Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Beijing to Moscow: gluten-free travel on the Trans-Siberian Railway

The Trans-Siberian Railway stretches between Moscow and Beijing. This epic journey spans 6,152 miles of track, crossing two very different countries. What they have in common is their hunger for dumplings: dim sum in China, and pirozhki in Russia.

Does the Trans-Siberian Railway rattle across fascinating cityscapes, expanses of birch forest and enchanting lakeshores? For sure. Is it a tough trek for gluten-free travellers? Most definitely.

St Basil's Cathedral in Moscow, with domes rather reminiscent
of Mr Whippy ice cream. Image © Anita Isalska

Coeliac Trans-Siberian Railway: challenge accepted

I've written a few things about my trip already (shameless plugs here and here). But what I really want to chinwag about is travelling the Trans-Siberian as a coeliac. Throughout my travels, Russia and China are probably the hardest destinations to navigate gluten-free. Understanding of coeliac disease seemed to be pretty much nil.

Heck, even vegetarians wouldn't have an easy time of it in China and Russia. In China, dishes described as vegetable-based tended to be strewn with shellfish or studs of pork, while in Russia, "a little meat" didn't prevent something from being vegetarian in the eyes of waiting staff. Then there's the train carriage meals with their choice of fish or meat. (At least, I think it was meat...)

So in a culture where you eat what you're given, where meat, wheat and any other allergen is all just food, how do you survive when your health requires a particular diet?

Ah sorry, this view of Beijing isn't gluten-free... no wait, it is.
And I'll travel where I like. Image © Anita Isalska

Travel 1, tastebuds 0: getting my priorities straight 

First of all, my priorities: if I had to survive the entire trip on a rucksack supply of rice crackers and water, I would have done it. I was hyped up to journey from the teeming temples (and polluted smokestacks) of Beijing, all the way across Russia. It would subject me to cold temperatures the likes of which I'd never experienced. I would see charmingly colourful Siberian villages, I'd down vodka with local people, I'd point my camera at the gilded spires of Orthodox churches sprinkled in snow.

Hopefully you won't have to resort to chomping live prey, like Irkutsk's
mascot panther. Image © Anita Isalska

It grinds my gears to hear mollycoddling concerns about destinations that are (sadface) "difficult to visit" for coeliacs... or for anyone with any other health condition for that matter. Forewarned is one thing, but ultimately it's for the individual to decide if they want to take it on, not by-standers who probably don't know what gluten is anyway (let's face it, they're usually the quickest ones to nay-say).

Anyone telling me I should think twice about travelling somewhere because of frickin' dietary requirements gets filed under "quitter nonsense" (along with admonitions against travelling solo or trying to outdrink my Polish relatives). I'll show you all! Book that flight, seize that vodka bottle! Just maybe bring some of those rice crackers.

On which subject, back to the gluten-free adventures...

Gluten-free or not, I hope you like herring. Plates of pickled fish, raw onion and boiled potato
were a staple (this particular one was in Irkutsk). Image © Anita Isalska

Prepare those snacks, there's a long trip ahead...

Trans-Siberian Railway travellers usually go from Beijing to Moscow (though there are other routes to Mongolia or Vladivostok if you prefer - learn more on the excellent Seat 61 site). It is possible to tackle it all at once (if you simply want to watch the scenery rush by, and you're a little crazy). Most travellers book sections of the journey on different days, allowing you to stop in major Russian cities along the line, or take day or weekend trips (for example, skiing in Krasnoyarsk or a couple of nights by Lake Baikal).

The latter, slower method doesn't just allow you to check out stunning destinations like Ulan-Ude, an Eastern Siberian city with an enormous Lenin head and a stunning temple, and Irkutsk, the surprisingly colourful city near Lake Baikal. Just as importantly for the coeliac traveller, it allows you to restock your food supplies along the way.

Perhaps my favourite view of the trip, enormous Lake Baikal frozen over, with snowmobiles and
miniature cars zooming around its snow-kissed surface. Image by © Anita Isalska

On-train dining: friend and foe

Aboard the train, you're at the mercy of the dining cart, on-board catering (if you booked it with your ticket) or snack trolleys that rumble irregularly from carriage to carriage.

