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Gluten free traveling around Sri Lanka

By Ton Nederhof

Srilanka
Courtesy of Jørgensen

Introduction

A few years ago, Sri Lanka (formerly known as Ceylon) attempted to forbid the import of wheat - in order to try to protect its position as a rice-producing country. Nothing came of this bold plan, however, and in the large supermarkets (e.g., Cargills) I visited, I noticed that wheat flour amounted to about 50% of the flour offered for sale. On the positive side, quite a range of gluten free flours were on offer, such as besan, gram (both chickpea), mealimeal (corn), dal (made from vegetables), and bajri (millet), in addition to rice flour.

Celiac disease is not very well known in Sri Lanka, and I could not find a Celiac association with a website. I did not manage to obtain a gluten free restaurant card in one of the main Sri Lankan languages, Singhalese and Tamil, so instead I took the English language one along.

Unfortunately, many Sri Lankans at restaurants did not know English very well if at all, and even fewer could read English (Singhalese has its own script). Those who spoke English frequently used a variant, Sri Lankan English. "Flour" was understood as "flower", and the Sri Lankan English term used for flour was "fla:" (phonetically spelt) pronounced as in 'flask'. "fla:" seemed to include wheat in general as well. This word usually triggered the right response.

It is really necessary to speak to the cook though. The hierarchical nature of Sri Lankan hotel and catering establishments sometimes led to me speaking with five persons (servant, main servant, restaurant chief, chief cook and cook on duty) to get the message across. Just addressing the servant - usually the lowest in rank, with often poor command of English - frequently led to disappointing results when changes in the meal were requested.

Gluten Free Breakfasts

Many hotels offer toast for breakfast. Some hotels offered rice as a choice for breakfast, including the delightful gluten free milk rice (with coconut milk), but most did not. I often had boiled eggs, and fried eggs only when baked in front of me using fresh oil. Once or twice there was hard cheese, and often fruit. There was no yoghurt.

Diet replacements for bread cannot be found in Sri Lankan shops, not even rice crackers, so you have to bring your own.

What's for Lunch?

For lunch, I frequently had 'fried rice with vegetables', a simple but trustworthy meal. Along speedways, this might be difficult to obtain, so one should always bring along some gluten free food.

Once I enjoyed 'nasi goreng', a rice dish introduced from Indonesia in the Dutch colonial period, but this has many ingredients, increasing the risk for gluten.

I ate lamprais too, rice boiled in stock and baked with meat (chicken in my case, but there is also a variant with sausage that contains gluten) in banana-leaf.

At Dinner Time...

I was travelling with a group on an organized tour around Sri Lanka visiting culture sites such as Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Kandy and Galle, as well as several National Parks. One advantage of group travel is that the tour leader carries some weight with the hotel and catering authorities. Our tour leader was Ellen Romeijn, a seasoned and determined hand stationed in Kyrgyz Republic where she has her own travel company Horizon (www.horizon.elcat.kg), working throughout Asia as travel agent or tour leader (for instance for Baobab).

Although no expert in celiac disease, she understood the problem. Frequently, she was able to arrange a meal of plain grilled fish or chicken with rice and vegetables (the latter frequently to be taken from a buffet) so that I did not have to rely too much on what the usual dinner buffet provided and on how well people behaved with the serving cutlery.

If there was a buffet, I tried to be there early, minimizing the risk of contamination. Given the presence of wheat in many dishes, I avoided French fries and other fried food, not being sure what might have been in the baking oil before. In trusted places, a side-dish of plain salad (without vinegar or sauce) might be ordered; otherwise, bacterial contamination of the water used to wash the salad presents a problem.

Although I managed to avoid being ill due to gluten on my three week trip, I and most of my non-celiac travel companions got ill once from food-poisoning, all on the same day. Being sick lasted just six hours for me, after which my Schär gluten free pocket crackers helped me through the day. It was a pity that I had to miss out on the game-drive through the Udawalawe National Park though.

On some occasions, the buffet included local food (often presented in earthenware pots), such as dhal (the yellow sauce consists of just dissolved lentils), eggplant, chickpea sauce, sea weed with garlic, and so on (to be sure, I had checked these dishes with the cooks beforehand). Clear curries should be save, but usually I avoided these as it is not completely sure that no wheat flour has been used. When in doubt, I let my wife (a non-Celiac) taste first.

Once, there was a barbecue, but sausages and meat were on the same grill and were handled with the same pair of tongues. Fortunately, gluten free fish was grilled on a separate grill.

