Thursday, 3 September 2015

Back from hiatus: 5 harsh lessons from the gluten-free fringes

It's been a while since I've poured my thoughts onto this page. It's good to be back after a blogging hiatus of several months.

Before you picture Ferraris, affairs and Eat Pray Love, my blogging break was less midlife crisis, more lifestyle change. I wanted to shake things up - roam more widely, work on new projects - so I handed in notice at my editor job (a tough call). Then I roped Wheaty into travelling with me (we rode the Trans-Siberian Railway). Now I've found my feet in a new phase as a freelance travel writer and editor. I couldn't be happier with my hectic, varied footloose life.

Frozen Lake Baikal. Or a metaphor for me drifting off into the sunset.
Image © Anita Isalska

 Between rattling through Russia by train and establishing some brand-new work streams, until now there hasn't been much time to blog about all things gluten-free. I've missed it.

This period of change has involved a lot of travel, much of it to some seriously gluten-free-unfriendly places. So I'm kicking off with five harsh truths I've learned from the fringes of the gluten-free world...

1. Sometimes, language cards won't save you

So you're an uber-prepared gluten-free globetrotter, poised to flash language cards explaining your needs? I've discovered that in some places, the understanding barrier about coeliac disease is so high that translation isn't enough.

I spent some time working in Malaysia this summer. From previous travels there, I knew it was a culture where rice and rice noodles were staples, so I was optimistic about eating well.

Jonker Walk Night Market in Melaka, Malaysia. A foodie lottery.
Image © Anita Isalska
Mostly, I did. But many Malaysians simply weren't accustomed to talking about food from a core ingredients perspective. Asking whether the noodles in a soup were wheat or rice-based, even with translation help, sometimes drew a blank. Many canteens defined the noodle type by colour first ("white" or "yellow" noodles; the former could be wheat or rice) and secondly by shape. Food sensitivity on the whole was an alien concept; insisting on knowing the ingredients to a dish produced bafflement, and often well-intended (though useless) assurances like, "Don't worry, it isn't spicy." In a country with few coeliac diagnoses and a different way of referencing food, it's a blameless scenario, though a challenging one.

2. There are places where hospitality conventions trump diets

Now some reflections from Greece, where I was on assignment for a few weeks. In small towns, refusal to accept food is about as polite as gobbing in a Grecian urn. With dietary requirements a hazy concept, this created a perfect storm.

Hefty servings of lamb and Greek feta salad. Just go paleo when in Greece.
Image © Anita Isalska
I had grown used to explaining myself with some accompanying gestures (a wince and grab of my stomach as I explained that wheat makes me unwell; what reasonable person could argue against that, even if they quietly thought I was just being neurotic?)

Unfortunately, this approach was often returned with insistent hospitality: "Well, just try a little bit then. You have to try! It is only a little flour. It's very light. This bread is very good for digestion."

Such exchanges could easily descend into a tense social battle, taut smiles all the way, trying (and failing) to talk someone out of pushing their kind (though sadly gut-damaging) gift of food. I learned that sadly, you might have to offend someone to stay healthy. Often I managed to deflect the gluten-bomb by accepting something else, like a coffee. But more than once I took the cake or piece of bread simply to end an increasingly awkward conversation and surreptitiously stuffed it into my pocket, tipping the food into a bin once I was out of sight. What a waste.

3. Some places don't consider flour an ingredient worth mentioning

In places where coeliac disease and gluten-free food aren't understood, I have sometimes resorted to asking for recipes. It's time-consuming, but where wheat and gluten are barely given a thought, I've often been able to unravel the safety of a dish by asking someone to talk through how it's made. (As a bonus, I've found some restaurants delight in explaining their culinary wizardry to an intrigued foreign visitor.)

This approach was fraught with difficulty in Malaysia. Wheat flour is often considered a default ingredient, not worth mentioning because of its tastelessness and ubiquity. I would think I had happened upon a tasty new treat, but discover too late that it was laced with flour: sticky rice, you say! With coconut milk and sugar, you say! And no wheat flour?

"Oh, no flour..."

I'd move in to take a big bite...

"Well, just a little flour for binding."


After that, I thought using the word for "allergy" might help my health issues be understood. I thought wrong.

A number of people I met were amazed that someone could be allergic to what they considered a healthy, nourishing food. I remember a conversation where I thought starting with a well-known and severe food reaction, like fatal peanut allergies, would be a good jumping-off point to explain my own (less life-threatening) health problem.

It didn't work. Instead a table of Malaysians looked at me in astonishment at the idea that there were people out there who could be killed by a peanut. "Just one peanut!" marvelled one chap, rolling a nut between his fingers. "I have never heard of such a thing!"

Needless to say, there seemed no point rolling into a conversation about auto-immune gluten intolerance.

If in doubt, take solace in a ball of ice. Seriously, it's a thing in Ipoh, Malaysia.
Image © Anita Isalska

4. Food frustration is a tough trap to escape

I have been travelling solo for research assignments, and not having Wheaty around to help take the heat truly made it harder to navigate dietary needs. When I felt frazzled, isolated and hungry, it was all too easy to fall into the trap of feeling put-upon. Sometimes I even felt a little harassed when for the third time in a morning, someone I met kept pushing a wheat-laden food at me, despite my mustering up fifty shades of nope. A gesture intended kindly became unwelcome and paranoia-inducing. It felt hugely alienating and people's confusion and borderline outrage was weighing on me.

I had to remind myself that when it came to small communities, I might literally be the only person they have ever met to refuse a slice of bread. I'm certain that some people I met thought I either had an eating disorder or that I was a timid traveller, terrified to try local food. I hate the idea of these assumptions, but I had to let it be.

When you travel, for pleasure or work, you have to stay true to your own path. Make concessions to other cultures as much as you can, but not at the expense of your own health. And certainly don't harm yourself out of embarrassment.

The importance of chilling with a cuppa in the Cameron Highlands.
Image © Anita Isalska

5. You can't be a heroic gluten-free advocate 100% of the time.

A lot of the time, I felt like I'd failed. Failed to be understood, and therefore failed my fellow coeliac travellers by not contributing to worldwide understanding of this disease.

Eventually I had to cut myself a break. I was travelling for work, not to browbeat food servers with an unsolicited speech on coeliac disease.

As a western woman travelling alone in lesser-touristed parts of Malaysia, I had to accept that my food habits would simply be viewed as part of a parcel of general strangeness and foreign-ness: my tall, pale, solo self, picking at food.

Maybe, for all my regretful smiles and explanations, I would still be considered the brusque Westerner who refused to try a host's noodle dish. The toughest lesson is that you can't control how others interpret you; you just have to march on.


  1. Excellent post. I think it's hard when you travel off the beaten path to strike a good balance between doing the right thing for your own health and not offending pieple. Welcome back!

    1. Thanks for reading. I have a renewed appreciation for the ease of being gluten-free in the UK, compared to remote places where it isn't even a concept!

  2. What a great post! I think any gluten-free travelers that have gone outside of touristy areas have experienced something similar. I know I could totally relate from my time in both Thailand and the Czech countryside. We all do our best to not offend our hosts or servers, but then we need to remember our health is at stake! Thank you for sharing your experiences.

    1. I'm glad you enjoyed the post, and it's always good to hear from people who can relate. The Czech countryside must have been a challenging one to navigate! Central and Eastern Europe are tricky when it comes to dodging gluten.