It would be absolutely wonderful if we reached the stage where restaurants routinely adopted a gluten-free logo, or even a simple ‘GF’ signification to individual dishes, perhaps similar to the ‘V’ used to indicate those suitable for vegetarians. This would immediately signify to anyone avoiding gluten that the food was safe. It would also obviate the need for discussion with the waitressing staff and the inevitable uncertainty of whether the meal you are about to eat will cause you a significant amount of pain and discomfort afterwards. We would guess it might also be good for business.
Whilst the occasional restaurant such as Pizza Express is taking a lead on this, it isn’t yet a widespread trend. However, it is interesting that Pizza Express are seeing a notably high proportion of their guests opting for such dishes and have extended the options available. Until this approach is more widespread, for those prepared to venture out, it is usually still necessary to ask. Even when we do, we are taking on trust that the chef knows that gluten can reside in the most unexpected places and has thought about whether the ingredients that he uses to make a dish and any garnishes added at the end either contain gluten or might be cross-contaminated with it. Given that gluten is hidden in so many places, it is an effort for caterers to do this. It is also a question of knowing where gluten can be found.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, when you talk to chefs you may find their knowledge, beyond the fact that gluten is in breads and pastries, is rather limited. It is often thought that gluten is contained in milk products (perhaps there is a confusion here with lactose intolerance?), other times it is thought that potatoes may be an issue (maybe they are thinking of the starch they contain?). One chef we spoke to wasn’t aware that chocolate isn’t automatically gluten-free. That being the case, it perhaps isn’t surprising that they may not think to check whether it is in the nuts, the stocks and any prepared sauces they use. They have our sympathies and understanding in this. Before we found we needed to avoid it, we had no idea how insidious it is.
Alternative thickening agents
Obviously anything containing a wheat thickener such as flour is out of bounds for coeliac diners or those who are gluten sensitive. Alternative thickeners, depending on the intended result include the following:
Kuzu (or Kudzu) is a type of Japanese arrowroot derived from a wild native Asian plant. As it has a neutral taste, and is easy to use, it is a versatile thickener for casseroles, soups, gravies, sauces, curds, compotes, preserves, pickles and pie fillings. An additional benefit of using Kuzu is that it is traditionally used in Japan to relieve intestinal irritation so it may be particularly beneficial for those with suffering from gluten intolerance. Macrobiotic practitioners mix umeboshi paste with warm kuzu (Ume-Kudzu) to strengthen the blood and digestive system.
When using kuzu, it is important to add it to a small amount of cold liquid before adding it to anything hot. Producers of readily available organic gluten-free Kuzu include Clearspring and Eden Organic
Arrowroot is often used as thickener in puddings and sauces and in baked cakes. It is neutral tasting, is unchanged by acidic ingredients, and freezes well. It thickens at a lower temperature than other starches which makes it good for egg or cream based sauces and makes it a good alternative to cornstarch. It doesn’t work well in milk based sauces as it changes the texture, and doesn’t work well in circumstances where it may need to be reheated. Used in moderation, it works well to lighten and soften the texture of cakes and breads. It also dissolves to a clear mixture which makes it ideal for use in glazes, gravies and sauces.
Cornstarch is a good thickener works well in combination with tapioca starch. Argo & Kingsford’s corn starch is amongst those that are gluten-free
Other starches to consider include rice starch and potato starch
Baking powder isn’t always gluten-free
Flavourings and colourings
Flavourings and colourings need to be checked as not all are gluten-free. Companies such as the family-owned Brisbane based ‘Queen’ produce an extensive range of natural gluten-free colourings. The pink uses cochineal, the purple, gardenia, the yellow, turmeric and the green, nettle and spinach. It is worth bearing in mind that natural colourings will not produce the vivid hues of synthetic ones but they are safe.
‘Queen’ also produce g-f flavourings such as its natural vanilla essence.
This company also manufactures gluten-free colouring pens which are useful for writing and decorating
Many restaurants take pride in making their own stocks from scratch, in which case they unlikely to have any gluten added en route. Often there doesn’t seem to be enough time in the day to do that for one or two meals in the home. But reaching for a prepared stock cube without checking whether it is gluten-free can be risky. One company who manufactures a good range of organic gluten-free stock cubes is Kallo. There range is very wide and includes organic beef, vegetable, chicken, mushroom, garlic and herb as well as tomato, some of which they also produce in very low salt versions. They also manufacture prepared beef and chicken gravies which may be useful for busy people.
photograph courtesy of Anika