The Gluten Free Home - Save Money on Staples at the Indian Market

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Many people have asked many times, “Why are bags of gluten free flour so tiny?  Where are the 5 lb bags of flour for holiday baking? Where do I find unusual flours for less?  These are so pricey!” If I wanted to bake bread, I’d have to buy several boxes or bags of flour, each one more expensive than the next. And even if I know how to cook, I need to learn new skills and that takes trial and error.  They say you have to break eggs to make an omelet, but I'm not sure they'd say that if eggs were as pricey as gluten free flour.

I also believe that organic is essential for health, not a luxury, so that's a double whammy for price.  Let's see what we can do to reduce the financial pain of organic gluten free staples.

I’ve found a place locally that can help save some money.  Even if you don’t like Indian food, you should still check out Indian food markets like Patel Brothers in Cary and Pinehurst NC.  They carry organic and gluten free versions of many staples I need, such as white rice flour, brown rice flour, chickpea flour, millet, buckwheat and others.  Yes this is my actual checkout slip! >>>

Brands, Bargains and Names

Mostly, there were two brands I encountered, one of them, if you’re familiar with Indian food you've probably seen SWAD, -- it also has an organic label.  SWAD unfortunately sometimes doesn’t claim gluten free, and uses shared equipment with gluten grains.  So your best bet is to start by looking for the brand 24 Mantra which has a large selection of organic and gluten free products.  24 Mantra doesn’t use shared facilities for gluten free and gluten items and has labels for allergens. Then if you’re still missing some items, check SWAD organic. 

>>>To understand more about why organic is essential on a gluten free diet, scroll to the end of the article.<<<

You’ll need a primer for some of the unusual name conventions.  In the US we refer to chickpeas, but there are several varieties of chickpeas and two of the most common are Kabuli and Brown. People from India use a pressure cooker much more often than we do.  If you plan to make a lot of hummus from organic dried chickpeas instead of canned, you might want to invest in a pressure cooker or Instant Pot. If you’re looking for ‘plain’ chickpeas, then you want the Kabuli type.

Each of these items except one spice mix (mentioned again later) and the SWAD Kabuli Chana (chickpeas) have gluten free labels and are processed in a GF facility - in addition to being USDA Organic.  Since I'm not likely to mistake a gluten grain for a chickpea, I don't consider that a risk.  But I do expect that people will use good judgement in deciding whether those two items are appropriate for their gluten free diet. At all times, health before bargains.

24 Mantra had four types of (organic!) rice available at my local store:  Idly rice (short grain, similar to sushi rice), broken rice (white), hand pounded rice (sona masoori brown rice) and another type of brown rice.  Each bag was 10 lbs and roughly cost a dollar a pound.  By comparison, short grain organic sushi rice is around $3/lb, and unbroken Idly rice is around $1.30/lb.  In my experience, you can buy cheap rice from Asian markets, and you can find long grain rice in both Asian and Indian markets.  However, organic long grain eludes both markets (at least locally), and if nothing else will do, then your best bet is still Sprouts or Amazon. Note that GMO rice does exist, so that's another reason to stick to organic.

I also found organic white rice flour for around $1.35 / lb.  Try to beat that at an ordinary retailer.  The staff in the store pointed out that I had only bought a little (they’re right, I have some in reserve at home).  Probably the larger size had a better per-pound price, but I already had some at home.  Note the dedicated facility! 👌

The Return of Middlins (Broken Rice), a Versatile Rice Byproduct

Broken rice is an interesting food.  In some places, it’s used interchangeably with couscous (a wheat product), and in the southern US it’s called middlins. Here are some down home uses for it. Other uses:   If you love hot breakfast cereal, this is a great choice. Also, a google search for middlins will give you a wealth of options like risotto and congee (a thin rice soup that doesn’t sound as good as it really is).

I cooked up some of the medium grain (sona masori) brown rice with saffron and ghee.  It definitely has that aromatic quality you find in basmati rice.  Tip:  be sure to ‘wash’ it carefully in several changes of water if you don’t want it to be ‘sticky’ and lumpy.  Although for some uses, that’s a good quality. 

Also, if you’re concerned about heavy metal content (google ‘arsenic in rice’ and you’ll see what I mean), and your health seems affected by rice from certain places, then you should probably source your rice from the places you prefer. Your health comes first, before bargains. If you’re strapped for cash, white rice has less arsenic than brown, so bolster your fiber by adding veggies or flax seeds to a white rice dish.   I also saw quinoa and chia in organic and gluten free labeled packages, but didn't buy them this trip.