I don't recommend booking tickets that come with on-board catering if you're coeliac. I did this a couple of times out of curiosity and it was pot luck: Boo, a biscuit. Yay, an apple. Boo, rye bread slices on top of a horrible meat sauce. Yay, dried fish swimming in salty water... ugh. I take back the yay...

The dining cart on the other hand was sometimes surprisingly versatile. On a couple of trains there were extensive menus, including small snacks that had only one or two ingredients (like chopped up fruit, Greek-style yoghurt, a plate of plain buckwheat). Opening times were erratic enough that I still wouldn't suggest full reliance on the carts, though they were surprisingly handy from time to time.

It's big, it's frozen, and it's China - so skid on it. Beijing in mid-winter. Image © Anita Isalska

Despite travelling in the middle of winter (with outdoor temperatures in the minus 30Cs), train carriages are kept toasty warm. So if you had dreams of bringing yoghurts, cheeses, milk, cured meats or other fresh supplies aboard the train, I assure you they'll spoil in minutes.

Instead I recommend stocking up on hardier produce like fruit, bags of nuts, potato crisps, rice crackers, meat jerky, banana chips and other items that don't need a fridge. Yep, rice crackers are dull. But I didn't see a single gluten-free bread or cake in a supermarket on my entire trip. I started in Beijing, arguably the less gluten-free-friendly of the two cities; stocking up in cosmopolitan Moscow would be easier, if you start the trip there (run this through Google Translate for a head-start on gluten-free Moscow).

Blue skies and elegant domes in Kazan, capital of Russian Tatarstan. Image © Anita Isalska

Samovar snacks: the saviours of hungry coeliac travellers

The one thing you can trust on board Trans-Siberian trains is a samovar filled with hot water, at the end of each carriage. Turn the tap and piping hot, drinkable water gushes forth.

It's essential to bring with you a thermos or heatproof cup (with a lid - just try getting it back to your train compartment without spillage otherwise). Gluten-free travellers should bring a supply of sachets that can be instantly made into filling, safe food, that don't take up too much luggage space. I crammed my rucksack with:

  • Instant rice or rice noodle snacks and soups (Thai Kitchen has a gluten-free range)
  • Gluten-free oatmeal, like Nairns. One bag of this is easily stuffable into a corner of a rucksack and it lasts a good long while if you use it with cunning, for example, in small quantities to bulk up yoghurt at hotel breakfasts or your train dining carriage, or as an instant oaty breakfast from the samovar.
  • Teas and coffees and gluten-free instant soup mixes, plus a heatproof spork to stir them up. 

It's a pain, but I do advise bringing at least a few sachets from home so you have trusted snackage at hand. I rather enjoyed waking up on a bunk bed, gently rattling from the movement of the train, stretching, and making my way to the samovar to make some oatmeal, gently stirring as I watched miles of snow-covered tundra zoom past the window.

Some tasty plov at a skyscraper restaurant in Ulan-Ude. Image © Anita Isalska

All hail Google Translate, for restaurants and supermarkets

Eventually you're going to need to replenish those supplies. While some brands list ingredients in English and other languages, you'll encounter plenty of produce that doesn't. I recommend using an offline translation app. Ahead of your trip, download the Google Translate offline language pack for Russian and Chinese and you'll be able to use your phone to scan and translate lists of ingredients right there in the supermarket, without using precious data or needing wifi. Nifty, eh? It was also very handy in restaurants for deciphering menus.

And of course, you'll want some gluten-free language cards (in Russian and Chinese) to make yourself understood (expect funny stares).

