Today, with the help of one of my favorite gfe readers and friends, we’re going to learn about eating gluten free in Korea.
In mid-December of 2011, I received an email from a new reader, Angela Sommers. Angela had recently been diagnosed as gluten intolerant. She wanted to know how to get started living gluten free. I immediately sent Angela a link to my Getting Started page (which has several printable tip sheets, like 50 Things You Can Eat Today, 50 Meals That Are GFE, 50 GFE Sweet Treats, and more), and a link to my post Top 10 Reasons to Live GFE. When she inquired on my favorite and best recipes, specifically requesting a great gluten-free pound cake recipe, I sent her several of my most popular recipes. I focused on the ones that I felt let the gluten-free newbie know that “all is going to be okay.” So in addition to the link for the Perfect Pound Cake, I also shared Flourless Peanut Butter Cookies, Flourless Oatmeal Cookies, and my traditional Crustless Pumpkin Pie.
From almost the instant Angela started making my recipes, she’d add her own tweaks—minor and major! In a relatively short amount of time, Angela has mastered living gluten free and I honestly think that she’s probably made more gfe recipes than any other reader. And some of them, like my pound cake, she’s made many, many times.
Angela has a prolific flower garden so she usually adorns her baking creations with her gorgeous flowers, usually her magnificent roses. See photos below of some of Angela’s variations of Perfect Pound Cake (for which Angela packages the dry ingredient in ziploc bags so she has the “mix” ready to go) turned into a lemon blueberry version, a sweet potato version, and cake pop balls ; Banana Kahlua Coconut Cake that Angela turned into a Nutella version; and finally her Individual Crustless Pumpkin Pies.
Sometimes Angela shares her gluten-free baking/cooking experiments on her own blog, The Unofficial Jung SuWon Food blog, subtitled Grandmaster Tae Yun Kim’s wisdom: The Joy and Power of Food. Check out her posts Scientific Cookie Investigation (this one is really fun!) and What You Can Learn from Making Nutella Cake (I am always happy to take lessons from food!).
Angela travels frequently for her job and before she left for her first major trip after diagnosis, she and I chatted again about how one can travel safely. I seized the moment and asked her if she’d be interested in writing a guest post about her experience. After many, many email exchanges and conversations online, Angela has become a dear friend, so I didn’t mind asking her. Thankfully, she agreed to share her experience with all of us and sent me this outstanding post (which even includes a food dish quiz/tutorial!), when she returned from her first trip to Korea after going gluten free. I know you will both enjoy Angela’s trip report and learn from her detailed information on the food that she encountered on her trip!
First of all, I thank my dear friend Shirley for inviting me to do a guest blog here – thanks Shirley, I am thrilled! Thank you for trusting me with your readers!
Just as a brief intro, I am Angela Sommers, and went gluten free just about a year ago, after being diagnosed as “extremely” gluten intolerant. I have been doing very well living gluten free, under the mentoring of Shirley. Her patience and willingness to answer every question is wonderful!
I have been training in the Martial Arts for 28 years now, and work for my teacher, Great Grandmaster Tae Yun Kim. Because of that, I get to travel with her to all sorts of places, including Turkey, Belgium, Netherlands and a lot of back and forth to Korea. I absolutely love my “job” and all the opportunities I get. I am a videographer/editor by trade, and therefore get to see and experience all sorts of things. Grandmaster Tae Yun Kim is a big celebrity especially in Korea (as you can see by this welcome below), and so I am always treated extremely well.
The most important thing I have learned about gluten free travel is this:
DO YOUR HOMEWORK AND COME PREPARED.
This is true for everywhere you go, but especially when you go to places where you don’t know the language and/or the concept of gluten free is not yet widely known/accepted.
One word of caution about this blog post: these are my experiences and opinions only and by no means meant to be medical advice of any sort. Also, this blog post is for gluten free folks, and if you are living Paleo, going to Asia would be a much more serious challenge, and would require a lot more research. I am sure there are many ways that you can travel and enjoy other countries and cultures when you are Paleo, I myself just do not have any experience with this.)
