Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Blog: Is Ssallo Byeol Gluten Free?

I don't often eat snack foods, but when I do I eat original flavor Ssallo Byeol (쌀로별 오리지날). Unlike other Korean snacks it can't moonlight as a sugary breakfast cereal. It has the caramelized salty-sweetness of soy sauce instead. It also it doesn't crash my energy level like the other snacks do — a key trait for a snack if you're a teacher.

Anyhow, I always assumed it was only made with rice, because ssal (쌀) means rice. So I got really excited when I saw it at MiniStop, a Korean convenience store chain, last week. It was the first day of the year that was warm enough to sit outside and write in the park, so I was preparing a small picnic for myself. Naturally, excited by the prospect of a gluten free snack, I bought the lumpy, tan rice balls.

Later on I was sitting on the floor of a Korean style gazebo — the kind traditionally used by scholars and poets to muse and compose. With my iPad in my lap, a bottle of ice tea at hand, and a pile of empty string-cheese wrappers nearby, I contemplated just how gluten-free Ssallo Byeol really was.

It took me approximately 15 minutes more or less to translate the ingredients. To cut down on time one can look for mil (밀), the Korean word for wheat. This is what my friend Lauren Andrews does. She is one of the few people I know who lives in Korea with celiac disease. However, I wanted to be as complete in my translation as I could just to be sure. This is what I found:

Imported rice with a list of related ingredients and import information I could not completely translate. I also found white sugar and starch syrup. I wondered what the source of the starch was, but as I read on I found out it didn't matter. Next up on the list was tapioca starch and a mix of soy sauces. And in that mix was — wheat (dundundun!). Next on the list was brewed soy sauce, tomato juice, pea protein, red pepper paste, wheat starch (more dundundun!), some special salt I can't completely translate, and onion powder. Lastly came the usuall and not at all bizarre allergy warning that it was manufactured in a facility that processes milk, peanuts, and shrimp. Korean snacks are processed with shrimp?! Yes. In fact, there are a lot of shrimp flavored snacks in Korea. Shellfish alergenated people beware.

I can eat shrimp. But I can't eat wheat, so goodbye crispy rice balls that betray your gluten free origins.


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