Gluten-Free Guide to Singapore

Five years ago today, I was on a work trip in Singapore. Honestly, before I was told that was where my next assignment would be, Singapore wasn’t even on my radar. Since I was going to far from home, I decided to extend my trip beyond my work assignment and I am so happy I did. I absolutely loved exploring this tiny country and wish I had stayed longer.

Singapore is a fascinating place. It is one of the most international cities/countries I have ever been to. It is an island country in Southeast Asia, just south of the Malay peninsula and is a cultural mix of Chinese, Malays, Indians, Eurasians, Arabs, and more than 80 other races according to a government website. With a population of only 5.5 million people, this is quite an impressive mix. There is so much to see and do in Singapore itself but you can also easily take a boat to Malaysia, something I regret not doing.

Gluten-Free Globetrotter Erin Smith in Singapore
Me in front of the Masjid Sultan, Sultan Mosque, in the Kampong Gelam neighborhood of Singapore

When researching destinations, I always try to familiarize myself with local cuisine. Given the multi-cultural aspect of Singapore, I was a bit nervous about the food. I know the food would be primarily Asian with lots of sauces that would be off-limits. Plus, given it is an island nation I knew fish and shellfish would be abundant. I have a shellfish allergy so I needed to be extra mindful. I continued my research and thanks to the power of the international celiac community on the internet, I found THE ultimate gluten-free Singapore resource.

The Gluten Free Singapore Support Group on Facebook was where I first connected with Karen Horan, one of the original local support group leaders. Karen was my lifeline to Singapore. She even met me at my hotel on my first day of my trip when I was delirious and jet-lagged. Karen was a serious god-send when it came to me navigating Singapore with celiac disease. To top it off, Karen hosted a meetup during my time in Singapore and invited me into her home to make gluten-free dumplings! To this day, this is one of my favorite travel experiences of all times and I will be forever grateful to Karen for her hospitality and friendship.

Image 1: Karen and I meeting for the first time and matching in pink
Image 2: Karen shows me all of the gluten-free food at the supermarket
Image 3: Gluten-Free Singapore Meetup Group at Karen’s House
Image 4: Making gluten-free dumplings in Singapore

Karen has created an amazing Gluten-Free Guide to Singapore and an online class which gives you everything you need to know about traveling to Singapore with celiac disease. This is one of the most impressive gluten-free travel guides I have ever seen. Trust me, this is the only guide you need for your gluten-free trip to Singapore.

Gluten-Free Traveler's Guide to Navigating Singapore

Visit International Gluten Free a today.
Use code SINGAPORE2023 to get 20% off the guide.
This code is valid on the Travel Guide only and will expire on 12/31/23.

I am so excited to share with you today’s guest post directly from Karen Horan. She is a wealth of information, a generous hostess, and an internet friend that I have kept in touch with over the years. She cares deeply about the gluten-free community and it’s obvious from her post below and her support group. Without further ado, I give you Karen’s post.

Gluten-free in Singapore

Karen Horan director of Gluten Free Singapore
Karen Horan: Founder and Director of Gluten Free Singapore and International Gluten Free

Karen Horan is the founder and director of Gluten Free Singapore and International Gluten Free. She has run a strictly gluten-free household since her young daughter was diagnosed with celiac disease over twelve years ago.

After moving to Singapore in 2011, Karen established a Celiac and Gluten Intolerance Support Group to help gluten-free people meetup, network and thrive living in the Lion City. The support group has met up monthly for the past six years and continues to welcome any one connected to gluten-free living to their coffee mornings.

With a degree in Education from Bucknell University (Pennsylvania, USA), Karen teaches and consults on how to successfully start, maintain and enjoy a gluten-free life. Additionally she works with F & B establishments to help staff understand and safely accommodate gluten-free guests.

How did you get involved with the celiac community?

In 2006, my toddler daughter was diagnosed with celiac disease. At the time we were living in Pennsylvania and had an active support community with Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

Five years post diagnosis, my husband’s company offered us a fabulous opportunity to move to Singapore.

We carefully weighed the options of leaving all our gluten-free support and knowledge behind, packed up our house and moved 10,000 miles across the world.

Gluten Free Singapore Support Group

How was the gluten-free Singapore support group started?

I missed my friends from my gluten-free support group. When I found a new gluten-free product in the grocery store or tried out a new recipe, I didn’t have my GF friends to share the news with.

During our first year of living abroad I often ran into people who were following a GF diet, or had gluten-free children. But there was no central way to connect everyone.

I had joined an American Women’s Association and I noticed that they hosted several support groups (cancer, divorce, etc). Obviously they needed a gluten-free support group too! In a moment of wild confidence, I rocked up to the AWA office, pitched my idea to the secretary, and had it approved in a matter of days.
The first official meeting of the brand new Singapore Celiac and Gluten Intolerance Support Group was held on September 11, 2012 with 12 expats drinking coffee around a conference room table.

