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Gluten-free through Southeast Asia?

I had such good intentions. I was going to print off dietary-requirements cards available free from Celiac Travel to use on our trip through Singapore, Thailand and Bali. I was going to buy a bottle of gluten-free soy sauce. In essence, I was going to turn over several new leaves: I was actually going to prepare for a trip. Well, time got away from me. And that's a lie. I just forgot.

So off we went, Franco the North Italian Ham Curer and myself. Our first stop was Singapore. New Year's Eve. Marina Bay. Too expensive to eat anyway. So no worries, right? While we were waiting for the fireworks ballet to begin we indulged in a few exorbitantly priced ciders. I think they were 12 Singapore dollars a pint. We ate fairly reasonably at one of the food stalls at Clarke Quay, where you can find other cuisine besides Asian--always a problem because of the dreaded soy sauce, which is essentially wheat sauce.

I really could have used those dietary-requirements cards. The following conversation happened so many times on our trip that it became a joke:

ME: Hello, dear waiter. Is there soy sauce in this dish?

WAITER: Soy sauce, yes! I get for you.

ME: No, no. I can't eat soy sauce.

::blank stare with smile::

ME: I'm allergic [which I'm not, but saying so usually works].

WAITER: Oh, no soy sauce. This dish no soy sauce.

ADORABLE ME: But you just said it did.

In the end, you can't really know if you've made yourself understood or not, or if the waiter is really taking you seriously. When the dish comes, you stare at it, you hesitate, you decide to ask again just to make sure--so you flag the waiter down.

ME: I just want to make sure. So there's no soy sauce in this dish, right?

WAITER: Soy sauce! I get for you.

And then he trots off to get you extra soy sauce. It is at this point that you will turn to your own Franco the North Italian Ham Curer and say, "Look on the bright side: I won't gain any weight on this trip." The cards would have come in handy.

So if you're not willing to take the chance (and you were too lazy, forgetful, negligent, ya-de-ya to get the dietary-requirements cards), you'll need to stay away from the Asian food. You can, as always, indulge in food from the subcontinent. Asking about wheat in an Indian restaurant is much easier (the following conversation is from two Indian restaurants in the holiday-hell resort of Patong Beach, Thailand):

ME: You don't use wheat flour in your sauces, do you?

WAITER: Of course not. We use wheat flour only in the naan bread.

ME: I love you, and not just because of your beautiful skin and dreamy eyes.

WAITER: Most people love me because I am lightly redolent of curry.

ME: (leaning forward) Indeed you are. I'll add this to the list. And I'll have the lamb vindaloo. Make me hurt.

WAITER: Will do, sir. And would you like naan bread with that? Just kidding.

I coerced my traveling companions to eat Indian a few times on our trip. Otherwise, I ate steamed rice, fries and a multivitamin. Once in Kuta and once atop the Marina Bay Sands hotel, I ordered a salad. Wonderful, right? Well not so wonderful. In Kuta, between ordering and receiving my chef's salad (yes, in Kuta you will be transported back to the 70s when a chef's salad was all the rage), I had second thoughts about eating it, imagining myself in the hospital with hepatitis. And then the salad (18 Singapore dollars) at the Marina Bay Sands came with great-big-honking-but-beautiful croutons. I always forget about the danger of beautiful croutons.
But . . . We encountered an unexpected gem in Ubud, Bali. The restaurant Bhakti Asih was empty when we arrived. It was early in the evening, but my traveling companions claimed it had been full the evening before. So we ate there. I ordered the nachos after the waiter confirmed the chips were all corn. And Franco the North Italian Ham Curer ordered me some fries because he intuitively knew the nachos wouldn't be enough. He was right. The nachos weren't a lot of food, but they were also only around 4 dollars. The prices in general are incredibly reasonable at Bhakti Asih. And the fries were so good that we ordered another portion. Homemade and delicious: they were a real treat for me.

What is your experience? Are you a Celiac Traveler? And have you traveled in Asia with the Gluten-free restaurants cards? Not as lazy as me? I'd love to hear from you.

I must be off,


Christopher Allen is the author of the absurdist satire Conversations with S. Teri O'Type, available from Amazon.anything and lots of other online bookstores. Just Google "s teri otype" to find out more about the book or you can go here to finding out EVERYTHING.

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