Gluten-free in Korea?

Ah, gluten-free. The claims, the controversy, the multi-billion dollar industry. The quinoa, the card-board bread, the black-bean brownies. For many, the term “gluten-free” is a trigger. An attack, somehow, on their glutinous, wheat-filled lives. But for some, it’s the difference between comfort and long sessions on the toilet, or in more extreme cases, the difference between a healthy body, and a body that attacks its own intestines.

Whether gluten-sensitivity is real, all in one’s head, or really just a symptom of other issues like exposure to pesticides, the possibility of not being able to access food that makes you feel good is a legitimate worry.

I’m fortunate to not have any food allergies or sensitivities. My boyfriend Luc, on the other hand, has found that eliminating wheat from his diet has significantly improved the way he feels. So, over the past few months, I’ve become a lot more conscious of the food I make and go out to enjoy with him. I’ve learned that eating gluten-free in Korea comes with both good and bad news.

The Good News

Typical Korean fare consists largely of wheat-free foods. Rice, tofu, vegetables, and meat make up the majority of the diet. Chicken and other battered foods are typically fried in potato flour, and thick porridge called jjuk is made out of rice.

The Bad News

Trace amounts of gluten can be found in a lot of Korean foods because of one simple ingredient: soy sauce. Soy sauce is a staple in Korean cooking, flavouring kimchi, marinades, vegetables, eggs, and more. The amounts of gluten are so low that most gluten-sensitive eaters might not have any problems at all. But for someone with a more serious intolerance, as in the case of celiac disease, this has the potential to severely limit what food is available.

The other, less significant piece of bad news is due to the fact that very few people in Korea identify as “gluten-intolerant” and with most Korean foods being gluten-free by nature, there isn’t much of a gluten-free industry here. This means that gluten-free substitutes that are easy to access back home (like bread, cereal, cookies, etc.) are almost non-existent here. Furthermore, products are not well labelled when it comes to gluten-free.

If you can’t sacrifice these goodies, there are over 1,000 gluten-free products available at iherb.com, an affordable and fast-shipping online health food store. It has ingredients like baking flour, rice flour, and coconut flour, as well as pre-made goodies like cookies and brownies.

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Treats from iherb!

The bottom-line is, if you’re simply gluten-sensitive, you will probably get along in Korea with ease. If you have a more serious allergy however, you will have to exercise a high degree of caution and might find it difficult to find safe foods while eating out.

The Other Good News

I hate to end on a bad note, so the other good news is I’ve included my recipe for a giant cookie-blondie. Late one evening a few weeks ago, Luc was lamenting the absence of cookies in his life. With plenty of gluten-free flour and dark chocolate on hand, I decided to whip up a batch of cookies for him then and there. The problem was, most of the recipes required other ingredients that I didn’t have, like xantham gum and other flours. So I threw together this recipe hoping it would work, and came out with something mixed between a cookie and a blondie, equally delicious as either, and relatively healthy.

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Ingredients

  • 3/4 cup all-purpose gluten free baking flour (or chickpea flour)
  • 1/2 cup sorghum flour
  • 1/3 cup white sugar
  • 2 tbsp brown sugar
  • 1 tbsp ground flax
  • 1 egg
  • 1 oz cream cheese (helps smooth out the texture)
  • 1/2 cup melted butter
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • Pinch of salt
  • 1/2 cup semi-sweet or dark chocolate chips

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degree F/175 degrees C.
  2. Whisk all wet ingredients well.
  3. Add dry ingredients and stir until combined.
  4. Press evenly into 12″ round baking pan and place in middle of oven for 10-12 minutes, or until golden brown on top.
  5. Let cool and enjoy with a scoop of vanilla ice-cream!

Do you have any food sensitivities you’ve had to consider when eating in Korea?

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