Sometimes, I had a vegetarian meal with rice. Sri Lankan food tends to be heavily spiced, but for foreigners this is usually tempered a bit. Usually, unadulterated fruit was present (such as small bananas, delightful pineapple and / or papaya).

Although I never got ill from gluten, it must be stated that there were many occasions on which gluten were either present or suspected. For instance, it was frequently stated that rice noodles were on the menu - but usually these were thicker, opaque wheat noodles instead of transparent rice noodles. Both a card and, regrettably, the person serving it insisted that the latter were involved, but the next day the same dish was labeled as wheat noodles ...

It certainly helps to have a broad experience concerning food products in general, and those of the (broad) region in particular. As usual, I prepared by perusing travel guides for the main dishes (the food section of the 2009 Rough Guide to Sri Lanka being somewhat more extensive and informative than the corresponding 2009 Lonely Planet section), and by checking regional cook books for recipes. The Wikipedia section on Sri Lankan cuisine was also helpful.

To be avoided are dishes such as chappati, roti / rotti, semolina, as well as atta, laps (fada), maida, poories, sevian, and sooji halva, which all contain gluten. The omnipresent poppadoms and hoppers are traditionally made of rice flour, but increasingly from wheat flour, and they may be fried in contaminated oil, so I avoided them.

Fortunately, Sri Lankan customs at the time of writing did not forbid bringing along food, so my big load of Teff Schwarzbrot, Teff crackers and hard cheese (three pieces varying in maturing, sealed vacuum) presented no problem. All held up well during three weeks of 30 plus degrees C, and very high humidity. Towards the end of the trip, the cheese got a little rancid, but was still fit for consumption.

Gluten Free Hotels and Notes

I flew with Arkefly, that offered just one (partially) gluten free meal both to and from Colombo. Regrettably, diner included wheat cream crackers (fortunately in transparent plastic) on one of the legs. Passengers were required to buy further snacks on the 12-13 hour trips, none of which were gluten free. Miserable.

The Paradise Holiday Village hotel (154/9 Porutota Road, 031-2274588; www.paradiseholidayvillage.com) at Negombo prepared a tasty grilled piece of fish. I cannot recommend the Randiya Hotel in Anurathapura, as a staff member adamantly insisted that their wheat noodles were rice noodles. The nasi goreng in the Rukmali Restaurant and Guesthouse, Sigiriya Junction, Moragaswewa, Habarana (rukmalihoteldil@yahoo.com; 066-2270059) turned out OK.

Having a great view on the lake, I enjoyed a clear vegetable soup and grilled fish with dhal and beetroot side-dishes at the Giritale Hotel (027-2246311; www.giritaleh@carcumo.com), Giritale. Food at hotel the Village at Pollonnaruwa (027-4924824; www.villapol.com) was good, and I had a fried rice with vegetables lunch at the Rest House (027-2222299; www.ceylonhotels.lk) at the lake.

In Dambulla, I had the usual lunch at the Gimanhala hotel restaurant (066-2284864; gimanhala@sitnet.lk). At the Queen's Hotel in Kandy (Dalada Vidiya 081-222 2813; www.queenshotel.lk) I had good food after discussions with five staff-members.

Had the usual lunch at the Lyons restaurant (27 Peradenya Road, Kandy), at the first floor. Also lunched at the Ramboda Falls hotel (052-59582) south of Kandy, and had lamprais at the White House (21 Dalada Veediya, Kandy, 081-2232765; www.whitehouse.lk). Dined at the Hotel Silver Falls in Nuwara-Eliya (23 Nanuoya Road, 052-2235859).

Next day, had the usual lunch in Ella at the Grand Ella Motel restaurant (057-2228655; www.ceylonhotels.ln; about 200 meters from the bus stop) that offers a great view on the Ella Gap. Stayed and dined at the Centauria Tourist Hotel, Embilipitiya (047-2230514; www.centauriatouristhotel.com).

Lunched next day at the Blue Magpie Lodge, Kudawa, Veddagala (045 - 5670498). Had to eat vegetarian as the meat was not gluten free. Stayed several nights at the Giragala Village (041-2250496) at Mirissa. Juicy grilled fish and prawns, but the lobster was overcooked.

Conclusion

Traveling gluten free around Sri Lanka is doable, although a good knowledge of food products helps a great deal as problems are often encountered. There is little knowledge about celiac disease in Sri Lanka and many don't read English well.

It was my impression that the more upgrade the hotel, the larger the risk of being offered food with gluten. In simple, traditional eateries and restaurants, gluten are less often encountered. That being said, cooks at the better hotels and restaurants were better able to communicate in English whether or not they had used products containing gluten.

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Wherever you're going, remember to take a free gluten free restaurant card with you.

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