I just returned from a lovely weekend in the resort town of Ao Nang in Krabi Province, Thailand. I overpaid for a last minute flight on local budget carrier TigerAir, but made up with it by catching a great hotel package on Groupon. Since my primary motivation in creating this blog was to provide recipes and resources to the gluten-avoiding community, let me begin with the food. I’ll save the entertaining commentary for part 2 if anyone makes it that far.
Part 1: The Eats
Depending on the availability of Thai food where you live, you may already be aware that Thai food is usually a pretty safe choice for gluten-free dining, as long as you avoid fried food, pad see ew noodle dishes and fried rice (both made with soy sauce). To be safest, stick to curries or pad thai noodles, coconut based desserts or fresh fruit. Rice paper spring rolls seem innocuous (and I have made them at home), but restaurants in Seattle usually say theirs are not gluten-free, so I avoid those unless I can confirm.
I did briefly consult TripAdvsior from my phone to make dinner selections, but didn’t have the patience for extensive research. Thailand has a reputation for cheap eats. Although that doesn’t appear to be as true as it was a few years ago, it is still affordable to western standards. Between my desire for fresh, high quality ingredients (without MSG) and not wanting to take any chances with sanitation or sketchy ice cubes, I decided to skip the street vendors and “splurge” on some of the nicer places in town where the waiters pull out the chair for you and dinner and a beverage will run you 20-30 USD.
Bussaba Thai Restaurant (currently ranked 13/160 for Ao Nang Restaurants on tripadvisor.com)
Off the main drag with a freshly painted, modern interior. I ordered the red curry with chicken and was impressed with the very fresh veggies and beautiful plating. With the staff outnumbering guests 4:1, I was too bashful to be one of those people taking a picture when their plate arrives, so I guess you will have to go try it yourself to experience. The geckos scurrying up and down the walls provided free entertainment during the meal. I also learned something that held true for the rest of the trip – you need to verbally ask for the bill when you are ready to leave. Smile at a waiter and hold up your credit card and they just smile politely back.
Carnivore Steak and Grill (currently ranked 4/160)
On the same side road. (I have a tendency to think that the restaurants off the main strip will compensate for their location by trying harder with the food . My third stop for lunch on Sunday confirmed this theory.)
I tried this place out of curiosity as much as anything else. Not only was it ranked #4 on tripadvisor, but reviewers claimed they served the best steak in Asia! Feeling a little protein deficient after my first two weeks in Singapore, I thought I would give it a shot.
I ordered the 200g rib-eye option and they asked what kind of sauce I would like. Uh oh, sauces can be a minefield for gluten because so many sauces and gravies are thickened with flour. In retrospect I should have just decline a sauce, but I thought I could at least ask if the garlic butter sauce contained any flour.
“Flower? No, the only flowers we have here are orchids, she said pointing to my drink”
I probably looked slightly distraught, scratched my head and tried to explain that I meant flour like one would use to bake bread.
The waitress looked equally distraught and went back to consult with her coworkers behind the bar.
She came back and happily told me there wasn’t any powder in the garlic butter.
Still not entirely reassured (powder??), I thanked her and asked if I could order it on the side. As it turned out it was just butter, not a sauce, whew!
Was it the best steak in Asia? I hope not, for their sake. It was decent though, and they certainly didn’t over cook it! In fact, after cutting into my medium-rare rib-eye, I was very curious how they would interpret rare.
Beach cafe along Noparat Thara beach – not on Tripadvisor
I didn’t have high expectations of the food, being on the beach, but it was such a sunny beautiful morning I wanted to enjoy the picturesque view. The green curry and shrimp was decent and only cost me 150 baht (just under 5 bucks). I asked for a Thai iced tea, and the waitress said oh an I.P.A? This was probably my most perplexing lost in translation moment, because I had seen lots of signs for Thai iced tea and surely tourists ordered it from time to time. I couldn’t tell if the “i.p.a.” was some kind of code or she was referring to the beer, but to be on the safe side I pointed to the iced coffee instead. They brought me a frappacino and my bill said cappuccino. Who knows!
You have probably gathered that if you need to avoid gluten (or are on a special diet of any sort that is health driven), don’t count on being able to ask questions unless you bring a friend that speaks Thai. Maybe you won’t be as adventurous as you like, but you can still enjoy a great meal.
The trip was not all about the food anyway, but the breathtaking cliffs and beautiful beaches. I think people looking for an epic culinary experience might go to Bangkok, where they can sample restaurants featuring the various regional cuisines (here is a good summary of the differences in Thai regional cuisines: click here) In resort towns, isn’t food just sustenance between the island tours, aromatherapy massages and an evening on the town? Do tourists go to Cancun to experience authentic Mexican cooking?
I was happy that I didn’t feel the slightest bit “gluten-ed” during or after the trip and concluded that despite the communication barriers, Thailand is a pretty easy place to find gluten-free options.