Jars of colorful, interesting condiments such as preserved lemons, rose harissa, and mango ginger lime chutney line shine from jars that line shelves on narrow aisles. Beautiful imported sheep, goat, and cow milk cheeses, in various shapes and of various textures, fill shelves in the refrigerator section. Bags filled with a variety of dried herbs, rice, and flours (gluten containing as well as gluten-free), lay in waist-high stacks. These are the sights I see when I enter Ali Baba’s, one of the larger international food stores not far from our house. I LOVE visiting international food stores! The unfamiliar ingredients excite my culinary imagination; I often stand to the side in such stores researching uses for particular products of which I’ve never heard, but which I am interested in trying. On a recent trip this store I picked up, in addition to the finger and pearl millet flours that I specifically went to buy, a bottle of pomegranate molasses; a package of peeled, grilled chestnuts; a bag of nabulsi cheese with nigella seeds; rice vermicelli, and a tin of French sheep milk cheese. All these products are delicious, reasonably priced, and best of, they are gluten-free.
In fact, in international markets one can find many relatively inexpensive gluten-free items unavailable at the local HEB, Randall’s, or Walmart. One reason these items are less expensive is that they do not display any certified gluten-free seals of approval from the independent agencies that companies pay to inspect and guarantee the these products fall below the FDA’s requirement that foods labeled gluten-free contain less than 20 ppm of gluten. They also lack organic certifications. These certifications are nice to have, but they do come at a cost and the result is that one pays a higher price for certified products. Now, I know I am about to speak heresy, but when people complain about the high price of gluten-free food they are partly complaining about the price companies have to pay to have their products certified gluten-free. The reassurance that accompanies the encircled GF somewhere on the packaging comes with a price tag. Gluten-free ingredients such as sorghum, chick pea, finger millet, and pearl millet flours, in addition to rice vermicelli, rice ramen noodles and such, are available international food stores at relatively low prices. They lack gluten-free certification, though. If you are confident in your ability to safely choose gluten-free ingredients that lack certification, you will find many lower-priced gluten-free treasures on the shelves of stores that specialize in multi-cultural ingredients and foods. Twelve years after my celiac diagnosis, I have enough experience to know whether an uncertified food is safe to eat. I’m sensitive enough to gluten that I react to products processed on the same equipment with wheat, so I am careful even if I don’t insist a product be certified gluten-free before I eat it. Fortunately, even the packaging of products at international stores imported from other countries for sale in the United States contain warnings if the product has been processed in a facility or on equipment that also processes wheat.
Visits to international food stores are worth your effort to go out of the way to shop. Imported millet flour varieties have a less gritty texture than the brands of generic millet flour found in general grocery stores. The sheer variety of naturally gluten-free, uncommonly found condiments, noodles, cheeses, dried herbs, teas, and coffees inspires fresh ideas for dishes and desserts – these items will encourage you to move outside of your culinary comfort zone. You’ll also spend less for these gluten-free treasures that you will turn into gastronomic gems in your kitchen.