Thursday, July 28, 2011

Living wheat-free in Cuenca, Ecuador - Is It Possible?

Oh my gosh!  I did not anticipate how challenging it would be to avoid wheat here.  Some people have what is called celiac disease, meaning they cannot eat wheat, barley or rye, which all have gluten (more on that below).  Avoiding gluten in the US has become much easier in the past 5 years because a lot of products have been showing up as well as specialty stores where there are many great products without gluten .Even Betty Crocker and Rice Krispies offer a gluten free choices.
Fresh fruits and vegetables are fine,as are meat, chicken, dairy, eggs - just not wheat, rye and barley are the trouble-makers for people with celiac disease. This photo shows pitajaya, a tropical fruit Len and I have really fallen for.  It has a taste similar to kiwi, has many health benefits and is terrific in a smoothie.

In the US, one can buy pasta made of quinoa, rice or corn, cake mixes without any wheat in them, sauces and condiments that are wheat free, pizza crust and many other things.  At an upscale grocery store in Portland, I found products from Peru that were delicious. I assumed they would be easily available in Ecuador. Blue corn flour, sweet potato flour, a couple of grains high in protein but I can no longer recall the names.

I knew the ready-made wheat-free products would not be available here but I assumed products like the grains and flours from Peru would be easily available in Ecuador. Coconut flour, almond flour and date palm sugar are all good products I figured would be here.  After all, palms and coconuts are growing all over the place at lower elevations in Ecuador.  Fresh coconut is offered by street vendors every day.

Wrong!  Ecuador (for better and for worse) tries not to import products, encouraging people to buy and use Ecuadorian products.  So even blue corn flour from Peru is nowhere to be found. I'm not sure why there is no coconut flour or palm sugar but...I have not been able to find any.

There are many many tiendas here (small shops) so it is possible I have missed where these products are sold far I have not had success in finding some basics I need.

I adapted a recipe for coconut shrimp, making the batter out of "approved" quinoa flour.  The green stuff is chard picked that morning and sauteed with garlic and a little olive oil. That is fresh pineapple and the strawberries add color. It was delicious.  Ecuador has an enviable supply of fresh fish from the Pacific Ocean.

 I make most of the food we eat. I enjoy cooking and baking.  I had found ways to work around the gluten free challenges, making pizza crust, salad dressings, soups, whole grain bread and, cupcakes that were all delicious.  Now, I am a little too challenged. Striking out at finding flours and grains that I can have. I have found no brown rice flour.  No teff flour (the oldest and smallest grain in the world with a nice nutty flavor and high in protein). No sorghum flour.  I could go on but you get the picture.

These are some of the flours I have found that are gluten free.

The other day I found banana flour.  Yup, somehow it is made from banana and it has no gluten.  I mixed it about half and half with some sorghum flour I had brought with me and made cookies.  They were delicious! OK, so we have a start.  I made a fresh banana cake which was delicious and gf (gluten free). And corn is fine so many ways to make corn flour into delicious things.

Gluten free chocolate chip cookie dough  - makes cookies that do not seem any different from the regular recipe. I used about 1/3 banana flour.  There was a very bare hint of banana flavor when the cookies were cold but not at other times.

Ecuador has wonderful pan (bread) in many neighborhood bakeries - there is nearly one on every block!  But I have not found any that are making gluten free products.  I don't mean to whine I the only one in Ecuador who is trying to be gluten free? That is not possible, is it?

Why is it important to be gluten free if you have celiac disease?  gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, rye, spelt, kamut, and oats. My non official explanation: gluten causes inflammation in some people with sensitivity which damages the small intestine and also causes pain in people with fibromyalgia and possibly arthritis. Joints, muscles and connective tissue seem to be impacted by the inflammation. Many people report digestive upset, bloating and other unpleasant intestinal effects if they eat gluten.  Some people are really sensitive and can be sick for days from one small exposure or a slight contamination from wheat. Others just find that they feel better and have more energy if they do not consume gluten loaded products.

