5 Easier-Than-You-Think Ways To Enjoy Malaysian Food On a Gluten-Free Diet
By Ili Sulaiman
Mar 19, 2020

5 Easier-Than-You-Think Ways To Enjoy Malaysian Food On a Gluten-Free Diet

Ili Sulaiman reveals her secrets to eating and cooking delicious Malaysian food, in spite of a gluten-allergy

If you struggle with celiac disease, or gluten intolerance, like myself, then you might have experienced tiredness, bloating, stomach cramps and even depression. After years of struggling with these symptoms, I made a conscious choice to cut gluten from my diet and, now, I feel so much better.

It was tough at first, as gluten's the thing that gives bread and noodles that bouncy, satisfying texture when cooked. And it also breaks down soy into aromatic soy sauce. But soon I discovered 5 ways to avoid gluten without giving up on delicious Malaysian food that we all love. Let me show you how: 

1. Look Out for Gluten-Free Rice Dishes

Rice is Malaysia's staple ingredient. It is also the most versatile and the most used ingredient in Malaysian cuisine. Everything from rice grains, rice flour, rice milk is used in Malaysian food. We also consume glutinous rice which contains starch rather than gluten even though the name suggests otherwise.  Rice is served for breakfast, lunch and dinner and here are some of my favourite rice dishes that are 100% gluten free:

  • Nasi Lemak - Our national dish, rice is cooked with coconut milk and served with a hard boil egg, sambal, deep fried anchovies, toasted peanuts and fresh cucumber slices.
  • Nasi Goreng - There are many versions of nasi goreng available in Malaysia, just make sure when you order this outside, tell them not to use any ‘kicap’/ soy sauce when stir frying your rice.
  • Nasi Campur - A very popular lunch option in Malaysia, mixed rice is essentially a buffet line of dishes which you can choose from that are served with steamed rice. You may need to get guidance on what dishes to pick as some may contain gluten. My advice? It is best to keep it simple and go for the more traditional dishes like curries, masak lemak (fish or chicken cooked in rich coconut milk and turmeric), asam pedas (fish or beef stew in a tamarind and chili gravy), Ikan bakar (grilled fish) or ayam percik (grilled chicken in coconut sambal).
  • Nasi Impit - Sticky rice cooked in a coconut leaf parcel. Once cooked the rice is compressed into the parcel shape. We usually cut it up into cubes and serve this with a beautiful coconut cream vegetable curry called ‘Lontong’.
  • Porridge - Rice porridge is very popular in Malaysia. We have both sweet (bubur pulut hitam) and savoury rice porridge (congee/bubur/teochew porridge). Most of the time, these rice porridges are plain and are cooked with stock or coconut cream.

Other rice options you could enjoy include Nasi Dagang (Glutinous rice cooked in coconut milk and served with a fish curry), Nasi Kerabu (steamed blue pea rice, served with grilled fish and local herb salad), Briyani (a rice dish cooked with lamb, chicken or vegetables curry) and Nasi Tomato (rice cooked in a tomato broth and served with Ayam Masak Merah (chicken cooked in a spicy tomato gravy).

2. Slurp Up Rice Noodle Bowls

Craving a good bowl of curry mee, laksa or mee goreng? No problem, just make sure you pick the right noodles for your meal. In Asia we are so lucky to have a variety of gluten-free noodles but it's important to know what they are. When eating out at restaurants or hawker stalls, the safest bet is to always opt for rice-based noodles. Well yes, you may get weird looks for asking to swap the noodles but do insist, so you can still enjoy the food without compromising on your health. Here are some of my favourite gluten-free noodles available here in Malaysia:

  • Bee Hoon - Highly popular in Southeast Asia. This skinny and thin rice noodle is hydrated and needs to be soaked in water before cooking.
  • Kuey Teow - Found in so many Southeast Asian dishes, flat rice noodles are made from rice flour and water and come in both fresh sheets as well as dried.
  • Steamed Rice Rolls/ Chee Chong Fun - A Cantonese dish, Chong Fun is a thin crépe roll made from rice flour. Usually stuffed with minced meat or vegetables, or served with chili and sweet soy sauce. But to avoid gluten, do opt for it to be served without the soy sauce.
  • White Laksa Noodles - Mostly used in laksa, these thick and long noodles are made using rice flour and water. They are also a great noodle substitute for making mee goreng (fried mee).
  • Tapioca noodle/Lao Shu Fen/Khao Poon - A very popular Malaysian noodle and usually cooked and served in a clay pot, this particular type of noodle is rolled out thick and short and has a glossy bouncy texture once cooked.

