Travelling with Food Allergies
Our Groups Coordinator, Ashley, is our guest blogger this week after having recently returned from a 21 day journey from Beijing to St. Petersburg on board the Trans Siberian Railway. Aside from travelling the world, one of Ash’s biggest passions is finding, preparing and eating nourishing food, an appetite born from learning to live with food allergies. Ash and her equally food intolerant friend, Em, share their experiences and advice on living an allergy-friendly lifestyle in their wellness blog, Eatable. So naturally, when we asked if anyone in the office had some great advice they would like to share with our travellers, Ash put her hand up immediately!
Surviving China, Mongolia and Russia with Food Allergies
When you think of China, Mongolia and Russia do you imagine an allergist-friendly experience?
To be completely honest, my digestive system was bit scared when embarking on a Beijing to St. Petersburg overland tour. With that said, I’ve never been one to shy away from an experience purely because of my food allergies. With a little forward thinking, a positive attitude and an open mind, food allergies need not stop you from living the life you want to live!
Many people suffering from food allergies will avoid Chinese food because of their use of wheat flour and wheat-containing soy sauce… not to mention their notoriety of adding MSG.
Caution is necessary, I have had many, MANY horrible experiences at Chinese restaurants, partly due to being naïve about what goes into the dishes and partly due to not being able to communicate my needs and concerns to waitstaff. If you think about it, for people who do not have any food allergies or strong eating preferences, why would they consider which flour they’re battering their fish with or which type of sauce they’re stirring in to their fry-up?
Thankfully, over the years both my and waitstaff’s knowledge of food allergies have improved, as has the communication between restaurants and their clientele who may present an array of food allergies… but what of the real deal? What of CHINA?
As for Mongolian food, well… you think of horse, fermented milk, Mongolian beef (i.e. heavy meat and wheat flour or corn starch) and not much else.
Even while being in China (the neighbouring country) there were ‘horror stories’ from locals about the lack of vegetables in Mongolian dishes. About this country I really did not know what to expect – from the supermarkets and restaurants alike.
Russia, ahh Russia… borsch and vodka anyone? That’s a 2 course meal… or more if you get creative. My expectations were of potatoes, bread, dumplings and meat, OF COURSE with vodka – some stereotypes dominate for good reason. Having only ever eaten at one Russian restaurant, my experience was limited and… let’s face it… who knows if the food is the same after the recipes have been exported from the home country?
Based on the idea from this website, I asked native Chinese, Mongolian and Russian speakers to translate some text for me to help explain that I had food allergies. If you’re interested in the cards, please drop us a line.
Before travelling, I always make sure I have these staples:
1. Rice cakes: you can snack on them, use them as a bread-replacer, they are light and travel relatively well.
2. Dried fruit: snacks FTW, they travel well and sometimes the fructose hit is just what you need when no one understands you at the supermarket in Beijing.
3. Nuts: macadamias and almonds were my choice this time. Nuts are such a saviour – quote, unquote.
4. Cereal: well, in this case my favoured buckinis. You don’t need to take a lot of it, because generally you can eat other things at breakfast, but it helps – especially when travelling on overnight trains!
Tip: Snap-lock bags are pretty much the best invention where travelling and food storage are concerned. I always pack up my goods in snap-locks and take a few extra bags for new purchases.
What I pick up in the destination country:
1. Some kind of milk: coconut milk, almond (if you’re lucky!), rice etc. The reason I don’t buy this before I fly is… well… no one wants to have to deal with a broken almond milk carton in their backpack – ew!
2. Fruit and veggies: ahh blesse’d nature. One thing you never get enough of when travelling is the good ol’ green stuff. Apples and manderines are my favourite, as are carrots and tiny toms. They travel well and don’t require cutting
Overall, I was really surprised at how well my digestive system survived over the three week journey. I think that if I had not have had the translated ingredient cards to easily explain my food allergies, that it would have been a lot more difficult. I highly recommend organising a tool like this when you’re going to a new country with a new language to grapple with!