This is baked chicken with fresh salsa made from tomatoes, avocado, papaya, pineapple, lime, garlic and red onion. Rica and salad round out the meal which is gluten free and made from scratch at home.

It is really fun to go out for lunch in Cuenca.  Many restaurants have a special almuerzo which costs around $2.50/person.  It includes usually a delicious soup, rice or potatoes, popcorn (to put in the soup), a main entree like fish, chicken, beef, a fresh juice and a tiny dessert.  The problem is for me that most places are unaware of gluten problems so wheat flour is used to bread meats, to thicken soups, and other ways they would not think of to mention if asked "is there any wheat flour or barley in this?"

I have tried a couple of vegetarian restaurants, hoping they would not use wheat or barley but there also wheat is used as a thickener in soups and added to so many foods. I found barley in one soup after the owner told me there was no gluten in the soup.

So mostly I do not go out for meals. Better to feel good than have a social experience that causes problems.

My Espanol is not good at all, I am learning Spanish but slowly.
I carry this note with me at all times:
"Soy alergica. (I am alergic)Sin trigo (no wheat), sin cebada (no barley), sin centeno (no rye).
Libre de gluten  (gluten free)"
This smoothie has papaya (orange colored fruit), cherimoya (which lends a cloud like quality to the drink), pitajaya, an orange and coconut-pineapple yogurt.  All gluten free.

I need a Gluten Free Users Group!!  Please let me know if you are eating free of wheat/gluten here in Cuenca, EC.Or if you know of a market that sells coconut flour, palm sugar, other gluten free flours.

Tonight I am blanching almonds and will grind them to make my own flour.  Yesterday, I found brown rice (arroz integral) and ground some to make brown rice flour, a great staple for cooking/baking gf.  It was not as fine as I'd like but it was a great start.

If you think you may react to wheat or gluten, there is a simple blood test that can be done.

Here are some helpful sites:   many sites, resources and books are listed here

 Gluten-Free Goddess Karina shares hundreds of creative gluten-free recipes with luscious photos, baking tips, dairy-free recipes

Scott Adams put up in 1995. It was the first important site on celiac disease. And Scott has been relentlessly expanding it ever since. This is where most people start.

Almond flour is a healthy choice but I've not been able to find any here.  I have a new, unused coffee grinder for grinding my own flours.  I have a pound of almonds.  They need to be blanched (taking the brown husks off) and dried before I can grind them into flour.
How Do You Blanch Almonds?  I found these directions online.
Difficulty: Easy
Time Required: 5 minutes

Here's How:

  1. Place almonds in a bowl.
  2. Pour boiling water to barely cover almonds.
  3. Let the almonds sit for 1 minute and no longer.
  4. Drain, rinse under cold water, and drain again.
  5. Pat dry and slip the skins off.


  1. Don't let almonds sit in hot water too long or they will lose their crispness.
  2. 1 pound of almonds in the shell will yield about 1-1/2 cups shelled.
  3. 1 pound shelled = 3 cups whole or 4 cups slivered.

What You Need:   almonds!


  1. I have been enjoying your blog and recalled that you had mentioned you were gluten free. My husband and I are planning a trip there in Oct. to see if it might be a place where we would want to retire. I do not have celiac, but am gluten intolerant. Is it possible to ask for plain meat with just fruit and veggies at restaurants there? I love to cook and do entirely gluten free cooking at home, but being on the road can be a challenge. I would appreciate any insight you might be able to provide.



  2. Sharon--

    Thanks for the post. I have a gluten intolerance (not full blown Celiac) and wondered about this. I posted a comment on Nan's Living in Paradise blog about the availablity of gluten free flours. It seems quinoa flour and bean flours are the most easiliy available. I concluded that if I made the move, I would have to bring a grain mill with me. The wondermill and the tribest mill have positive reviews and would seem to work great for rice flour in particular.

    I also wondered whether you could use one of the mailing services to get brown rice flour. The gringos abroad blog talks about the club correo mailing service here

    Goodday Gluten Free claims to have international shipping (not for flours) so you might be able to load up on pastas and other packaged items.