This canteen in Kazan made things fairly easy - observe and point. That's a chicken breast with a slice of melted cheese on top (believe it or not), with buckwheat and a Greek salad. Image © Anita Isalska

Gluten-free is a weird - nay, barely comprehensible - request in Siberia. So rather than giving restaurant staff the open question of "can I eat this?", it helps to start with some dishes on the menu that are less likely to contain gluten; "I can't eat XYZ; is [points to menu item] OK?" yields richer rewards. For somewhere to start, these meal items were common across Siberia and usually fine for gluten-free eats:

  • Plov, a dish of spiced rice with mutton and sometimes dried or fresh fruit like apricot or pomegranate seeds. It's a Central Asian staple, though you may need to check in on their spice mix, lest they've added anything peculiar (usually it's a mix of cumin, garlic, carrots and lots of oil making up the seasoning). 
  • Cold herring salads or herring with potato. As plain as it sounds, the freshness of the fish made this rather delicious. I never found this tampered with, or served with anything unexpected.
  • Russian salad, a mix of diced potato, diced beetroot, chopped hard-boiled egg, mayonnaise and occasionally peas.
  • Buckwheat (kasha) graced almost every menu and was always plain boiled with a little salt and no mystery additives. Top tip: find the dried stuff in supermarkets and where you have access to a kitchen (like in hostel accommodation), boil it up in milk for a nutty-tasting gluten-free porridge alternative - I became addicted to this.
  • Hot smoked omul fish was a favourite in markets near Lake Baikal, usually served with nothing other than tea. Grab a fish, whip out your own supply of carb and/or fruits and veggies, and you have a fine picnic to feast on by the lakeshore (or bring aboard the train if you want to share that fishy fragrance with your fellow passengers). 
  • Shashlik, skewered grilled meat. The trick is making sure they don't chuck it on top of a huge flatbread. If you're not already waving your gluten-free language card around, say "bez khleba" (without bread) to your Russian hosts.
  • Fancy fruit was probably the most fun at the Chinese end of the trip. I brought enormous purple dragonfruit aboard the train and scooped out the aromatic flesh with my spork, delicious.

Yep, literally a whole smoked fish and cup of tea. But if it's good enough for
Siberian locals... Image © Anita Isalska

Keeping a sense of perspective

Gluten-free aboard the Trans-Siberian Railway isn't easy. Surprise items will arrive on your plate. A day will pass in which you consume only instant oatmeal, banana chips and vodka.

These happened to me, and they'd occasionally make me clench my jaw. But then I'd look outside my window, drinking in views of a frozen lake. I'd see wooden houses with intricately carved eaves laden with snow, or a scarlet temple rising from a frosty plain. In the face of all that majesty, my grumbles faded instantly.

The journey won't be perfect, but that's what adventure means.

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.

Monday, 12 January 2015

Gluten-free Austria: belly-busting good times and bewildering EU food labelling laws

I'm fresh from a week of steaming Alpine soups and giant sausages, all of them gluten-free.

But forgive me if I don't beat my strudel-swollen belly in glee. Austria is a fine place to dine if you have to lay off gluten. But in the wake of the new food labelling legislation, it's not all sugar-sprinkled, jam-crammed, chocolate-drizzled loveliness. (Though there was a bit of that.)

Austria's mighty fine free-from

Let's start with the good and the great. There is some fantastic catering for special diets in Austria.

The wintry playground of Obergurgl was a hell of a way to burn
off the donuts (that's right, donuts). Image © Anita Isalska 

This ski trip in high-altitude Obergurgl was booked as a package. It was a winter adventure in honour of Grande Madame Free-From, AKA my mother, who was celebrating a special birthday. (She's 21 again, would you believe.)

The Wheaty Eater and I usually stay away from package holidays that include meals. It's hard to judge at the point of booking whether a place can cater for gluten-free, plus you can't usually be assured you'll get value for what you pay. The prospect of paying the same price as Wheaty for evening meals, if the only gluten-free offering is salads? My thrifty heart declines.

But organising a trip for a big group ended up much simpler in package form, so we took the leap. It helped that we'd had some good experiences on previous travels in Austria: take a bow, Gasthof Torwirt in Radstadt, with your legendary gluten-free schnitzel.

