To start a gluten free diet, the first thing to ask is, what is gluten?
Gluten is, literally speaking, Latin for "glue"
If you've decided to give up gluten, it's not terribly hard to do so
Ok, so now you’ve decided to explore gluten-free options, but are confused about where to begin. Well, to start a gluten free diet, the first thing to ask is, ‘what is gluten’? In this, the etymology can itself be quite revealing: Gluten is, literally speaking, Latin for "glue". For our food-related purposes, it is a mixture of proteins found in wheat and related grains, including barley, rye, oat, and – at its simplest – has its chief purpose to act as a glue and hold food together.
If you’ve decided to give up gluten, it’s not terribly hard to identify the leading actors in this drama: i.e., wheat, barley, rye and oats, and to eliminate it from your diet. But what can be hard is to identify trace quantity in your diet, and which will completely be innocuous to the non-allergic, can still cause significant harm to those allergic to gluten, let alone those who have Celiac. These ‘hidden gluten’ as I call it, can be found in corn flour, baking powder, icing sugar, soy sauce, and ketchup and many other such items. (Read my associated article: Are Your Really Off Gluten? It's Time to be a Food Detective) Very importantly, even the gluten which can remain hidden in kitchen appliances can cause havoc to those who have allergies.
I thought the lessons of a mother may be revealing; here’s what I did when my son Mannat was first diagnosed with Celiac.
Step 1: Check Your Kitchen Equipment
I removed all old roti-making material such as the ‘belan’ (rolling pin), the ‘chakla’ (flat pan), flour sieve, the wooden spoons, chopping boards, the cooking pans ( non-stick ones), the bread baking pans, etc. At its essence, gluten has glue like characteristics, and it tends to sticks in trace quantities to kitchen equipment. For wooden equipment (such as spatulas, chopping boards etc.), this is an especially big problem. I solved the problem by removing all of the kitchen material mentioned above, and by buying new ones.
For those who are not inclined to do so, I’d urge them to clean your tools very deeply and carefully, and for wood-based material, make the investment to buy afresh.
Step 2: Check Your Ingredients
Then, I removed all wheat-based items such as roti atta, oats, barley, besan, packaged masalas like turmeric, red chilli powder, pre-mix masalas like ready-made butter chicken masala, biryani masala etc. as almost all of them have ‘hing’ in them. Also, I removed Bournvita (made with barley), traditional Indian namkeens, cornflour and baking powder, all of which have gluten.
This can be troublesome at first, but there are plenty of alternatives. I replaced atta with gluten-free flour blends made with brown rice, jowar or ragi rotis. Many of these alternatives are widely available in the supermarkets or health stores.
While I started out buying from health focused companies, I have migrated to more customised blends which I now make afresh in my own kitchen using a milling machine. My kitchen now has ground besan made from channa dal, and freshly ground garam masala, haldi, red chilli powder, jeera, etc. I have to confess, the flavours of food prepared at home are disproportionately greater than the effort put into its creation. This is an investment in time I’d highly recommend.
Step 3: Clean the Refrigerator
Then, I cleaned up my refrigerator. I removed packaged chocolate syrup; it has malt. I removed Worcestershire sauce; it has barley malt vinegar. And even maple syrup, processed cheese and milk-based processed products such as mayonnaise and anything that wasn’t certified gluten-free. All frozen products like chicken nuggets, smileys, frozen meats and sausages went out too. Anything that wasn’t made in a certified gluten-free facility went out of my refrigerator.
Now this may appear extreme, but for those who have a gluten allergy (as opposed to those who are making a lifestyle choice), this is the essence of living gluten-free: you have to avoid contamination, and you have to take your choices seriously to not hurt yourself.
The good news is that there are many alternatives. I replaced traditional tomato ketchup with gluten-free tomato ketchup made from apple cider/corn vinegar. Instead of processed cheese, I started using fresh cheeses like mozzarella, cheddar and home-made cottage cheese. I started making home-made chicken nuggets and French fries rather than the frozen stuff that used to sit in my freezer.
And quickly, I sensed the positive results.
Step 4: Find Wheat Alternatives
The main thing is to replace wheat with other gluten-free staples, such as rice. I introduced my family to different types of rice: wild rice, red rice, unpolished rice, brown rice, etc. There are a number of grains which are gluten-free, such as kasha and quinoa. Importantly, the pizza and pasta got replaced with freshly made gluten-free home-made pasta and pizza.
Starting a gluten-free diet is like going back to your childhood when everything was freshly done and packaged or processed food was non-existent. To go the distance, it will appear a bit tough at first, primarily because of the marginal incremental effort. But then, if you’re not going to invest in your own and your family’s health, what will you invest in?
Now, my family’s diet is simple: our mornings starts with milk, eggs, fruits, gluten-free toast (full of flax seeds), almonds and walnuts. No additives, no sugar. A midday meal is a probiotic drink, fruits and a gluten-free cereal bar/cookie. Lunch is fresh, home-made cottage cheese, vegetables, dal and gluten-free roti or rice. Mid-evening snack is milk without any additives, and fruits. Dinner is vegetable risotto with chicken/fish steak or an Indian meal with a meat-based dish.
Frankly, you’ll be surprised at how easy it all becomes, and how healthy and energetic you will feel. Think of this as the beginning of a new lifestyle; it’s a journey which is meant to last you for the rest of your (now longer) life.
About the Author:
Aarti Sarin Jain is an avid baker and runs an exclusive gluten-free test kitchen. She discovered the joys of a gluten-free living after her elder kid was diagnosed with Celiac Disease. She often experiments with new forms and varieties of gluten-free food without compromising either on taste or quality. You can read more on her blog, www.bakingfrommyheart.com
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