For most of us Dubai is a foodies’ playground, offering lavish brunches, high-end restaurants, gourmet grocers and more. But for some, the city can be a difficult place to grab a bite to eat – not through lack of choice, but because of adverse reactions to certain foods.
Coeliac disease is an autoimmune disorder in the small intestine caused by a reaction to a protein called ‘gliadin’ which is part of the gluten found in wheat. Symptoms vary from person to person – some suffer from weight loss and diarrhoea, while others have little or no symptoms (although they are still doing harm to their bodies every time they consume foods containing gluten).
The disease affects more of us than you might think: studies suggest that one in 33 people suffer from some form of gluten intolerance, while one in 56 people have related symptoms. More startlingly, 95 per cent of coeliacs are undiagnosed. Yet in spite of the condition’s prevalence, little has been done in Dubai to address the condition.
It was this lack of information for coeliacs that inspired Linda Forster (pictured) to set up Gluten Free UAE, an online resource for coeliacs such as herself and her two-year-old daughter, Aili, diagnosed in April 2011.
‘Before I founded the group, I’d Google “Gluten UAE”, “Gluten Dubai”, “Gluten Abu Dhabi” and I’d get really old posts on forums asking the same questions as me,’ remembers Linda. ‘Some of my Google searches came up with posts from 2004 and even further back, which goes to show just how long it’s been an issue in the UAE. I didn’t want someone else to feel how I felt when I did these searches, so I set up Gluten Free UAE.’
According to Linda, the difficulties of living gluten-free in Dubai are more to do with availability and inflated prices of gluten-free products. ‘A loaf of gluten-free bread is often Dhs20 or Dhs30,’ says Linda. ‘Other foods often cost four or five times as much in Dubai as they would back home – some brands of pasta can set you back Dhs30 for 500g.’
While many shops in Dubai stock some gluten-free products, Linda explains that doing a full weekly shop for her and her daughter involves visiting numerous supermarkets across town. There’s also the problem of inconsistency from shop to shop – while one supermarket outlet stocks a certain gluten-free product, another one on the other side of town might not. Linda says she knows of some people who travel from Abu Dhabi just to buy a certain product. ‘If we see something we like, we don’t just buy one packet – we buy as much as we can carry!’ she jokes.
Of course, coeliacs can live happily and healthily on the abundance of naturally gluten-free foods (such as meat and fruit, while rice and potatoes are good sources of gluten-free carbohydrates), but Linda says this is rather difficult to explain to a two year old demanding pasta.
For tips, pointers and support for gluten-free living in Dubai, see www.glutenfreeuae.com or search for Gluten Free UAE on Facebook.
Linda’s shopping tips
Doves Farm gluten-free flour from Organic Foods & Café, The Dubai Mall (04 434 0577)
Mrs Crimbles bread mix from Lulu Hypermarket (04 341 8888)
Philadelphia from Spinneys, Trade Centre Road (04 351 1777)
Schär gluten-free pasta from Carrefour, Mall of the Emirates (800 73 232)
DS Frozen Pizza from Lulu Hypermarket (04 341 8888)
Barkat pasta from Spinneys, Trade Centre Road (04 351 1777)
Gluten-free sausages from Prime Gourmet, Sheikh Zayed Road (04 341 5445)
What not to eat
While it’s possible to find gluten-free alternatives to most foods, this list illustrates what coeliacs can’t eat. It’s worth noting that processed and cheap foods tend to contain gluten, because flour is used to thicken sauces. Our advice? Always read the labels, and check the Gluten Free UAE website for help.
Barley water drinks
Biscuits or cookies
Chutneys and pickles
Pastry or pie crust
Time Out’s top gluten-free dishes
Afternoon tea at Burj Al Arab: We’re assured that the chefs at Skyview Bar can cater to almost any dietary requirement, but they’re especially good at offering gluten-free alternatives at the afternoon tea. Gluten-free bread is used for the sandwiches and there are alternatives to the pastries on offer, such as gluten-free scones and petit fours.
Dhs395. Daily 1pm and 4pm. Burj Al Arab, Jumeirah (04 301 7600).
At.mosphere’s tuna belly: This delectable tuna belly is pan-fried on one side with olive oil and seasoned with cocoa nibs, pink peppercorn and chopped chives. The dish is served with a side of crushed yukon potatoes and accompanied by diced tomato, capers, spring onion veloute and pink peppercorns.
Dhs160. At.mosphere, Burj Khalifa, Downtown Dubai (04 888 3444).
Baker & Spice biscuits and cakes: This Downtown deli offers a range of indulgent yet entirely gluten-free treats, such as ‘Italian Kisses Biscuits’ (Dhs20 per 100g), macaroons (Dhs8 each), orange and almond cake (Dhs23 per slice; Dhs230 for a whole cake), and chocolate fudge cake (Dhs25 per slice; Dhs230 for a whole cake).
Souk Al Bahar (04 425 2240), Dukkan Al Manzil (04 427 9856).