Organic Spice Packets

The two packets, Sambar and Rasam, are mixtures of spices and bean flours, both organic. Take care to check for allergen warnings on such mixtures.  The Rasam seemed ok to me, but it is processed in a shared facility with wheat and other allergens.  I have some up close pictures for those who like Indian foods and want to re-create the powders with their own ingredients.

Sambar Powder
Rasam Powder

The Sambar powder has basic instructions for making Sambar (a tasty soup).  There is a video farther along in the article.  Note that in general, Indian recipes refer to both Cilantro and Coriander as ‘coriander.’  This caused me a lot of confusion because my mom and I grew coriander in our garden and I somehow didn’t notice the leaves were cilantro.  One of those, “It’s familiar…oh gosh, what is it?” moments.  My assumption is, if a recipe asks for coriander during cooking, I assume it’s the seed pods.  If it asks for coriander at the end of cooking, I assume it’s the herb and leaves we call ‘cilantro.’


The Mystery of Sattu

The next item is Sattu Flour, or Roasted Chickpea Flour.  Many new recipes for homemade gluten free pizza doughs, tortillas, and pitas include chickpea flour because it adds a bit of that stretchy quality that’s missing.  Although I have heard that roasted or ‘cooked’ bean protein doesn’t behave the same as raw, I still plan to try it and will report back on how it turned out.  Sattu does have another use, a refreshing drink (recipe below).

That device is an Idly steam tray set, around $15.  Skin removed Urad beans, Idly rava, and Sattu flour (roasted chickpea flour) also pictured.
Sattu comes with a warning, however. Take care if you see the term Sattu unexplained because it can contain gluten grains.  For example, Atta usually refers to wheat flour (the register receipt calls it Sattu Atta and that confused me at first), and many online sources mention wrongly that barley is the basis for Sattu.  But actually it’s Gram. 

The word gram usually refers to chickpea flour (but not always because black gram = urad = matpe beans), and sattu usually refers to roasted gram, which can be a mixture of anything called ‘gram’ in India.  If your head is spinning, you’re not alone.  There are traditions of farming and food preparation involved here that go back hundreds and maybe thousands of years. Plus there are regional nomenclature changes that confuse the issue further. 

Since this package clearly states gluten free and does not list wheat, there is a mistake on the receipt this time, and it should read Sattu Flour, not Sattu Atta.

>>>However, when in doubt, contact the manufacturer before using!<<< 

Sattu Anti-dehydration Drink

There is a fascinating recipe here for an anti-dehydration drink used in the tropics, and based on sattu flour.  Since people with celiac disease are often burdened with loose stools when they accidentally ingest gluten, this recipe might be a literal lifesaver.   

The next funny nomenclature is ‘rava’ which can mean wheat/semolina farina, or rice grits (possibly other uses exist).  It might refer to anything that is roughly ground like grits, even stoneground.  It often refers to a hull-removed variety of grain that is processed not into flour, but grits instead.  If I have the nomenclature right, then polenta would be called 'corn rava'.

Remember Farina?  I used to love farina for breakfast with cinnamon on top! Well rice rava can fill that void for those who miss it, and it’s not found at the supermarket. But thankfully, substituting rice rava remains inexpensive, since Farina is one of the least expensive breakfasts in the US.

Idly, Steamed Sourdough Buns

A favorite food of mine is called Idly (id-lee) or Idlis, fluffy pillows of steamed sourdough rice buns.  Usually matpe/urad/black gram is combined with idly rice rava and salt, then fermented briefly and steamed in special idly inserts for steamers (pictured above).  I’d describe the texture as somewhere between a steamed bun and a dumpling for soup, but much more ‘bready’ in flavor.  For someone who misses the flavor of homestyle wheat bread, idly can be a delight.  In India, it's eaten in some areas, for breakfast, videos for how to make them abound on youtube if you're interested.

I am determined to learn to make them because for me they fulfill many niches:  dumplings (my mom made those, and from farina even!), bread that tastes believably like sourdough, and something small that I can use to control my carb intake during attempts to lose weight. So I bought a container of Idly Batter so I could see what the finished properly fermented product should be like, and Idly Rava, and Idly Rice plus whole Urad with skin removed. 