Plenty of places in Obergurgl promoted their ability to cater for special diets. But the place we settled on, Hotel Olympia, blew expectations out of the water.
Let's see... Tyrolean apple soup with gfree roll, fish terrine, pork roast and
cream-topped plum sorbet at Hotel Olympia. Dribble. Image © Anita Isalska

Hotel Olympia had a triple dietary challenge. There was me, of course, eating free from gluten. But also present for the celebration of Grande Madame's birthday was a vegetarian brother (tricky, in pork-hungry Austria) and his girlfriend with the double-whammy of veggie and gluten-free requirements.

Yet Hotel Olympia juggled it all with aplomb. Fish terrines and trios of pork were whisked out sans gluten. Vegetarian and gluten-free options often looked just as good as the carnivorous counterparts, with potato croquettes crisped up with gfree crumbing, seared white asparagus, and Tyrolean apple soup among highlights of the double-requirement cuisine.

We were happy, and most importantly so was Grande Madame – being a proper matriarch, she likes to see everyone in the party well fed. Good times rolled, and after a week of multi-course meals, the whole family was rolling too.

New food labelling legislation: mixed results in Austria

Beyond the waist-widening wonders of our hotel, fortunes were mixed. I was occasionally delighted to see clear allergen labelling in Austria, thanks to the snappily named Food Information Regulations EU1169/2011.

Even casual piste-side cafes often marked up which allergens were in their dishes, leading me to an especially gut-busting currywurst and chips. Gluten-free, and instantly regrettable as I waddled back towards the ski lifts.

You're beautiful, but disgusting. Odi et amo, gluten-free currywurst.
Image © Anita Isalska
But in some places, allergen labelling was used to warn against everything on the menu. Everything. We gluten-freers often joke about baked potatoes being the only safe port of call in cafes, but I encountered eateries in Austria where they marked up their spuds with a gluten allergy warning.

What in carbo-heck were they doing to their potatoes? Or is the new legislation already being misinterpreted or misused?

Baked potatoes, now with added gluten?

Here's my take on the new allergy labelling legislation, entirely based on my EU travels since the rules kicked in: it's good news overall, but there is plenty of potential for new frustrations for gluten-free travellers.

Some cafes and restaurants are seizing the labelling challenge. They're rolling up their sleeves and committing to declaring a dish gluten-free on their menus, and maintaining it as such. Where this happens, coeliacs and gf-lifestylers rejoice and chow down.

But there's a flip side. Certain other restaurants and cafes I encountered in Austria were going so allergen-markup-crazy that they labelled everything from salads to baked potatoes with an "A" (on the allergen key placed around most Austrian eateries I saw, the "A" flagged gluten-containing cereals as ingredients in a dish). Luckily the one below, at a cafe in Sölden, was safe from such confusion.

My first instinct when I saw allegedly gluten-containing potatoes on a menu was that the cafe was covering itself legally, in case of cross-contamination risks. Maybe they just love to fondle a spud with floury hands before they serve it up. Or perhaps they're anxious about a stray breeze depositing a speck of wheat flour on a potato, and would rather not risk declaring it a gluten-free zone.

After all, who can blame them for feeling the fear. If you're an independent business owner, you're probably terrified of being held accountable for someone with an allergy or intolerance keeling over due to a misplaced crumb.

But that's not it. The legislation applies to intentional allergenic ingredients, not cross-contamination. This either means there's a slew of cafes in Austria that genuinely sprinkle flour on their potatoes (seriously, halt that behaviour already), or the legislation is being anxiously misinterpreted.

Food service industry and coeliacs: can't we just be friends?

For coeliacs like me, the idea of greater overall clarity in food labelling is worthy of ticker-tape waving, shirt-tearing jubilation. But it's irksome to see that in practise, it might cause some food providers to shy away altogether.

What I want is honest dialogue about the ingredients and preparation of my food, not to be held at arm's length by a petrified food service. I'm not preparing for a nuclear legal assault, I'm looking for a bite to eat.

Like other gluten-free gourmands, I'm watching with interest to see how the new legislation shapes up Europe-wide. But having seen mixed interpretations of the rules during my trip to Austria, this seasoned coeliac isn't surrendering her emergency food stash any time soon.