Asia’s hospitality industry responds to the rise of gluten free diets with delicious alternate products and venues that emphasise eating well. Rebecca Lo learns more.

Eating well is a concept that implies completely different things to different people. For some, it means dining in trendy Michelin starred restaurants on the most expensive ingredients. For others, it means consuming food responsibly. That means giving thought to how it was cultivated, how it was processed, how that process impacts the ecosystem, and how food affects the body long after the moment of tasting it. The increase of food-related allergies, intolerances and diseases have focused attention on what was considered alternate channels of nourishment, giving rise to organic produce, vegan choices and gluten free products. The hospitality industry is gradually catching up by offering products and menus that cater to gluten free diets. Further, a few intrepid entrepreneurs have opened niche restaurants that share their versions of eating well. Judging by their success, it appears that going gluten free as part of a healthy, nutritious, plant-based diet is not a fad—it is a smart business move that fosters loyal guests.

Green Machine

Moosa Al-issa is a Canadian chef, health food advocate, fitness guru and entrepreneur who founded Just Green with partner Helen Sung nearly a decade ago. Along with its nine retail shops across Hong Kong, he wholesales to hotels such as The Peninsula and Four Seasons Hong Kong. “Gluten causes stomach problems for many individuals,” Al-issa notes. “Having access to gluten free products through our stores allows everyone the opportunity to have bread, pastas and other products without any negative effects. A large percentage of our thousands of products are gluten free. From bagels to pizzas to cookies, our goal is to provide gluten free alternatives for all of our clients’ favourite foods. Gluten free is a strong trend in Asia. More than half of our customers purchase gluten free products in our stores. Some of them are strictly gluten free, many are gluten sensitive, and some just like the quality of the products. Gluten free bread is a big thing for us. For gluten free eaters, it is nice to be able to have toast with breakfast or a sandwich for lunch.”

“Gluten intolerances are triggered by an abnormal immune response in the intestine,” says Peggy Chan, founder, executive chef and managing director of Grassroots Pantry in Hong Kong. Occupying a lofty space in Central’s Hollywood Road, the plant-based restaurant includes a wide range of eastern and western inspired dishes with a chic, casual ambience. “Those with intolerances or celiac disease consuming ingredients such as mass produced wheat, barley or rye will show symptoms that ranges from mild to severe. Over 80 per cent of commodity grains such as corn, soy, wheat and rice have been genetically modified (GMO) using large amounts of chemical pesticides and fertilisers to grow the crops. This has led to a drastic increase in people who suffer from gluten allergies in the past 50 years.”

No to GMO

“As a business, we aim to promote sustainable, local and organic agriculture; we boycott GMOs,” stresses Chan. “This gives us a bit more control as to where the origin of our food comes from, ensuring that our customers are fed with chemical and pesticide free foods, grown with a conscience. Over 95 per cent of our dishes are gluten free. Ancient grains such as teff, quinoa, sorghum, buckwheat, brown rice and tapioca do not contain gluten and can be used in versatile ways. As food purveyors and chefs, it is our duty to let customers, colleagues and producers know of the importance and diversity ancient grains bring to the dining table, as well as the handful of farmers that still grow it. As ancient grains are untainted, it is clear that they are also much more nutrient dense, grown free of pesticides or chemical fertilisers.”

Christian Mongendre agrees with Chan’s assessment of GMOs. The Hong Kong-born, Lyon-trained French American is founder and CEO of HOME – Eat to Live, a two-storey 3,000 square foot restaurant in the heart of Central, ironically situated in a former Burger King. He grew up eating bread in the French countryside and believes contemporary bread processing is the real culprit behind gluten intolerances. “Gluten is not the devil,” he states. “It is the by-products of processing that often causes the problems. The quick way to make bread is to add yeast, but this does not break down the wheat. Pure wheat is not easy to break down. The organic sourdough that we offer takes 48 hours to rise. And we offer a teff flatbread as the core of our concept for gluten free. It’s a natural grain high in protein, with a nice nutty flavour and naturally gluten free. It’s common to Ethiopian cuisine. We also offer collared greens, as a filling or as a wrap itself.”

Mass Appeal

Mongendre oversees operations and conceptualises menus for HOME, and hopes to expand his self service all day dining cafe to other locations in the city. “There is a huge demand for gluten free today,” he observes. “Offering gluten free products makes people feel accepted. Restaurants should cater to people’s needs and be flexible. We offer information about the dishes we serve. Although we took a huge gamble on a large location with high visibility, we have managed to capture a dedicated local clientele in the year that we have been open. They include expats and mid management who work in the area; we aim to appeal to anyone who steps through our doors.”

Savoir Faire

For French baked goods company Bridor’s Asia Pacific marketing manager Franck Brossette based in Singapore, the hospitality industry’s demand for gluten free products is small but growing. With one per cent of the world’s population already gluten intolerant and increasing at an annual rate of 30 per cent, he emphasises that restaurant professionals are obligated to provide gluten free choices. “A point of reference in the industry since 1988, Bridor has developed a comprehensive range of products including bread rolls, sweet brioche and madeleines,” Brossette says. “Our recipes are made from delicious ingredients such as millet, buckwheat and rice flours. These contribute to our products’ textures and are not only compatible with gluten intolerance but also are original and flavourful. We offer a unique range of products with zero cross contamination. Practicality is possible as our gluten free products can be baked at the same time as conventional products thanks to individual oven packaging. There is zero loss, as frozen products can be stored for the long term and prepared on demand.”

Although gluten free products and menus may seem like a prevalent trend, in the end it is all down to savvy restaurateurs and industry professionals providing appropriate choices for consumers. “It’s about developing an intelligent relationship with food,” believe Mongendre.