Eating Gluten Free in South Africa

When my daughter was diagnosed with celiac disease, I couldn’t imagine traveling in a country where I didn’t speak the language. How and what would she eat? Eleven years later, we were ready to give it a try, and though we don’t speak Xhosa or Sesotho or Afrikaans, our 4-week trip to South Africa and Lesotho was almost entirely gluten free.

Before we left:

  • We ordered a gluten-free meal for the plane but brought along snacks just in case.
  • I researched the type of food we were likely to encounter and learned that in the villages, maize (corn) is a staple (called pap).
  • I googled “gluten free in South Africa” and discovered that gluten-free products do exist in health food stores and in major supermarkets (Pick n Pay, Clicks, Woolworths) in the big cities.
  • We packed dried food meals that only require boiling water to cook (check out Trader Joe’s for a few gluten-free options). We also packed gluten-free oatmeal and lots of gluten-free bars (Think Thin and Lara bars).
  • We chose to “self cater” many nights which was a less expensive option than eating every meal out and gave us the opportunity to cook for ourselves.
  • When booking a bed and breakfast, I always asked what type of breakfast was included and told them that one of us ate gluten free.

What we discovered:

  • On the plane (we flew Lufthansa and South African Air), the specially ordered gluten-free main meal was always gluten free (e.g., salmon, rice and veggies with rice cake and fresh fruit or omelet with potatoes and fresh fruit). But the snacks were not (ham sandwiches on a roll with a granola bar or oatmeal cookies).
  • Just like in the U.S., each supermarket varies in the products it carries. We found gluten-free bread and crackers at Woolworths and gluten-free pasta at Pick n Pay. We found gluten-free bread and cookies at a small health food store in Cape Town’s Sea Point, gluten-free granola in the town of Ladybrand and even gluten-free rusks at a Pick n Pay just outside of Kruger National Park. Some supermarkets, especially Woolworths, carry ready-to-eat food which worked well for a spontaneous picnic lunch (cheese, fruit, veggies, hummus). Many brands carry gluten-free labels, and all ingredients were listed.
  • Having bars and dried gluten-free food gave us peace of mind and when dinner at the lodge was not gluten free, no worries, we just boiled up some water and cooked some freeze dried Indian food in minutes. GF cookies were handy as a substitute for the many wheat-based desserts (e.g., cake with custard sauce, milk tart, or apple crumble) we were served.
  • Breakfasts were easy. We ate several English breakfasts, complete with eggs cooked to order, stewed tomato, bacon and fruit. Just say no to the toast or pancakes on the side (and be sure to check for cross contamination).

When we didn’t speak the language, there was always some one who did. Since English was not the first language of our translators, we had to put some faith and trust in them. In the villages, the people cooked simply from whole foods so we rarely had to worry about hidden ingredients (e.g., barley malt). When we told them no flour and no bread crumbs, the first response was always, “Shame!” but they listened and told us when a meal was not gluten free. Though we carried paper bags with us and Pepto Bismo and Tums, there was never a need. In 4 weeks of traveling throughout South Africa, my daughter never got sick and never went hungry.

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