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Eating Gluten-Free in Asia

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Last Updated on May 31, 2024 by Leslie Stroud

Who doesn’t love to talk about food?!

We are so excited to introduce our new IG channel, @thehungrywayfinder. We love to eat. We have the extra pounds and the mom-bod and dad-bod to prove it. Haha!

Leslie with a bowl of food and chopsticks

Food used to be a HUGE part of why we traveled. We actually traveled to Portland for the first time because when we Googled “best US foodie destination”, Portland was near the top of all the lists. Portland was our second stop on our journey and we fell in love, food, and otherwise.

Right before we left to travel the world, in March 2018, I went to a holistic hormone NP and did some blood work. I went to check if my hormones were all OK after finishing baby making and nursing. What came back was surprising- my body was have a serious inflammation issue.

Sure, I was tired. I was dragging sometimes. However, I have five kids! At the time the youngest was not even one. Isn’t it normal to be tired? Isn’t it normal to need a nap every afternoon?

When I was told that my best course of action would be to go gluten-free, I was SHOCKED. I wasn’t all that resistant, just blow away. This was not the news I was looking for. I asked for the reasoning and the “why” I should do this. It was enough to convince me. I had the beginning signs of Hashimoto’s, which is my thyroid reacting to something I’m eating and creating antibodies. These then attack my thyroid. It will turn into a full-blown autoimmune disease, which is not new to my family history.

I didn’t know at first if I needed to go off just gluten or if I would need gluten AND dairy. The NP told me to start with gluten first for three month and then re-test my blood. “But I’m about to travel the world!” I said. We looked up a lab in Portland, where we would be three months later, and I set a date to get retested.

I went home and ate a cookie.

The next week or so was hard. I have a dear friend who is Celiac, so I wasn’t as new to it as some. I knew the main culprits. I immediately texted her and got some advice.

Do you know how hard it was to go to Portland and NOT eat gluten? It was a real test of my will power. Dim Sum, Blue Star Donuts, Bao Bao… the things that were bringing us to Portland in the first place!

Fast forward a few months. My blood work did confirm that eliminating gluten was enough. My inflammation went way down and my thyroid was a much happier organ. I didn’t need a nap everyday!

I didn’t start to notice an actual difference from eating gluten until the day we left Portland. We picked up a box of Blue Star donuts and I ate one! The NP told me a little nibble once a month or so would be OK. Instead, I ate three donuts.

We drove to Pacifica, CA and that night I felt pretty rough. The next day I was a mess! It makes me incredibly foggy, like I’m in that uber-exhausted, I-can’t-make-a-decision state. Kind of like how I am when I have a newborn and haven’t slept for weeks. I also was incredibly tired. I think I slept until 11 am and didn’t know how I would even get out of bed because I was still so tired. Woah. Hello my nemesis, gluten.

Fast forward a couple more months and I started to feel the kids needed to be gluten-free also. Our three-year-old had a skin prick test right before we left (like the week we left) and reacted to gluten, peanuts and egg yolk. We didn’t do much about it since we were moving! We just tried to start taking those things out of his diet when we could.

I kept getting little messages to my soul that the kids needed to try it. So we talked about it as parents and decided we would take everyone gluten-free, except for Chris, for a year. Why not Chris? He went to the same NP and got his blood test back. He had no issues similar to mine.

Presenting it to the kids was rough. The big ones REALLY pushed back. They loved that when I couldn’t eat gluten, they got my portion. They love kid food, which is ALL gluten. However, we knew we couldn’t just make the three-year-old be gluten free. He would feel SO isolated and resentful. He wasn’t old enough to be the outcast with mom and be OK with it.

More importantly, we knew that is quite likely at least one of our kids will or does have the same issue, if not all of them. See skin test results, right? Just because we haven’t tested them doesn’t mean it isn’t there. I’ve had enough friends deal with celiac to know it can be a silent threat.