3. Snack on Addictive Indian Snacks   

We love our roti canai (prata) in Malaysia and for some, having roti canai for breakfast is something I truly miss, but now, I don't have to give it up because there are so many substitute options we have that still satisfies our Malaysian cravings. Here are some of my favourite substitutes that are gluten-free:

  • Dosas/Tosai - A savoury crepe like pancake with a hint of sour notes. The best part is you can also opt for it to be stuffed with curried potatoes (masala tosai) and vegetables (rava tosai). You can even opt for it to be crispy or soft and fluffy.
  • Idli - Soft pillow-like buns are made out of ground up rice and fermented naturally to give it its puff. Super delicious if eaten with Dhal and Curry
  • Vadai - Deep-fried dhal patties that are packed with spices and curry leaves. They are a perfect gluten-free snack.

Related Recipes: All Indian Recipes

4. Use Liquid Aminos to Replace Soy Sauce

Liquid aminos is used in place of soy sauce in Ili's lip-smacking Malaysian classic, Ayam Goreng Kunit 

Almost all soy sauces (light, thick, caramel, oyster, sweet) have gluten in it.  I have since swapped my soy sauce seasoning with liquid aminos or tamari. There are many gluten-free sauces available in grocery stores. Some range from gluten-free oyster sauce, kicap manis (sweet soy sauce) and light soy sauce. Another good alternative is just seasoning your food with good quality salt but the truth is, soy sauce is a HUGE seasoning in Malaysian food that it is impossible to cut it out completely, so alternatives are the way to go.

5. Lean Toward Rice-Based Desserts 

Luckily for us Malaysians, many of our local snacks and desserts are gluten-free such as our kuih-muih (Malaysian desserts). This is because most of our signature desserts are made from rice or glutinous rice. I’d like to share with you some seriously delicious snacks and desserts to enjoy when you're out at your favourite local dessert stall.

  • Seri Muka -  A sticky glutinous rice base, topped with a pandan custard layer
  • Cassava Cake/ Kuih Binka Ubi Kayu  - Cassava cake is made with just 4 ingredients, cassava, sugar, coconut cream and salt.
  • Cendol and ABC - This ice shaved dessert is available at most coffee shops or stalls in Malaysia. It’s an array of toppings (cendol, nuts, jelly/agar-agar, sweet corn) topped with palm sugar, rose syrup and coconut cream.
  • Onde Onde - A fluffy ball made out of rice flour and glutinous rice flour with a sweet palm sugar filling and dusting of fresh grated coconut.
  • Kuih Lompang - Steamed custard-like glutinous rice cakes with grated fresh coconut
  • Pulut Inti - Glutinous rice cake with coconut and palm sugar topping

Just What's Gluten All About? 

Well, gluten is a general name for the proteins that are found in wheat, barley, rye, triticale (a hybrid of wheat and rye), malt and brewer's yeast. It's essentially the glue that binds proteins together making it elastic, and it's also used to ferment or process other types of food as well. This elasticity is just the thing that gives bread and noodles that bouncy, satisfying texture when cooked. Wheat proteins in gluten are also used as one of the fermentation agents to break down soybeans, turning it into soy sauce.

Ili Sulaiman is a Malaysian chef. She has several shows of her own, including Home Cooked: Malaysia; Family Feast with Ili, and authored the hot-selling cookbook, For the Love of Food. Follow her on all socials @ilisulaiman.

  • All health content on asianfoodnetwork.com is provided for general information only, and not intended as medical advice to diagnose, treat or cure. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact your local health care provider. 
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