Dining Gluten-Free at Ethnic Restaurants

Here are the gluten-free pitfalls for various different cuisines

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

However, there are certain ethnic restaurants where you may find it easier to eat, simply because the cuisines naturally use gluten-free foods. These cuisines—which include Thai, Mexican, Greek, and Indian—can offer some delicious alternatives to more traditional dining. Other cuisines, including Chinese, pose more of a problem, but it's also possible to eat at those restaurants if you have some knowledge about where gluten can hide.

Here's a rundown of the various ethnic restaurant options available, and what you need to know about each.


Chinese Restaurants: Watch Out for Soy Sauce

gluten-free Chinese food
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Like other ethnic restaurant alternatives, making certain you stay safe in a Chinese restaurant can represent a challenge—soy sauce is featured in nearly every dish.

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

  • Avoid any brown sauce, since that will contain soy sauce.
  • Avoid fried foods, since they're made with wheat flour coatings.
  • Double-check on the ingredients in any Chinese white sauces to make sure the sauce is not thickened with flour.
  • Consider ordering chow fun and mei fun, both of which are rice noodles and should be safe to eat if they haven't been cooked in the same water used to cook wheat noodles.
  • 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.

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

Beyond that, try to find an eatery where you can communicate easily with the manager or chef. If you're stuck with a Chinese restaurant where you can't communicate, the rice should be safe and steamed vegetables may be safe.


French Restaurants: Talk to the Chef

women eating at french cafe

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You might think French restaurants would be tricky from a gluten-free standpoint, and you'd be right: the French love their bread, and most sauces contain a bit of flour for thickening. 

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

  • Consider ordering 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.
  • Order the cheese plate without bread.
  • Skip the frites (fries) unless you know they're fried in a dedicated fryer (most are not).
  • Choose a Nicoise salad, which is naturally gluten-free and generally isn't served with croutons (always ask to make certain).
  • Opt for the escargot, which is gluten-free, but make sure they put the French bread on the side.
  • Watch out for sauces, most of which are thickened with flour. Most restaurants will be willing to omit the sauce.
  • Enjoy crème brûlée for dessert, which should be gluten-free (but always ask).

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. Also, French wine is gluten-free.


Greek Restaurants: Simple, Grilled Foods Are Safe

greek salad in greek restaurant


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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:

  • 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.
  • Trust Greek salads unless they include croutons (which is rare). Greek salad dressing almost always is gluten-free.
  • 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.
  • 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.

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


Indian Restaurants: Many Gluten-Free Options

gluten-free Indian food
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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 suji, 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:

  • 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.
  • Avoid fried foods (many Indian appetizers are fried), since they're generally coated in wheat flour.
  • Make sure the sauces aren't thickened with wheat flour. 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.

Indian restaurants can have the same language barrier as Thai restaurants. Again, your best bet is to find an Indian restaurant that makes everything from scratch and one where you can easily speak with the manager or chef.


Italian Restaurants: Plentiful Gluten-Free Dishes

gluten-free Italian food
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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 many Italian restaurants provide gluten-free alternatives. If they don't offer gluten-free pasta, they may even let you bring your own pasta to cook.

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.
  • 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 realize that will make you sick.
  • If you're particularly sensitive, beware of restaurants where they 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.)

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.


Japanese Restaurants: Stick with 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.

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

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

  • Avoid 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).
  • 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.
  • Skip the salad dressing, since it almost always is Asian-inspired and contains soy sauce.
  • Avoid stir-fried Japanese dishes, which contain soy sauce.
  • Avoid miso soup, since it often contains barley.
  • Order ice cream for dessert.

Finally, bring your own soy sauce if the restaurant you've chosen doesn't have gluten-free soy sauce


Mexican Restaurants: Watch Out for Shared Fryers

salsas at a mexican restaurant

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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 hold gluten-free spicy grilled meats and beans, with salsa and guacamole (both gluten-free) providing color.

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

  • Avoid flour-based tortillas, which can be used to make quesadillas, soft tacos, burritos, and enchiladas. Ask instead for corn (maize) tortillas. 
  • Skip the appetizers, which almost always are fried with a wheat-based coating.
  • Watch out for anything fried, even if it doesn't include gluten ingredients. Almost all Mexican restaurants use the same fryer to fry flour-based items such as the appetizers and for corn-based items.
  • Ask if the restaurant's tortilla chips are fried in-house in a shared fryer. If they are, they're not safe.
  • Avoid chili con queso unless you know for certain the recipe used does not include flour (many recipes do).
  • Consider ordering fajitas, which should be safe if you order them with corn tortillas.

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


Thai Restaurants: Naturally Gluten-Free

gluten-free thai food
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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 wheat-coated fried appetizers and anything else that's fried, since the coatings usually are 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.
  • Some restaurants use rice paper that contains 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 will be happy to oblige).
  • Make sure that any dish you're ordering does not contain soy sauce. Although traditional Thai soy sauce is gluten-free, most restaurants in the United States use wheat-based soy sauce.
  • Avoid anything with imitation crab meat, sometimes labeled as surimi. This is made from small white fish, but often is held together using wheat starch.

The language barrier inherent in dealing with the staffs of some Thai eateries can pose challenges if you're trying to question what goes into a dish. Your best bet to eat gluten-free Thai is to find a place where you can communicate easily with the manager, and where the chef makes everything from scratch, including the sauces.

A Word from Verywell

It's possible to enjoy eating out at various ethnic restaurants even if your choice of eatery doesn't feature a 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 chef and the manager. If you don't feel as if your needs are understood, don't eat the food.

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Article Sources
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