What we figured:

  • Even if they don’t NEED to be gluten-free, it’s ok to be. Wheat flour isn’t exactly touted as being healthy.
  • It’s a good practice in case the DO need to be gluten free, or something else free, in the future. Learning how to NOT eat something you want, especially when others around you are, is not a bad lesson.
  • It makes cooking and grocery shopping so much easier. I just buy gluten-free now, period. If Chris wants some gluten in his life, he goes and buys some. Or he orders it at restaurants. He eats significantly less than he did before, but he still eats it regularly.
  • It gives them LOTS of empathy. If they have friends with food allergies or other allergies, they know what it feels like to be left-out sometimes. To have to say no. To be “special”.
  • It will make it easier, in a year, if only some of them need to be gluten free. They know what it means really well!

The result? The three-year-old, Harrison, definitely needs to be gluten-free. Even he knows this. He becomes a hairy, nasty little creature when he gets gluten. He is ornery, tired, has zero inhibitions and just goes around doing whatever his mad little brain says.… no one wants to be around him. We’ve tracked it enough now to know. He knows. He now asks constantly, “Is this gluten-free?” We are also doing our best to avoid peanuts and egg yolk for him, which is much more difficult.

We all get gluten accidentally. It just happens, even with my friends that try to be so vigilant with their kids. I had some mysterious food at an Indian buffet in Bali that I thought was made with chickpea. It was flour. I was like a walking zombie the next day. It was terrible.

Which brings me to….. traveling Asia and being gluten-free!

I’m by NO MEANS an expert. I’ve only been two places internationally so far. I will have to update in a few months when I’ve been more places. However, this is what I’ve learned so far:

  • Third world countries don’t know what you’re talking about. Flour? Wheat Flour? Huh?
  • That being said, RESORTS know! If they serve US or Australia, they know. Our first week in Bali, I ordered room service and said I was gluten-free. It was a little rough translation at first (they had to pass the phone around to a few people), but they got it. It was the only place in Bali we got GF bread. We could order club sandwiches and we all loved it! I kept looking and looking in the next five weeks and never found GF bread again.
  • Grocery stores import foreign GF items. I’ve found it now in Bali (quite a few actually!!) and Singapore. Our closest grocery store in Bali, Popular Market in Sanur, was a heaven-send. We found GF cake mixes, GF pancake mixes, GF granola bars, etc.
  • Cooking classes go a LONG way to knowing what goes into local cultural dishes. I’ve learned what is the base for curry (am I the only one who had NO IDEA?!), the base for peanut sauce, and where hidden gluten may be. Sign up for a cooking class and ask questions! It will make street food A LOT easier. I’ve learned what Chinese desserts are likely made with rice flour.
  • Chinese food in general is NOT GF friendly. We actually went to a restaurant back in CA that was very authentic Chinese. They had the little GF symbol at the bottom of the menu and IT WASN’T ON A SINGLE DISH. When I asked the waiter why they had the symbol and no actual dishes with the symbol, he was unhelpful. I ended up ordering some stir-fry veggies without soy sauce. When I googled being GF in Asia, I also read pretty much everywhere was OK except for China.
  • Soy sauce is your biggest enemy in Asia. It’s in a LOT of thing and the most important thing to ask about.
  • Rice is my new best friend! I eat a lot of fried rice, especially that I make at home.
  • Some seasoning sauces that are dark like soy sauce are OK. Sweet sauce and fish sauce are equally dark, but don’t have gluten. So just because a stir-fry is dark doesn’t mean you can’t have it.
  • If you need to be VERY strict (aka have a sensitive allergy), stay at a hotel and confirm that they know what your allergy is. This usually means more money, for sure. But they will keep you safe. They likely can also recommend other places to eat.

What I’ve also learned about other parts of the world from my own research or friends:

  • Europe should be fine. My allergy is probably reacting to something on gluten, perhaps not gluten itself, and I may not ever have to be GF in Europe! I’m not going to jump in and just start eating it, but I’ve heard their wheat is SO MUCH CLEANER it may not cause my body such issues. Thankfully, our 1-year mark with the kids should be right around when we go to Europe!
  • Ireland is very gluten-free friendly! My friend with Celiac’s who visited there said it was never as issue, even in a random place in the country. Apparently it is very common there. (I’m all European, so makes sense that there will be others there with the same issue!).

What food allergies do you have? How have you dealt with this internationally? Any recommendations for us?

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