If you are not familiar with the food of the place(s) you are going to, try to read up as much as you can, or find a local restaurant that offers the foods of that country, or find someone who has been there. The internet is a great place to get information! Ask, ask, ask! 🙂
In addition – do take a good supply of gluten free snacks/meal replacements, a bag of nuts, whatever you can think of. This is important. Don’t skip this step. (I have been known to make a batch of “Shirley bars”—otherwise known as Shirley’s Chewy Granola Bars–at 4:30 am …)
A granola bar will start coming in handy on the airplane already. A flight to Korea, for example, is about 12 hours long, and can be a bit challenging without food. And the gluten free food they have, well, uhm, take a look for yourself:
Also, bring with you a good supply of whatever you need should you be “glutened.” A lot of people I know use Align (a probiotic supplement), but whatever works best for you, bring a lot of it. You never know what is available locally, so bring your own. While of course the goal is to not have any gluten to begin with, sometimes even with the best of care and caution, it still happens. I use Align and also bring medication for inflammation, which will invariably follow a gluten experience.
Once you are “there,” if you find yourself in a situation where you are offered:
a) foods you do not know what’s in them, and
b) foods that are obviously full of gluten, you will need to find a very polite and nice way of not eating those dishes.
Since I don’t know Korean, and even a lot of Korean interpreters don’t speak English well enough to be able to explain specific food allergies – and because I am traveling with a celebrity, I have found the best way to deal with gluten-filled offerings is to either pick out and eat the things you know are safe, or, politely say that my stomach is upset and I can’t really eat today. No, this isn’t lying. I know that if I were to eat that food I would have a very upset stomach, to say the least.
I am lucky that through my years of training and many trips to Korea, I am already familiar with the foods there. So I have a good idea what’s in most of the things I see.
If you are in Asia, and if you can eat grains, rice will be your best buddy. It’s always available, at most every restaurant, and typically there are always some veggies to be had to go alongside it. If you go in late summer and throughout the winter months, sweet potatoes and corn on the cob are mostly available, and can fill in the gaps for you. I have been very successful in eating rice, side dishes and some main dishes without being glutened. (Shirley’s Note: I asked Angela what the “specks” are in the glistening rice shown above and she said that they can be either millet or sesame seeds, both of which are gluten free.)
(If you are living grain free, I would ask through a good interpreter for a restaurant that specializes in meat, and then ask for a soy-free, MSG free dish. Again, best to do that before you go.)
When you go to Asia, be aware that culture and tradition are very important to the wonderful people there. When you are invited out, you are expected to eat, and enjoy. Since I am with a lot of VIPs because of my job, being polite is of utmost importance.
Here is where the Korean meal structure comes in handy: typically, the table is loaded with lots of side dishes of all sorts, from kimchi to mushrooms, fiddlehead ferns, eggs, fish … depends on restaurant, season, and region as to what will show up on the table. I have found that a lot of these dishes are gluten free, and also MSG free.
Great Grandmaster Tae Yun Kim jokingly refers to the Korean dinner table as democracy, and the typical Western table as “tyranny,” because at the Korean table, you have a lot of food on the table to share and mix and match, and test out, whereas on the Western tables you get your own place with stuff on it and you don’t normally share (well except for Thanksgiving table, but you get the idea.)
One word about MSG … yes, I do know MSG does not have gluten in it. However, I am highly allergic to it. So, if you too are sensitive to MSG, be aware that MSG is widely used in Korean and most other Asian countries. However, if you ask if there is MSG in your food, the most likely answer will be no, because, they do not know it is MSG. But if you ask if there is “dashida” in the food, the answer will usually be yes. Well, dashida equates to MSG because it loosely means soup stock! So, be careful. Know that most soups have MSG in them, and a lot of times kim chi has it as well. Update: From reader Cat: “Sogogi dashida (beef stock) does include MSG in it, but also includes wheat starch. Just to clarify—MSG is gluten free, but dashida in the powder form is not.”
As for gluten, watch out for the unexpected places it can lurk in—mostly in the form of soy sauce—meat dishes, mostly in foods that come in dark brown sauces. Also if you see rice that has other “stuff” in it–be aware that sometimes it has barley mixed in, but this is easy to spot–barley stands out among the rice.
Also, if you allergic to other foods, you need to be extra careful as sometimes those foods could be mixed right in. For example, I cannot tolerate gingko nuts. It’s my personal kryptonite, and will lower my blood pressure to a point I cannot function. This is serious. Well, this soup shown below, Jook, looked like a normal rice soup and I was told it was regular rice soup. But about 10 minutes afterwards I felt the dreaded zombie feeling. Later I found out that there were ground up gingko nuts in it as well. One of my travel companions quickly gave me a caffeine tablet which I have with me for just such occasions (I couldn’t function enough to even think about taking mine) and luckily a few minutes later I was at least able to pull myself together enough to sit back down and finish dinner.