We continued to meet monthly to share ideas, support, and gluten-free knowledge. During that first year Facebook launched a group feature and we set up an online community. That same community is an active and thriving group today having grown from the first dozen members to nearly four thousand.

How do you find gluten-free overseas vs. gluten-free in Asia?

I will admit, the first year was a bumpy, steep learning curve. Finding gluten-free ingredients was easy, but traveling and eating out was much more difficult.

With very little celiac diagnosis in Singapore and Asia, overall awareness of where gluten hides and cross contamination is very limited, especially in the food and beverage industry.

Although I expected a low awareness of celiac disease, I was surprised by the overall lack of understanding about what gluten is and where it is found. I have lost count of the number of times that I explained that glutinous rice is in fact gluten-free but semolina and couscous contains gluten.

I quickly learned that the best place to eat was at home. I could easily find loads of naturally gluten-free ingredients at the wet markets and grocery stores. Preparing them at home was the best way to prevent confusion and cross contamination.

On a positive note, Singapore imports gluten-free products from all over the world. Having access to products from Australia, New Zealand, UK, makes up for the limited products from America.

  • Ingredient labels. Singapore and most of southeast Asia does not have laws for labeling allergens. Labels are often in different languages. There is not information about potential cross contamination. Finding information from a manufacturer is nearly impossible.
  • Awareness. Most F&B staff had heard the word gluten before, but had very little understanding of what it was. There was a basic understanding that it was bread, but less understanding that it included flour, pasta, barley and more. Gluten is assumed to be anything white, including rice, potatoes, soy.
    Cross Contamination. There is an overall lack of understanding about the risk of crumbs, shared water, soy sauce and so much more.

What is the biggest challenge for gluten-free people traveling to Singapore?

  • Trusting travel blogs. These blogs are written by transient visitors to Singapore, many who are not celiac. Although many recommendations are good, they also include restaurants that offer gluten-free options on the menu, but lack awareness about ingredients and cross contamination risk. Because the bloggers do not frequently return, the information is not updated.
  • Assuming that the level of understanding will be equivalent to their home country. While you have experience dealing with gluten-free communication in your local community, travel brings a whole new set of challenges. In addition to a lack of awareness about gluten-free food and preparation, language barriers, vocabulary differences, and different ingredients add a whole new challenge to getting what you need.
  • Hawker Stalls. The food porn in Crazy Rich Asians is all true; and almost none of it is gluten-free. The risk of unknown ingredients and cross contamination is high.

Why did you create a gluten-free guide to Singapore?

Singapore is an amazing country with amazing infrastructure, technology, food, education, and quality of life. Colloquially, the term Kiasu sums it up. It roughly translates to ‘coming in second place is not an option’. Unfortunately, understanding gluten-free dietary needs (or food allergies in general) is not included in this striving to be the best.

Many visitors arrive in Singapore naively assuming that the gluten-free knowledge will be the equivalent of their home country. And this assumption leaves gluten-free people frustrated, hungry, and limited to one or two spots they can effectively communicate with.

There are good gluten-free options in Singapore, but most are not in local restaurants or hawker centers. If you know what to expect, what to ask, and where to look, you can enjoy Singapore to the fullest.

I compiled with information that I wish I had known when getting ready to visit, move, and live in Singapore. Essentially it is filled with everything that would have alleviated the anxiety of landing in an unknown country where gluten-free options are rare and questionable.

After living in Singapore for 12 years, I am able to include important information that you will not easily find in travel blogs or on the internet. The information in the guide is crowd sourced by trusted locals who understand celiac disease and the importance of safe gluten-free food preparation. It is kept updated.

What are your top tips when traveling with celiac disease in Singapore?

  • Knowledge is power. Knowing the local vocabulary, common cooking practices, ingredients, and more is key to keeping your diet free of gluten.
  • Planning is critical. There are a few tourist spots where finding safe gluten-free options are not possible. Planning your sightseeing around meals or bringing food with you will keep you from being hungry, frustrated, or worst of all: glutened.
  • Flexibility is essential. Always have a plan B. The food and beverage business has a high rate of turnover. Menu, chefs, and staff change without notice.
  • Although gluten-free ingredients are plentiful, gluten-free awareness is very low.
  • Pack twice as much as you think you will need, especially on airplanes. Returning home with most of my food is a win. Flights are the one place where you are stuck. Although most of the time your gluten-free meal will appear, many things can happen. Flight delays are out of your control and most airports have very limited options

Visit International Gluten Free a today.
Use code SINGAPORE2023 to get 20% off the guide.
This code is valid on the Travel Guide only and will expire on 12/31/23.

Gardens by the Bay in Singapore
Light show at Gardens by the Bay in Singapore

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