Before I decided to study abroad in Santiago, I had numerous conversations with IFSA staff members and a full Google Chrome browser history of common Chilean foods. Being gluten-free in a new country was my biggest concern: could I do it? How do I do it? Will it just add more stress to my schedule? I asked IFSA staff members about typical Chilean meals; if they’ve had students with a gluten intolerance before; if they had a host family who knew what gluten is and what foods contain gluten. These questions definitely put me at ease before my trip. However, in reality, the answers to these questions gave me an incomplete picture of what being gluten-free in Santiago entailed.
Before arriving, I had the idea that being gluten-free here was easily accommodated. I also thought that my host family would be veterans at cooking gluten-free foods. Unfortunately, this was not the case. Chile is not full of gluten-free products or accommodations. I am gluten-free due to an intolerance, but this is not commonly understood in Chile. My host mother informed me that food allergies are quite uncommon. She still believes I am celiac because the idea of being gluten-intolerant does not exist in the culture. There is a growing awareness in Chile about food allergies, which is evidenced by the presence of gluten-free cafes, but food allergies are currently viewed as a choice, meaning that many locals believe I do not eat gluten because I simply don’t like it, not because I am allergic to it.
The good news is that while it is a challenge, it is possible to be gluten-free in Santiago.
The IFSA staff will work with you on placing you with a family that can accommodate your gluten allergy. However, this does not mean your family will automatically be familiar with your gluten-free needs. I definitely learned this the hard way, when in the first few days of arriving my host mother fed me a meal with gluten. To avoid this reoccurrence, I made her a list, in Spanish, of all the common food items that contain gluten, and thus cannot eat: all types of wheat––pasta, bread, cereal, etc; flour––breaded foods, cakes, tarts, etc. The list certainly goes on. I also gave her a list of foods I could eat: rice, meats, vegetables, eggs, etc. This way I gave her options of things she could cook and prepare.
If you have a favorite recipe you like to cook at home, feel free to share it with your host family. Because allergies are sometimes seen as a choice, do not be afraid to remind your host family about your allergies. Despite my lists, there are times when I find a glutenous meal waiting for me on the kitchen table, and it was only after my host mom commented, “it’s just a little bit. You can’t even eat that?” that I realized she did not understand the repercussions of my allergy. That being said, do not be afraid to detail what eating gluten means for you: the consequences and the effects (if you feel comfortable sharing).
If you have a favorite gluten-free snack from your home country, try and bring it to Santiago. Of course, you can’t fit five months of gluten-free snacks in your bag (I tried), but it helps to have an emergency snack that you know you can eat while you adjust to being in a new city. For me, this meant stuffing as much Skinny Pop as possible in my suitcase, and it definitely came in handy during my first few weeks when I was too busy with orientation to stop at the supermarket for snacks.
Supermarkets and stores
- Most of the major supermarkets (Lider, Jumbo, Santa Lucia) carry gluten-free options. I recently stumbled upon a heavenly aisle of gluten-free products in Jumbo. Products include gluten-free bread (a life saver substitute for all the “pan” eaten here), cookies, pasta, and chips.
- Another option is Granjero del Goloso. I have yet to try it, but it seems to be a more affordable version of Whole Foods. All their products are natural and organic, without sugar, gluten, and lactose. They have the convenient option of ordering online and either having the food delivered or picking it up in the store.
- Zero Gluten is a website where you can order online and have the food delivered to your door (like a gluten-free Uber Eats). They have cooking oils, granola, cereals pasta, cookies, chocolate, and snacks.
- Bread is eaten with almost every meal here, but don’t let that concern you. Besides the supermarkets, which offer gluten-free bread and rice cakes, there are gluten-free bakeries scattered around Santiago. One is Excepto Gluten. They offer a selection of gluten-free breads, empanadas, and sweets.
- Another gluten-free café I have been enjoying is Panart. One of my friends found this café and brought me here, where I was delighted find that my non-gluten-free friends enjoyed the gluten-free products as much as I did. The café has spacious indoor and outdoor seating, making it a great study spot.
- 7 Alces is another café, located in Vitacura. They have breakfast, lunch, and dinner, along with quaint seating inside and outside. They specialize in organic and healthy foods, but they also offer food with gluten as well, so it is a perfect spot for group meals.
- Freddo is a coffee shop and ice cream shop located in Las Condes. It has both gluten-free and glutenous products.
- Dulce Cariño is a to-go café located in Providencia. All of their products are gluten-free and they offer a variety of cakes and tarts. They also have options for those who are gluten-free and lactose-intolerant.
Always check the menus online before going to a café or restaurant. The safest assumption here is that there won’t be gluten-free items available for you where you are going. This assumption will keep you from arriving at a café or restaurant and realizing you can’t eat any of the food. This is especially true at small, local cafes, where the food options are often just muffins and bread. Checking the menu beforehand or assuming there aren’t choices available for you is the best way to avoid going hungry or being disappointed.
Eating out while gluten-free can be incredibly difficult, especially in a country where there’s not a plethora of gluten-free menu options.
- Bar Italia is a great sit-down restaurant. I have not tried it yet, but it is located in the stunning neighborhood of Barrio Italia. You can find tapas without gluten and all the deserts and entrees are gluten-free. They even offer gluten-free beers and cocktails.
- While this is ever-present in the United States, PF Chang’s menu in Chile is clearly marked with gluten-free options. It is a great for balancing a night-out with those who enjoy fried egg rolls or noodles.
- Another great option with a mix of gluten-free and non-gluten free foods is Tea Connection. Their menu is clearly marked; and they offer a wide range of organic and natural foods including quinoa tubule, vegetable lasagna, and pork. It is more of a quick-bite than a sit-down restaurant.
The bad news is that the majority local delicacies contain gluten. There are street foods that are gluten-free, such as nuts or food trucks with rice and chicken. However, the staple foods such as bread and empanadas are off the table. On the other hand, the gluten-free cafes are great spots to try local delicacies. So, while you may not be able to order an empanada off the street, you can order it at the café.
My first few weeks in Chile were incredibly frustrating and difficult. I had eaten gluten numerous times simply because my family did not understand the allergy, and I felt incredibly overwhelmed. The steps I took with my family and towards finding gluten-friendly dining are steps I wish I had known to do before my arrival. I also wish I had known about the lack of awareness in Chile around food allergies. However, noticing the differences about how health and allergies are understood in Chilean culture vs. in the United States has been fascinating.
The best lesson I have learned is to be patient with cultural differences, even when my health is at the center of it. Being gluten-free in Santiago is like bringing a new culture to the city; it’s unfamiliar and it takes time to learn and adjust to. However, open communication and understanding eventually makes being gluten-free, at least within your host family and circle of friends, a new norm in Santiago.
Cira Mancuso is an International Politics major at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and studied abroad with IFSA at Pontificia Universidad Católica in Chile in the fall. She is an International Correspondent for IFSA through the Work-To-Study Program.