Once again: come prepared. Did I mention, do your homework and come prepared?
To help you learn about this, I thought it would be fun to have a picture quiz for you, to guess as to which food has gluten, and which doesn’t. I know, this isn’t exactly fair, nor is it scientific, but let’s give it a whirl, shall we?
Look at the photos and just from their appearance by itself, see what you think about their gluten-free status. Then read my notes on each below.1. Radish Kimchi (Shredded or Not)–No gluten, but typically–unless in a specialty restaurant–has MSG. 2. Sollangtang–No gluten, usually no MSG, not even salt. It is beef bone soup, where the bones get boiled a long, long time and is served with slices of meat in it, and salt and green onions on the side. 3. Assorted Fried Items–Full of gluten, stay away! 4. Sesame Leaves–Marinated in soy sauce, no go! 5. Ban Chan–Assorted marinated vegetables, no gluten in these, and very delicious (but be sure to ask if there is soy sauce in it–recipes vary). 6. Yukkaejang–Gluten free, but usually loaded with MSG. 7. Leaf Kimchi–Gluten free, but can have MSG in it. 8. Salad Kimchi–Relax, all good for you. 9. Truck Stop Ramen–Run for the hills! Wheat noodles, wheat based pot stickers, and loaded with MSG. 10. Bulgogi–Looks tasty, right? Well, typically it’s marinated in a soy sauce based sauce, so bypass that. 11. Chicken–See above; same as bulgogi. 12. Truck Stop Bibim Bap–I love bibim bap! It’s rice with assorted vegetables, and typically no gluten in the veggies; this comes with a red hot sauce – watch out for MSG in that. Update: I’ve found gluten-free red sauces that are gluten free, but they can often contain gluten, so if in doubt, pass on those. 13. Veggies in Broth–This version was completely gluten free and MSG free. 14. Wild Mushrooms–Great choice, no gluten, no soy (in this version) and was great with rice. 15. Cold Noodles–Be careful with that! This particular batch was made with “only sweet potato flour” but as it turned out, yes, there were sweet potatoes involved, but the noodles had other stuff in them. Not gluten free! 16. Steamed Mountain Herbs–Absolutely great, no gluten, no msg, and an awesome addition to your rice bowl. 17. Truck Stop Potatoes–My absolute favorites! Naturally gluten free and also MSG free, these are the best! 18. Mandoo–Easy to see that they are very gluten full! Look, but don’t even touch! 19. Steamed Fish–Absolutely safe, and very delicious! 20. “Everything” Soup–Don’t do it; it has pot stickers in it and they are not gluten free. 21. Fried Mackerel–This particular version was safe, no breading or coating of any kind. But in anything that comes to the table fried, take a close look and make sure it’s not coated with any kind of flour or crumbs
22. Ban Jan Jap Chae–Although this dish can also be served hot, as a main dish, when served as ban jan it’s cold and only a small quantity. It’s typically safe to eat, as the noodles are either made out of rice or sweet potatoes. However, I do advise you to check to make sure no gluten sneaked in; e.g., ask if they used soy sauce. This particular version had no soy sauce.23. Norumbap–Rice soup: totally safe, enjoy! 24. Awesome Fish–No gluten, but high probability of MSG. 25. Korean Mountain Roots–*Most* red sauces contain MSG, but are gluten free, but be careful with them as they can contain both. This particular version was great and had neither gluten nor MSG. 26. Barbequed Fish–Gloriously gluten-free. 27. Rice Pot–Special rice cooked in a stone pot, over fire. Often times, rice is served mixed with other grains and beans, and sometimes even including chestnuts, gingko nuts, squash and sweet potatoes. Be sure to ask if there is any barley in it–more often than not, it will be. This rice was great, no barley but peas, mushrooms, beans and, yes, I took out the gingko nut! The gingko nut is the bright yellow peanut shaped item at 12 o’clock (and circled in the photo).
I hope you enjoyed this short little introduction to eating gluten free in Korea, and thanks to Shirley for letting me share on her blog!
Shirley here: Angela has shared such an excellent trip report with some very helpful guidelines on eating gluten free in Korea. Always do your own due diligence before ordering and eating anywhere, of course.