    Bobs Red Mill also claims to do international shipping (couldn't figure out how to estimate the cost) here

    A while back, I did a search on "gluten free flours ecuador" and came up with one post in the ecuador forum at expat exchange. Can't seem to link to it, but you can find it if you do the google search above.

    Best Wishes

  3. Thanks, Van, for your thoughtful reply and helpful info. I apologize that I forgot to mention bean flour. It is very readily available. I personally do not care for the flavor so it was blanked out of my radar. Quinua (Espanol spelling of quinoa) flour is abundant also and very good. I use it a lot. In baking, there needs to be a combo with some other flours, it seems. I'll keep experimenting. After I posted this yesterday, I sifted through the selection of flours at SuperMaxi grocery and discovered blue corn flour. This is exciting because I can make waffles/pancakes with it (in combo with something else like brown rice flour).

    Now Club Correos is a service that one joins for $11/year at the post office in Cuenca. Then you can order things from or wherever and have them shipped to an address in Doral, FL. There it is opened, inspected, resealed and shipped on to Ecuador. No duty is charged as long as the package is under 8.8 pounds. There has to be a clear invoice in the package that states what the item is, what it cost, weight. This is non-negotiable. Twice we have had things linger in Miami on a shelf because no invoice was included. It can be fixed by the original seller faxing an invoice but it all takes longer.

    So buying a lot of gf flours through Club Correos is a good idea. The reality is that one pays $5/pound for anything shipped from the address in Florida that the club ships to the main post office in Cuenca. For example, if you buy 3 pounds of gf flour, it will be the cost of the seller plus any US shipping to FL and then $15 to get it from Miami to Cuenca.

    Sometimes there is a problem getting packages, but it does not seem that they are stolen. More likely that Cuenca post office is not the most organized place and things are not categorized with great care. We have had mixed luck with getting packages. I believe we have ordered 7 items to date and have received 3 of those in 2-3 weeks of shipping. It seems to take about 2-3 days to get from a US designation to Doral, FL. Then another 7-14 days to arrive in Cuenca.

    I have not tried having items shipped in through international shipping because I have been told that the duty charged when a package arrives is pretty steep. I've been told: the package is opened when you are called to pick it up and an amount is immediately assessed, regardless of what you think it is worth.

    I realized after I posted this that I probably expressed too much concern about cost. It is certainly a concern. I think what has surprised me and puzzled me is how difficult it is to find local flours made from things I thought they grow here in EC, such as coconut, amaranth, yam and blue corn.

    When I return to the US to visit family and friends, I plan to load up as much as I can on the items I really miss.

    Your ideas are welcome and very helpful. I appreciate the time you took!

    Let me say it is VERY possible to be gf here, just a little more challenging and more expensive for certain pantry items than I had expected. Sharon

  4. Oops! One can sign up for Club Correos online as Van mentioned

  5. To Mary: Yes you could ask if the meat is prepared without any gluten added. Speaking Spanish well would help. At lunches, there is usually a prepared "pot" or selection. Often fish, chicken or beef is breaded. But not always. worth asking. If it is a meal where it is an open menu, there are usually choices where the meat/fish is not breaded. With fruits and vegetables, also ask how they are prepared. I invite others to add suggestions here. Best wishes with your visit here! Sharon

  6. Hi Sharon, I am celiac and am intending on moving to Cuenca once I sell my home. Thanks so much for highlighting a concern I have about living there. Like you I thought it should be easy to find things like coconut flour. Since it isn't, I took a peek on line for other options. This one video shows how it can be made at home quite easily if you have access to desicated coconut. Just pour it into a food processor and grind for about 15 seconds - similar to making almond flour.
    also, I was wondering if you have been to the new raw food restaurant. The vast majority of raw food is gf. Have you had any luck there?
    Once I arrive, I hope we can meet for a nice coffee and gf dessert and share some ideas on how to stay gf. Regards, Dee