We are very fortunate to be a stone’s throw from an excellent Korean supermarket, but there are Asian supermarkets around the country which stock foods from many different countries, most commonly Japan, China, Korea, Thailand and Vietnam, to name a few. Some will stock products from all these countries. It can be a bit overwhelming walking in, like you’ve been transported halfway around the world, but there can be some really great (and cheap!) gluten-free products around, many of which are not stocked in British supermarkets.
Disclaimer: It is up to you to check that the products you intend to consume are truly gluten-free. Cross-contamination will vary from brand to brand and you do need to be careful. While wheat flour is not that common as a thickener in Asian products, some will contain soy sauce where you don’t expect them to, for example, certain types of frozen fish will have a soy sauce glaze. Be diligent.
1. Kaya (coconut jam)
This is a sweet Malaysian spread made from eggs, coconut milk, and sugar, a bit like custard. You can make this yourself if you like, but it’s reasonably inexpensive to buy, and probably cheaper than assembling the ingredients yourself.
Fantastic on toast, pancakes or in puddings.
2. Rice cakes/sticks
No, not those awful dry monstrosities! Korean rice cakes are made from glutinous rice flour (which does not contain gluten, although check cross contamination for each brand!). I am madly in love with these babies! We mainly use them to make Dak Galbi (see the recipe at Beyond Kimchee), but I have been known to pair them with spaghetti bolognaise, spicy sauce or just have them on their own! The fresh ones are squidgy and just need heating through, and the dry ones will need soaking in hot water for a few minutes until soft and ready to eat.
Just don’t eat too many, especially if you are diabetic – glutinous rice has a high glycaemic index (GI)!
3. Gluten/wheat-free soy sauce
This can be bought from most British supermarkets – at a premium. But Asian supermarkets should stock it in larger bottles for slightly less money, if you are not fussed about salt content or use it sparingly. If you are watching your salt, it’s best to go with a brand like Lima Reduced Salt Soy Sauce.
Don’t be put off by foreign labels – there should always be an English translation on the back, and it will usually say “Wheat Free” on it.
Whoever invented these little Japanese desserts needs some kind of prize. These are made with glutinous rice flour and whatever flavours you can think of! These are available freshly made and although they are less sweet than the Western palate might be accustomed to, they have some delicious fillings. I’ve tried them with peanut butter, sesame, black bean and coconut.
Products made with glutinous rice flour might be an acquired taste for some (they have a similar texture to the rice cakes) but I love the chewiness!
5. Thai and Vietnamese rice noodles
Take your pick – these are usually made with just rice and water, and are found in all sorts of shapes: thin noodles, thick noodles, rice squares, flat noodles, you name it! Don’t underestimate how versatile these can be.
6. Chilli pastes
Be careful with these as some, but not all, contain soy sauce (and thus gluten). We are never without Mae Ploy Chilli paste in oil (a huge tub for £4.99) and use it to season our dak galbis, fried rice and anything that needs a Korean flavour! We also buy green thai curry paste for our curries. These tend to be far spicier than supermarket brands, so be warned!
7. Frozen fish and seafood
Although you need to exercise some caution (some frozen fish may have a soy sauce glaze or similar), this can be a very economical way of shopping, especially if you like seafood and are sick of paying £5 for a tiny little bag of sad-looking prawns. We generally pay about £7-10 per kilo of frozen prawns, depending on how they are prepared (shells on, heads on, etc), and we go for the giant prawns that are very meaty.
But don’t stop there…
Obviously, if they have a fruit and veg section, go nuts! Ditto for fresh meat and fish.
Asian supermarkets can be a treasure trove if you are cautious about ingredients and checking producers (if applicable). Once you know your way around it becomes a lot less intimidating and you even consider buying funny looking sweets for a bit of a food travel experience at home. You’d be surprised at what you can find!
What are your favourite Asian supermarket finds? Add them in the comments and I’ll post them here in a list.
Update: suggestions from readers
- Fish sauce
- Vietnamese rice paper wraps
- Tapioca/rice/glutinous rice flour