>>>For those not interested in Idly, Idly rava still has a use as an affordable substitute for Farina, and Polenta (if someone has a digestive problem with Corn).  <<<

Veggies and fresh foods 

I was curious about the claims of a ‘soft’ inside to young coconuts, but I guess this one wasn’t young enough.  I did get some delicious coconut water out of it, at least 3 cups worth.  The papaya was a curiosity because they looked ripe and in supermarkets they never look ripe.  This one definitely wasn’t a GMO although it didn’t say Organic.  I think Papaya is an acquired taste if you’re not used to it, there’s an aftertaste I don’t like.  The green peas were a treat from heaven though.  I hadn’t shelled peas in years, and they were like candy. 

So with that curiosity quenched I moved on to round Eggplant, Dudhi (a light green squash), Okra and Drumstick (a very long pod, about 2 feet in length).  I consider those to be essential for making Sambar, but I’m often unable to get them because I don’t always drive down to an ethnic market.  The fresh turmeric nearly made me jump for joy.  Since I have been directed by my rheumatologist to take turmeric as a supplement, it will find its way into many more dishes.  I’m a fan of galangal too, but I didn’t see it on this trip.  Galangal is like a milder form of ginger and looks a lot like it.

I’ll leave you with my favorite video for making Sambar. I love that stand-up knife trick!  Stay happy and thrifty!

BONUS - Organic is Essential, Here’s Why

I’m emphasizing organic food, and here’s why:  Most developing countries already use organic techniques, and have an abundance of family farms living unfortunately in subsistence conditions.  The introduction of agro-industry tends to impoverish those farmers more instead of enriching them.  They can be, and often are enriched by bringing their much wanted organic production to first world markets.  There are many success stories about indigenous farmers benefiting from the USA's passion for wholesome food, quinoa, fair trade coffee, the organic spice trade, to name a few.

If we, Americans, want organic food available, then we need to be paying attention to what our megacorps are doing in places like India, South America, Southeast Asia, etc.  There is enough wage inequality and lifestyle disparity in the US.  We need to fix that. We certainly shouldn’t export our problems, via corporate pressure, to developing countries.  

Even if the geopolitical implications were not so huge, choosing organic is a way of ensuring good health.  Plants, by necessity take their nutrients from the soil.  Farm animals, by necessity take their nutrients from the plants they eat.  Eating non organic, non pastured meat is obviously less nutritious than organic meat that was pasture raised.  But I’m surprised how often I see articles try to deny that. 

All good health starts with good soil and there are only two forms of farming that actually improve soil with more than what chemical fertilizers provide. One such farming method is called organic, and the other biodynamic.  They both have certification labels. 

For a disease like Celiac disease, the absorption of nutrients from food is the focus of treatment.  When the intestinal villi are destroyed by an autoimmune reaction to gluten, (in Celiac disease and some other diseases) the body is unable to absorb vitamins, minerals or even calories, and the person wastes away.  That’s the classic scenario, but it happens in only about 20% of people with Celiac disease.  

The more common scenario is that the body tries to adjust by reducing the metabolism (triggering associated thyroid disease), holding on like a miser to everything (like in my case, idiopathic constipation cleared up), changing the way the liver works through epigenetics, and more.  You could have a person who’s obese and unwell but there’s no visible reason until they are tested for Celiac (sometimes decades later).  

So, once a person is on a gluten free diet, and their body is healing, it’s essential to have the best nutrition possible.  And right now, that means looking for, and maximizing the value of organic foods.

Warning:  don’t be fooled by Certified Natural or any other ‘sounds good’ value-added labels.  These have been marketed to US family farmers as a cheaper alternative, but they require no testing, just a yearly site visit. It would be as if USDA Grade A eggs were to be graded a new way by a new label that didn’t use a light to sample egg freshness.  There is no need for new labels, the Organic one works just fine, and more rare, is the Biodynamic label - if you see that one, be sure to thank your grocer for carrying it.   Our best chance for good food is positive reinforcement for our grocery stores to carry what we want.

In case you're sometimes too tired to shop in a real store, Patel Brothers has a website and will deliver groceries to you.  While also has some of those groceries, PB has a much better selection and their suggestions are helpful in discovering other foods you may be able to enjoy.  Their website has helped me identify foods I didn't know existed, like Sago palm flour.  While Amazon's suggestions are geared toward Americans, Patel Brother's website is not, so if you (like me) would enjoy learning more about Indian food, then browsing their website is a great way to spend an afternoon seeking bargains and treasures.


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