In 2009, when Akshay Patil discovered that his body was intolerant to gluten — a protein found in grains such as wheat, barley and rye — he stopped eating out completely. Diagnosed with celiac disease, Patil was given strict orders by his family doctor. He was not to consume gluten, found in beer, chapattis and most cakes, at all.
It seemed too much effort to ensure that the food he was being served at restaurants was completely devoid of gluten. So, when Patil found out that his friend Abhishek Honawar was setting up a restaurant, he ensured that the menu included a gluten-free item. That is how the now-popular Red Millet Pancakes landed up on the menu of The Pantry at Kala Ghoda. The chef uses red millet flour instead of using refined flour (or maida).
“Now, after all these years, I eat out a little more often, but I usually limit myself to dal and rice,” says Patil. A trip to Suzette, a creperie at Nariman Point, is an indulgence he allows himself once in a while. “I go there for a dose of crepes sometimes. Luckily, their savoury pancakes are all gluten-free,” says 32 year-old Patil, a litigation lawyer.
A welcome change
What may come as great news to Patil is that there are other restaurants in the city that have introduced gluten-free options too. Otto Infinito, which opened at Bandra Kurla Complex in August this year, serves gluten-free pasta made with chestnut flour. And soon, Carter Road’s Corniche will serve both gluten-free pizza and pasta.
“Gluten intolerance isn’t very common in Mumbai. But we have had customers coming in with an allergen card stating everything they are allergic to,” says Jeetesh Kaprani, vice president, operations, Ka Hospitality, which has set up Hakkasan, Yauatcha and Otto Infinito.
The Mediterranean cuisine’s gluten-free pasta is not the most popular dish at the restaurant, admits Kaprani. “However, it is essential for us to have it on the menu so that people who suffer from gluten intolerance know that there is something available to them here. It would be a shame if a patron walked out of our restaurant without eating anything because of a lack of options,” he feels.
Bandra (W) has a large expat community and Corniche (a multi-cuisine restaurant) caters to them as well. Quite a few have made requests for gluten-free food in the past. “That is one of the reasons I decided to try and incorporate gluten-free options on the menu,” reveals Amit Chaudhary, head chef at Corniche, which opened its doors to the city in 2011. They plan to introduce a wheat-less pizza within 10 days.
Chaudhary uses a combination of soya flour and moong dal flour to create the base for his wheat-less pizza. “Creating this pizza wasn’t much of a challenge for me. But making the perfect combination for pasta dough is proving difficult. I have given myself a 10-day deadline, by which time both the gluten-free pasta and pizza will be on the menu,” he says enthusiastically.
But Paediatric Gastroenterologist Dr Vishnu Biradar is extremely sceptical. “For a celiac patient, even one particle of gluten in 10 lakh particles of flour can cause trouble. Restaurants need to get their food tested in a lab before they can stamp their food as gluten-free,” he says.
Why lose the wheat?
Having gluten-free crepes on the menu wasn’t a question of choice for the owners of Suzette. “Traditionally, in northwest France, savoury crepes are made of buckwheat, which is gluten-free. It is the flour ground from the seed of a plant. We wanted to stick to tradition. But that apart, my mother suffers from celiac disease, so gluten-free foods have always been a priority for us,” says Antonia Achache, owner and director of Suzette, adding that her mother visits Mumbai once every year.
“The expat community in Mumbai is more aware about the benefits of avoiding gluten in their diet,” claims Lubna Khan, manager at Corniche. In the West, often going gluten-free is more of a choice than a compulsion. The trend is now slowly seeping into Mumbai too.
“Mumbaiites are definitely more conscious of what they eat now,” says Abhishek Honawar, owner of The Pantry. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why their Red Millet Pancakes are so popular.
A gluten-free diet is believed to be easier on the digestive system. Thirty-seven year-old Sushma Awatramani believes that going gluten-free has given her a lot more energy. “I stopped eating gluten years ago. I suffer from a combination of allergies and I am constantly down with sinus or with a cold. Apart from the gluten, I think the chemicals in wheat didn’t suit me. Doing away with wheat has helped me live a far healthier life,” says Awatramani, who retails gluten-free soya sauce among several other health products.
Andheri resident Sheetal Vanjari, a regular at Corniche, is extremely excited about the introduction of the gluten-free pizza. “One of my friends is sensitive to gluten, and she has had a terrible time in the past. She only eats out when she goes to Hong Kong, where she travels for work often,” says Vanjari. “My body may not be intolerant to gluten but I am very keen on eating healthy. I eat out a lot and perhaps that is why it excites me more when healthy options are introduced on menus,” she adds.
Poor man’s food
According to homeopath Lubina Mohammed, there is still a tremendous lack of awareness about the benefits of going gluten-free. The 42 year-old says she has a terrible time getting patients to give up wheat, even if it is temporarily. “Gluten sensitivity can cause uneasiness. At such times it is recommended that you lay off wheat and other gluten products. There are so many options available — red millet, ragi, amaranth — but people are too used to consuming wheat,” rues Mohammed.
But while restaurants are warming up to gluten-free foods now, bajra, jawar and nachni have been used instead of wheat for generations in Indian homes. “The trouble is that these flours are considered to be the poor man’s food,” says Kaprani.
That perception is certainly changing. Rasesh Vissanji, founder of Samskara Wellness, a social business, retails a range of organic gluten-free products including Pearl Millet, Rava, Amaranth. “We have close to 1000 customers in the city. The belief is that gluten-free foods aid digestion and reduce acidity, bloating and constipation among other health benefits,” says Vissanji.
Gluten intolerant, and don’t even know it?
Celiac disease, a permanent sensitivity to gluten, is considered to be a genetic disorder. In 2008, paediatric gastroenterologist Dr Vishnu Biradar set up a celiac registry in Pune. “We conduct endoscopic exams, a biopsy and a special blood test which helps us diagnose the disease. From 10 patients in 2008, the number has gone up to 200,” says Dr Biradar, blaming lack of awareness for the low number of cases.
Biradar, who makes a trip to Mumbai once a week, has been actively trying to create greater awareness about celiac disease. When celiac patients consume wheat, the surface area of their intestines is reduced, leading to symptoms such as bloating and diarrhea. “Children often come in with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). It is important to get them tested for celiac disease,” he adds.