A Guide to Eating Gluten-Free at San Francisco’s Indian Restaurants

A Guide to Eating Gluten-Free at San Francisco’s Indian Restaurants

When I lived with my parents, having a stomach ache was always met with the same refrain: “You wouldn’t feel bad if you just ate what I made you for breakfast, lunch, and dinner!” In my mother’s eyes, eating at home was the healthiest possible choice—and, in truth, I tended to have the most luck with our home-cooked recipes. Little did we know (at the time) that a gluten intolerance caused most of my discomfort. Even after I transitioned to a gluten-free diet, I found I could still enjoy all my mother’s favorite recipes. Most didn’t contain gluten in the first place, so I could enjoy the spicy, delicious flavors I always loved.

As I learned more about nutrition in general, I realized that my mom wasn’t really that far off the mark as far as healthy eating is concerned. Indian food is naturally wholesome, low in fats and bad cholesterol, and made from whole food ingredients. Reducing your gluten or carb intake usually leaves you with “gluten free” options with a characteristic “cardboard” taste—unless you’re eating Indian. Our staple foods of rice and lentils are naturally gluten-free, so most Indian dishes are fair game even for those with gluten sensitivities. And thanks to the addition of a variety of spices, you get Indian cuisine’s full range of flavor without missing out on a single bite.

Naturally Gluten-Free Main Dishes That Satisfy Every Palate

Unlike most American carb-heavy dishes, a good portion of Indian cuisine is gluten-free from the very beginning. And this is not your boring ezekiel bread and sprouts sandwich. A wide variety of textures and a heavenly blend of turmeric, cardamom, cloves, and curry give these dishes ten times the flavor of most other gluten-free options.

One of my favorite dishes is, of course, dosa: a delectable crepe made with fermented rice and black gram flours. The taste of dosa has been valued for ages (literally)—the first mention of this dish in Sanskrit texts occurred thousands of years ago. The fermentation process provides digestive benefits and delicious flavor. Served alongside smoky Masala potatoes, earthy mushrooms, lentils, and various traditional chutneys, this main course deserves a significant place on any modern-day South Indian menu.

Dosa might be our chosen namesake, but an Indian meal is nothing if not varied. Fish dishes are abundant in South Indian cuisine, but other meats are also present. From the sweetness of coconut (a naturally dairy-free thickening agent) to the lingering heat of curry with rice to the crunch of idli fries, your gluten free main course options are many.

Here are some other options:

  • Uttapam: A fermented rice and lentil based dish that is reminiscent pancakes with toppings (uttapam) and uses the same batter as a dosa.  An uttapam could incorporate spiced potatoes, seasonal vegetable, poultry or meat.
  • Tandoori Meats: A pillar of Indian food, roasted meats are another great option for the health conscious diner—full of healthy proteins, antioxidants, and digestifs. Meat kebabs can also be made gluten-free with rice, lentil, or corn flour.
  • Main Courses w/ Seafood, Meat & Poultry:   DOSA offers some amazing non-vegetarian main course, for e.g., Wild Salmon in an apricot curry,  Lobster Biryani, Goan Prawn Masala, Chicken Dum Korma and Lamb Shank!  
  • Chennai Chicken: This iconic snack is marinated in organic yogurt and spices and then fried with corn starch.
  • Dahi Vada, Idli, Vada Sambar:  These wonderfully, filling and delicious snacks are all made with rice and/or lentils which is found in abundance in Southern India.  
  • Sprouted Mung Salad: This deliciously textured lentil salad with house-sprouted mung is not only healthy and raw, but flavorful and delicious with coconut, spiced pomegranate, chile, arugula, orange and cumin dressing.
  • Rasam/Dal: For those looking for a lighter option, dal and rasam are lentil soups flavored with warm turmeric which can be eaten on their own or with rice.
  • Sabji: Most Indian sabji, or main vegetable dishes, are all nutritious, extremely tasty and completely gluten-free. Try palak paneer (spinach with Indian cheese), aloo gobi (potato and cauliflower), and baigon ka bhartha (mashed eggplant).

Desserts

  • Ras Malai: Ras Malai is a mildly sweet dessert that consists of burrata mozzarella-type cheese curds in a sweet milk sauce. It’s a true Indian comfort food without a single gluten ingredient in it.
  • Kaju Katli: One of India’s most beloved treats, kaju katli is a cashew-based dessert reminiscent of a Turkish Delight. It’s delectably sweet, and the cashew flavor and texture both come through strongly.

Dishes Gluten-Free Diners Should Avoid

As a general rule, always inform the server that you have a gluten-allergy and the level of severity.  For instance, can you eat from a kitchen that prepares gluten dishes? Also, in many Indian restaurants, not all the ingredients are listed on the menu just because there are often too many to list.  

Most people with gluten sensitivities are aware they need to avoid wheat-based food items. However, dish names in Tamil or Hindi may obscure your standby menu clues. A good restaurant server will gladly accommodate any dietary restrictions you have and will interpret menu items in a way you understand. However, knowing a few handy vocabulary terms will help you find your own way around any South Indian menu.

The best way to avoid gluten is to become aware of which dishes typically contain wheat/barley/rye ingredients. Thankfully for those with gluten intolerances, South Indian cuisine really has very few dishes in this category. Roti, naan, paratha, and poori all denote Indian breads which are undeniably made of flour. Ask for corn-based “makke ki roti” instead. Halwa (an Indian style pudding) and gulab jamun (sweetened balls of flour drenched in rose flavored syrup) can both be made with alternative flours such as gram and lentil, but you’ll want to double check at the restaurant.

Most chefs can tell you if they’ve used flour in a dish or if they’ve used an alternative grain. For a quick gluten-free alternative grain vocab list, here are some handy Hindi translations:

  • Besan: gram flour
  • Chawal ka atta: rice flour
  • Makke ka atta: corn flour
  • Ragi/Nachni: finger millet flour
  • Bajra: pearl millet flour
  • Jowar: white millet flour, sorghum flour

Enjoy Eating Naturally Gluten-Free Indian Dishes

With its emphasis on combining unique flavors and spices while maintaining the wholesomeness of the cuisine, Indian chefs have created a remarkable variety of dishes. There’s something for every eating style, whether you’re vegetarian, vegan, dairy-free, carnivorous, or, of course, gluten-free. So next time you’re considering what to eat for dinner, you can be absolutely sure that DOSA will have healthy and delicious options to suit your taste.

DOSA Valencia