What Gluten Intolerance Taught Me

Roshni Mathew   |   March 7, 2016 


Uttara and I have been friends since 2008, and one of the joys we share is eating good food. We became friends when she came to visit her aunt on holiday in Bangalore. At the time, she lived in Chennai, so when I went there on an internship subsequently, we grew as friends. My fondest memories of Chennai are hanging out with Uttara at a beachside café called “Mash” where they had the most amazing Nutella pancakes.

A couple of years later, I moved to Delhi to study law, and Uttara travelled abroad to do her Masters. In 2013, I moved to Mumbai, where Uttara had moved, about a year prior to me. I was excited to be in the same city as her because we had remained good friends though we never lived in the same city at the same time.

Sometime after she moved to Mumbai, Uttara started falling sick, and didn’t know why. After health check ups, it was confirmed that she was allergic to gluten. Uttara was gluten intolerant.

Gluten intolerance isn’t as common a phenomenon in India as it is abroad. Gluten intolerance is a health condition, much like an allergy, where a person’s body rejects gluten. Gluten is a substance that is present in wheat, which according to many bakers gives dough the elasticity that is required in making bread and pizza. So a gluten-intolerant person has to ensure they eat a gluten-free diet, which means that absolutely no food with all purpose flour (maida) or whole wheat flour (atta) can enter their stomach.

I had a friend in Delhi who was allergic to gluten, but I didn’t understand it completely then. My first proper experience with gluten was with Uttara. Having a gluten intolerant friend meant we couldn’t eat bread, pizza, cake or anything together with flour in it. So no more Nutella Pancakes for us! But, we’re both South Indians so we enjoyed gorging on rice, seafood and meat; the gluten didn’t stop us from relishing our food together.

I got married about a year back, and this meant I could have her over and cook for her, etc. In the last one year, one thing that has been energising and therapeutic for me is baking! I love baking cakes, cookies, cupcakes, galettes, pizzas, breads, etc. Cooking had become my love-language. I love cooking, and cooking a meal for someone is my way of expressing my affection.

Uttara is a friend I treasure a lot because I met her when I was praying that I would make more girlfriends. So I desperately wanted to bake something sweet for one of my closest buddies. But most of the recipes called for flour. Before Uttara got married I remember a few of her friends threw her a bachelorette party where we ordered a gluten free cake, and she loved it! So, I knew what I had to do.

We had some hazelnuts lying around at home, so I roasted them and ground them to a fine powder. To this I added sugar, cocoa, butter and about 6 eggs. This mixture, which my husband called a “chocolate omelette” after about half an hour turned into what I call “Flourless Rochers”, a delicious gluten-free chocolate cake. I baked this for Uttara, who loved it!

Seeing the joy one simple gluten-free dish could bring to my friend, I have decided to venture into this new territory of gluten-free cooking.

I am yet to bake bread, pizza and pasta for my friend. I would love to learn about gluten-free methodology in Asian cooking. I haven’t experimented with rice flour, gram flour and the array of flours available here in India. Turning simple ingredients and left overs (like grated coconut) into a beautiful dish is something I want to grow in doing!

What gluten intolerance has taught me is to be creative. It’s ok to make mistakes (my first batch of coconut flour cupcakes came out too soggy at the bottom), because the process will lead to innovative thinking.

Last evening I used leftover ground coconut, ragi powder (red millet), sugar, baking soda and eggs to make gluten-free cupcakes for Uttara. The consistency was much better than the cake I made the previous time!

This evening, after having a disappointing day, I met Uttara. We stood in her kitchen and devoured the cupcakes I had made with coconut and ragi. I had made a Nutella chocolate ganache to go on top of the cupcake, because I remembered the Nutella pancakes she couldn’t have, and this was the closest I could get, to recreate a fond memory.

Later we made pasta out of the gluten-free flour she had at home. I think we can make gluten-free pasta out of ragi (red millet flour) or even besan, if you can stomach the taste. Using potato starch (leftover liquid from boiling potatoes) and eggs adds the stretchiness to gluten free flour. We made pesto to go with it. We couldn't find basil leaves, so we made it with parsley, walnuts, garlic and cheese. It was nutty and delicious. To go with it, we made a chicken salad, with cherry tomatoes, mustard leaves, and red bell peppers! Who knew mustard leaves, i.e. "saag" could be a great addition to salads!

I ain’t no Nigella Lawson or Jamie Oliver, but with whatever little I know how to do, I want to spread joy through my cooking.


Photo Credit:Unsplash


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Roshni Mathew

Roshni is a full time wife and mother who lives in Mumbai with her husband and daughter. They are a part of New City Church, Mumbai where they worship and serve. Roshni loves cooking, the colour purple and travelling.

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