Sarah Jane Russell is a consultant chef, food professional and runs a company called Tamanisha. In this issue, she ventures into the world of gluten-free eating.
My foray into the world of veganism in January got me thinking about the increasing attention to dietary requirements and the need to properly cater to them. Looking at alternatives to dairy and plant-based eating, the natural progression was to delve into how people are coping with cutting out gluten.
A close friend of mine was ill for years with stomach issues and painful psoriasis, and the doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong with her. She was eventually diagnosed with celiac disease, which means her body can’t tolerate gluten. This is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye – the components of many staples and comfort food favourites like bread, pasta, cereals and even beer.
Gluten comes in all sorts of guises. There are obvious wheat-derived products like bread, pastries, cakes, semolina, pasta, couscous and noodles. However, most oats contain gluten too while soy sauce, thickening agents, malt extract and even communion wafers are more surreptitious gluten fiends.
The good news is there are plenty of alternatives and ways of adapting your favourite foods to be gluten and wheat free. Let’s start with breakfast: Mhogo (cassava flour) makes a naturally sweet and fluffy pancake or mandazi batter, while you can grill slices of sweet potato as ‘toast’ for your eggs. One of my favourites is crispy potato rosti to replace the English muffin for a luxurious gluten-free Eggs Benedict.
Thicken sauces or make a roux with cornflour and use chickpea (gram) flour or rice flour for a light and tasty frying batter. You can even make a crispy pizza crust with cauliflower or ugali.
Health stores and many supermarkets sell gluten-free flour mixes for baking. These are pretty pricey and rarely yield the same result. You need the addition of xanthan gum to bind cake mixtures and pastries, while bread from gluten-free flours often come out like bricks. Use these flours instead to make crepes, tortilla wraps and chapatis.
While it seems awfully trendy to follow a gluten-free diet, is there any actual benefit to cutting out foods that contain gluten?
The reality is, if you don’t have celiac disease, gluten is not bad for you per se, although eating too many basic carbs like white bread and pasta can be. Many of us feel ‘bloated’ after gorging on these foods, but it doesn’t mean we are gluten intolerant. Dieticians stress that gluten-containing whole grains like barley, bulgur wheat and spelt contain a lot of fibre and are vital for the digestive system.
If this is the case, try Bbrood’s spelt bread, which is 97% gluten-free and much easier on the tummy. Browns Fruit and Nutcrackers use gluten-free buckwheat but don’t miss out on any flavour. Quinoa makes a lighter and healthier alternative to couscous, pasta or white rice, while almond flour is a rich and decadent alternative for cakes and brownies (see my delicious recipe here).
GLUTEN-FREE GRAINS & FLOURS
- Corn (maize)
- Gluten-free oats
- Nut Flours