Most locals I encountered did not understand what a gluten intolerance was, but after explaining (mostly via the translated cards) which ingredients I could not eat, they were quick to understand that I had food allergies. In the supermarkets and restaurants nothing is marked as gluten/dairy-free, unless it’s an imported product from a country where allergists are more widely understood. I was lucky enough to have some fantastic locals that helped me out <3
There were a few bloated moments, as is the case for anyone living with food allergies – even in your home country where you can read all ingredients on all labels! One of the most pleasant surprises was how much buckwheat I found in Russia… granted you will not easily find cakes made of the stuff, but you can pick up buckwheat in even the smallest of supermarkets, very helpful!
- Hot pot restaurants are a dreamboat for anyone living with food allergies. You can trust hot pot restaurants, as in Australia it is relatively easy to see what ingredients are being used. You can choose to not eat any of the sauces, rather just enjoy the food after cooking it yourself in the hot pot.
- Peking duck went well with my belly, if you’re not vegetarian give it a go sans pancake, of course.
- Apparently there are some gluten-free dumplings, but I avoided dumpling restaurants because, well, I didn’t feel it was worth the risk!
- I tried some noodles off a street vendor, but didn’t feel confident that it was gluten/corn/soy free, so left the bowl pretty full and did a runner.
- You can ask for fried rice without soy sauce and it’s generally safe, again, make sure you have a translated list of things that you’re allergic/intolerant to.
- Mongolia is full of vegetables, I do not know what their Chinese neighbours were talking about… one of the lovely surprises was a lot of tomato and cucumber salads!
- Eating out can be a little bit challenging for vegetarians, the concept of ‘meat and 3 veg’ was invented by the Mongolians I think. That being said, you can always get salad and rice wherever you go.
- Again, the translated card was so helpful – the waitress in the hotel restaurant was studying it and even brought out some of the ingredients to show me to make sure they were safe (which they weren’t!) – it’s all about communication and attitude.
- There are a few chains like Broadway which will give you some western-ish food – not just pizza, don’t be deterred by the name – and there is always free wi-fi
- In Ulan Bator we had fabulous coffee from Ti Amo cafe, a rarity on the whole trip!
- An amazing find was Pacific Foods almond milk at the State Department Store in Ulan Bator – I saw an “Organic” sign and b-lined it for that section of the supermarket.
- Buckwheat = гречиха in Russian and is pronounced “grechikha” – learn this word and your gluten-free Russian dream will become a reality. I found a box of buckwheat with 5 x steamable sachets of buckwheat. Although, I just rinsed them and ate them raw most of the time, there were a few occasions where I tried to make porridge.
- If you’re able to drink milk, then try porridge = каша in Russian and is pronounced “kasha” – you can find out if it’s “kasha” made of “grechikha” and then chow down!
- In Siberia, at Lake Baikal, there is a lot of fish. The most popular fish is omul, and is generally grilled on a stick, pickled in a salad or served as a tasting plate with other pickled vegetables. I let myself have an omul salad with soy sauce (took the risk!) and it was really yum, but not “safe” for me to eat.
- Soups like borsch and solyanka are generally gluten free, but depending on which type of meat (i.e. if they use processed meat) is in the solyanka, you may have a reaction. I had a few bowls of borsch without the sour cream and it was fine. However, had a bit of a reaction to solyanka.
- You can always get fried potato, sometimes with onions and mushrooms, it’s pretty safe but not so healthy!
- There is a boiler so you can always have hot water for tea and porridge.
- Get used to rice cakes, they will be your saviour
- The food in the dining car is expensive and not that great for those with food allergies
- The kiosks on the station platforms will help you only with chips and other unhealthy snacks. No gluten-free pastries unfortunately!
Travel can sometimes be challenging for someone with food allergies, I was a bit exhausted and uninspired by the on-the-road food after 3 weeks… on-the-road. I was rejuvenated in St Petersburg when I ran into “I Love Sushi” while walking down the pedestrian mall on the 7 Liniya on Vasilyevsky Island. I ate some pretty impressive and non-descript “asian salad” for 99RUB. It turned out to be a carrot and cabbage salad with a sort of kimchi-style dressing. I liked it so much I went back the next day. Yum!
It’s important not to let your food allergies prevent you from enjoying a life on the road and experiencing a world of culture. Preparation and forward thinking is key, if you have any questions please feel free to drop me a line.
Safe and healthy travels!