"I'll have the croquetas", I crooned with a grin, relishing each syllable as it bounced off my tongue. I hadn't been able to utter that phrase in over five years. As I savored each word, I could taste the creamy béchamel sauce, the crispy shell crumbling into pieces on my plate, and the tiny bits of tuna melting in my mouth.
Since being diagnosed as a Celiac, I had surrendered to the notion of forever giving up one of my favorite tapas, classic Spanish croquetas. Croquettes are tasty morsels typically made of meat and béchamel sauce, which are then fried in olive oil. Not only are they a dangerously addicting treat, but they're also a Celiac's worst nightmare. Sometimes just the smell of them sends me into a nostalgic frenzy of insatiable hunger and psychosomatic stomach pains.
Yet here I was at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant in Puerto de la Cruz, Tenerife, about to bite into my first gluten-free croqueta. If Celiac disease were a game, I was about to win. Victory was going to taste so sweet.
Grilled Canarian cheese with mojo sauce
Despite their distance from the mainland of Spain, the Canary Islands are exceptionally accommodating to food allergies. Several of the traditional Canarian dishes are naturally gluten-free, and many restaurants in Tenerife and Gran Canaria can easily alter meals to cater to the needs of gluten-intolerant folk. Much to my delight and surprise, eating gluten-free in the Canary Islands was a delicious and stress-free experience.
A tortilla de patatas with avocado and cheese
Many classic Canarian dishes are already gluten-free friendly or can be easily altered to become sin gluten. The most ubiquitous plate is papas arrugadas con mojo, or wrinkled potatoes with a spicy mojo sauce. This dish is comprised of Canarian potatoes that are cooked in saltwater (which are usually sprinkled with a heavy dose of sea salt), served with a pungent sauce made of cumin, garlic, paprika, olive oil, vinegar and salt. The red mojo picón is made with dried red peppers, while the milder green mojo verde is made with parsley or cilantro.
Papas arrugadas with mojo picón
Another traditional dish worth ordering at every meal is grilled Canarian cheese drizzled with mojo or honey. The Canary Islands are home to a plethora of delectable goat's milk cheeses, and nothing delights the tastebuds quite like the combination of salty cheese and sweet honey. Be sure to also try the local palm honey from the island of La Gomera.
Stay away from things with gofio, which is a special type of wheat flour native to the Canary Islands. When it comes to avoiding gofio, be especially careful when ordering cheese dishes or desserts.
Grilled Canarian cheese with mojo picón, honey and mojo verde
Eating Gluten-Free in Tenerife
Wander slightly past the tourist traps of Plaza Charco in Puerto de la Cruz and you can find Casa Pache, a cozy escape from the mainstream restaurants guaranteed to serve you a subpar meal. Between the kitschy decorations, warmhearted service and quality comfort food, this authentic and decidedly offbeat eatery makes you feel like you're dining with family.
Casa Pache offers specially prepared, Celiac-friendly croquetas, calamares (squid) and chipirones (small squid). Many of their other dishes are naturally gluten-free, such as the pork ribs with corn, potatoes and green mojo sauce, the papas arrugadas con mojo, and the goat meat with sauce.
A delicious dish of goat at Casa Pache
Gluten-free tuna croquetas
Papas arrugadas with mojo
The cozy terrace of Casa Pache
Eating Gluten-Free in Gran Canaria
In the charming old town of Vegueta in Las Palmas, a hidden gastronomic heaven awaits. Head to La Hierba Luisa on Vegueta's main foodie drag, Calle Mendizábal, for unique Mediterranean meals. Not only do they serve gluten-free beer, but the staff at this hip-yet-unpretentious vegetarian restaurant are also incredibly knowledgable about accommodating food allergies. (Plus, the gluten-free falafel is out of this world!)
At Te Lo Dije Perez next to the cathedral in Las Palmas, every item that contains wheat or gluten is clearly marked on their special allergen menu. Though the selection was not particularly vast for non-seafood eaters, the papas arrugadas con mojo and grilled Canarian cheese were divine. Above all, the waiters do their part to ensure that your dining experience is safe and satisfying.
Though not technically a Spanish beer, you can still find gluten-free cerveza at La Hierba Luisa
Gluten-free falafel at La Hierba Luisa
If you're nervous about eating gluten-free in the Canary Islands because your Spanish is rusty, then print out a gluten-free restaurant card like this one to show to your waiters. If you ask if a dish is sin gluten or say "Soy Celiaca", most restaurants in the Canary Islands will know how to take care of you.
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How do you survive them while traveling?