International free-from cooking

Founder of her own cookery school, Victoria North takes us on a global journey through exotic, yet readily accessible free-from ingredients and alternatives…


Part of the joy and challenge of cooking and baking free-from is the task of removing our blinkers from Western ingredients. The two big players, entrenched in tradition and industry are wheat and dairy. So much of the food that we prepare here in the Western world is based on these two key ingredients, which is why I often look East for inspiration.

Much of Asian cooking is made without dairy, the simple reason being that in hot climates, dairy is not practical to store or cook with. Butters, cheeses and cream sour very quickly in the heat and, while there are some dishes that make good use of the fermenting process, such as paneer cheese popular in Indian cuisine, dairy is certainly a lesser-used ingredient in these hot, humid climes.

Another key staple, broadly speaking of Asian cuisine, is rice rather than wheat. I was browsing through a Vietnamese cookbook recently and it struck me that the collection of recipes were pretty much all gluten-free. The wheat-based interlopers, for example the wheat baguette used to make Banh mi, is a fairly recent introduction into Vietnamese cuisine, brought by the French colonists to offer a taste of home. Consider rice vermicelli, fresh, flat pho noodles, steamed rice and rice wrappers. All promise a myriad of different dishes without a wheat stalk in sight.


For inspiration to cook with alternative grains, it is worth looking to the African continent. Millet is an ancient African grain and, to this day, still feeds around a third of the global population. It may be used to make breads, or thick savoury porridge and it works beautifully as a side dish – steamed and strewn with daintily chopped vegetables and herbs. Ethiopia is renowned for the delicious flat bread injeera, which is made with a fermented batter using teff flour and used to mop up the juices of a tasty meal, or used as a wrap for lunch on the hop.

Shifting our gaze to the Andean regions of South America, quinoa springs to mind. Not strictly a grain, it is in fact a seed and may be used as both whole and ground into flour. The beauty of quinoa for those following a free-from diet is that while it is certainly gluten-free, it is bountiful in its content of essential amino acids which may often be missing from a vegan diet. And, staying in the southern hemisphere, consider the corn harvest. A staple in Mexican cooking, tortillas are made with masa harina, a very finely milled cornflour. Cremita de Maiz is a cornmeal based porridge often enjoyed at breakfast in Puerto Rico and a great alternative to our oat-based porridge here in the UK.

To finish our whistle-stop tour of global free-from cuisine, let’s go to Italy. Italy makes great use of corn polenta, so versatile as I demonstrate in my open polenta lasagne recipe (right). Polenta also makes for great croutons – cooked, set, cut into cubes, tossed in olive oil and lightly sautéed. However, it was in a tiny pasteleria Italian bakery in Puglia that I recall having a light-bulb moment of baking gluten-free. The majority of the beautifully presented patisserie found in the glamorous glass cabinets was made with almond – not wheat – flour, as almonds are so prolific in the southern areas of Italy. Unwittingly, I had found myself in a gluten-free heaven where fantastic food was being made that just so happened to be gluten-free as well. Perfect.

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