Friday, January 15, 2010

Eating Gluten-Free in Siem Reap, Cambodia

I admit I was somewhat terrified to travel alone to Siem Reap, Cambodia because I was afraid I wouldn't be able to figure out what I could eat that is gluten free. I special ordered some cards explaining what I could and couldn't eat in Khmer from Select Wisely and kept one copy in my pocket and one copy in my money belt.

I had done some research ahead of time by looking through some regional cookbooks. It appeared that I would be safe in general, but that some dishes might have soy sauce in them. Khmer cuisine seems to be similar to Thai and Indian food in the best ways. It features lots of fruits and veggies and many of the dishes have simple sauces.

I hired a driver for my first couple of days and asked him to help me find food in addition to his other duties. This turned out to be important because he could read the card and some of the food vendors didn't seem to be able to do so. My card was written in Khmer and English. I picked out items on the menu that sounded likely to be gluten-free and then he'd double check. I was only going to be in Cambodia for a few days, so I decided I'd just memorize my order and if I liked it, I'd eat that for the rest of the trip!

This didn't turn out to be necessary, but it would have worked. In Siem Reap, there were several Indian restaurants with familiar gluten-free staples that I could eat and then a fellow-traveler told me about the Cambodian specialty Amok, a coconut-based dish. Bad for the diet, but great gluten-free eating!

Also, a friend from Laos had told me breakfast should be no problem. One traditional Southeast Asian breakfast staple is rice soup with or without fish or chicken. Rather bland, but gluten free and widely available. Also, it was likely that I'd be able to find fried eggs, fruit, yogurt and steamed rice. This was all true. Also, the coffee was fantastic.

As far as eating on the street, there was plenty of fruit and I'd brought a pocket knife so I could slice up dragon fruit and eat it. There were some packaged foods available, but I was glad I'd brought some bars and single-servings of peanut butter which I ate on apples.

In general, I had much more success eating tasty, flavorful food on a regular basis in Cambodia than I do in the states!

Flying Gluten Free to Thailand

Recently I flew from the Dallas/Fort Worth area to Bangkok. I flew to Tokyo on American Airlines and then connected on Thai Airways to Bangkok. The first flight was 13 hours long and the second was about 6 hours.

Whenever I fly anywhere I bring extra food. Just in case there is an unscheduled stop, bad weather or the plane gets stuck on the runway for some other reason. Since airlines have responded to the peanut allergy folks, they no longer have peanuts on board which means there is a scarcity of gluten-free food on board. Certainly any gluten-free food with even a modicum of nutritional value.

So, when embarking on basically 24-hours of travel, you can imagine the type of food I had with me. Single serving containers of Jiff peanut butter (which were allowed on the flight out but confiscated as a liquid on the ride home), protein bars, Glutino's breakfast bars, Quaker snack cakes, etc. I was more likely to eat myself to death than starve.

I had called American Airlines months in advance and booked my flight with frequent flyer miles. I dimly remember the agent telling me to call and confirm my gluten-free meal, which I guess I forgot to do. Ack.

I realized there was a problem when the first meal was served and no "special" meal was brought out to me. The flight attendants were horrified. "It's not like we can turn back and there is no gluten-free meal on board at all!"

OK, really? On big giant plane flying to another continent they don't load up with a couple of extra "special" meals just in case? No vegetarian, Kosher or other specialty meals? Maybe this should be S.O.P.

However, that doesn't change the fact that I should have remembered to double check and I didn't. Lucky for me, my seatmate was sympathetic and he and I traded food from our meals, he gave me his cheese, I gave him my bread, etc. Also, two awesome flight attendants scrounged food for me from business class and first class and I was probably on calorie overload for much of the flight. As my seatmate said "You have to survive."

My protests that I was unlikely to starve to death in 13 hours with 3,000 calories in my carry on were ignored.

When I got to Tokyo, I was excited to find a cafe that served edamame, yogurt, milk and some snack food with the ingredients in English including Peanut M&Ms. There were also so kelp-covered rice balls that I probably could have eaten.

Then came the best surprise of my life. I boarded my Thai Airways flight after making sure my gluten-free food would be on board at the check-in counter. "Of course" they said in a way that made me doubt my sanity in asking the question.

Thai Airways served two wonderful meals including rice-based rolls that if I could get them in the states I would eat every day. OK, maybe not really, but they were very good. The food was excellent and way better than I ever would have hoped for.

On the way home, Thai Airways succeeded again, but due to the timing of my flight, I only got breakfast (which included gluten-free toast) and a snack - a mandarin orange. Still, not bad considering the only snack available on American Airlines was a packet of asian-style chex mix that seemed to hit every major food allergy group except for dairy. It warned of crab, shrimp, peanut, wheat and soy contamination. Interesting.

Feeling tired from traveling and wanting to get to my flight, I went straight to the Tokyo Airport concourse my flight on American would be departing from. This was a bad call. I needed to do lunch in the Tokyo airport and the only place that sold food within a few blocks of my gate mainly specialized in hamburgers, hot dogs and what looked like a variety of Ramen Noodles. Some of it might have been gluten-free, but I couldn't be sure. I had been hoarding my protein bars, a bag of chips and an apple, so I bought some water and another gluten-free looking snack and had a picnic at the gate.

There were several vending machines at the gate, but they didn't accept credit cards and only took yen.

I got onto the American Airlines flight and relaxed, looking forward to my gluten-free dinner in a few hours. The dinner did come and it was gluten free, but it was fish, which I don't like. I KNOW, beggars can't be choosers, but I did have another protein bar with me, so it was all good.

Around 2 AM I was brought a snack, which I thought was kind of odd, but it was very tasty. I think there were some kind of potato pancakes involved, it's all kind of a blur now.

But by the time breakfast rolled around, I was definitely hungry. There, on my tray was a box of Kellog's corn flakes. Now, I know, in the states that these are not gluten free. However, I thought, maybe the Japanese version is. Also, I couldn't read the ingredients because they were in Japanese, so I ate them.

They were not gluten-free. Happily, there was not that much of the flight left. Although there was not a huge amount of wheat in them, I dealt with a cranky stomach for the next 48 hours. I'm sure the matter was not helped by all of the random food I had been eating in general and adjusting to the new time zone.

I sent all of this - the helpful flight attendants and the unfortunate cereal - in a note to American Airlines. They were very nice about it all and said they would talk to their caterers immediately. Also, they generously credited my frequent flyer account 10,000 miles.

I guess the lesson is always have back up food, confirm your gluten-free meals on airlines and always be responsible for making decisions on whether to eat what people bring you.

I intend to write more posts in the following days about eating Gluten-Free while traveling in Cambodia and Thailand.