas at a mexican restaurant

 Alex Craig / Getty Images

Traditional Mexican food is almost entirely gluten-free, since wheat doesn't grow well in Mexico, and corn grows there readily. Corn-based tortillas and taco shells with spicy grilled meats and beans are almost always gluten-free, and the accompanying salsa and guacamole, both of which are gluten-free, provide added flavor and heat.

However, Mexican restaurants outside Mexico have several pitfalls for those who follow the gluten-free diet. Here's what you need to watch out for when eating gluten-free at a Mexican restaurant:

  • Chili con queso, unless you know for certain that no flour was included in the recipe
  • Flour-based tortillas, which are often used to make quesadillas, soft tacos, burritos, and enchiladas (ask for corn instead)
  • Fried appetizers which are made with a wheat-based coating or anything fried that may have been cross-contaminated in the fryer

Ask if the restaurant's tortilla chips are fried in-house in a shared fryer. If they are, they're not safe. Consider ordering fajitas, which should be safe if you request that they're served with corn tortillas.

Mexican food can be a very safe option when you're following the gluten-free diet, as long as you avoid the fried foods and wheat-based tortilla or taco shells.

8

Thai Restaurants: Naturally Gluten-Free

gluten-free thai food
Tony Robins / Getty Images

Thai restaurants can represent excellent options for gluten-free dining, including most curries and rice noodle-based Pad Thai. Mango with sticky rice makes a great, gluten-free dessert.

Most Thai cuisine is naturally gluten-free, so you'll have many choices when you dine.

Here's what you need to know to order gluten-free Thai food:

  • Avoid anything with imitation crab meat: Sometimes labeled as surimi, imitation crab mean is made from small white fish but often is held together using wheat starch.
  • Avoid wheat-coated fried appetizers: Anything that's fried may have a coating made from wheat flour. Fried food coated in rice flour is fine as long as it's not fried in a fryer also used for wheat-coated items; you'll need to ask to be sure.
  • Make sure your dish does not contain soy sauce: Although traditional Thai soy sauce is gluten-free, many restaurants in the United States use wheat-based soy sauce.
  • Watch out for rice paper: Some restaurants use a bit of wheat flour or wheat starch to wrap their rice paper rolls, so you'll need to ask to see the ingredients on the package before ordering (most restaurants should be happy to oblige).

As a rule of thumb, always ask your server about the dish you're interested in ordering if you're unsure about the ingredients, or ask to speak with the manager who can communicate directly with the chef.

Your best bet to eat gluten-free Thai is to find a place where the chef makes everything from scratch, including the sauces, so that they know firsthand every single ingredient that goes into the dishes.

A Word from Verywell

It's possible to enjoy eating out at restaurants that serve global fare even if your choice of eatery doesn't feature a special gluten-free menu. You also can consider bringing gluten-free restaurant cards to help explain what ingredients you need to avoid.

However, the key to a successful dining experience is good communication with the server, manager, and chef. If you don't feel as if your needs are being respected and understood, the solution is simple: don't eat the food.

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Article Sources
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