I was tickled, and a little riled, to see this post yesterday on “how to travel gluten-free”, full of all sorts of not especially helpful information on what to do when abroad about eating gluten-free. While the author does note at the end of the piece that the purpose of being on holiday is to enjoy yourself, relax and experience unique cuisine, the advice in the article seems to contradict this, with such suggestions as phoning your chosen restaurant at 3pm to talk to the chef and discuss your dietary requirements. Perhaps I’m alone in this, but many of the restaurants I eat at on holiday look like they don’t have a phoneline, and I certainly wouldn’t stand a chance of discussing my eating requirements with the chef, given my knowledge of the local language is likely to be minimal at best. Joining a long queue of locals and pointing at the dish the person in front of you has just ordered doesn’t offer much chance for enquiring about the exact ingredients used. That said, if you take the time to learn a little about the local cuisine, you can easily avoid eating anything that will make you ill.
The author’s recommendation for staying healthy is to “Keep it simple” by ordering poached fish, baked tofu or steamed vegetables. Now in my experience, whilst in the West poached fish or baked tofu may be simple, I believe that regarding food abroad you should follow the old adage “When in Rome…”. Travelling to countries in Asia, Europe, North Africa, North and Central America after being diagnosed as coeliac, I can safely say the foods that caused me trouble were always those that were “Western” foods. The local foods are usually very simple, but delicious, and need no additives or strange ingredients in them. What you see is what you get. If you know that the locals use rice flour for their flatbreads, then they will use 100% rice flour. If it’s not a wheat-growing region then wheat will be very expensive, so there will be no reason for food to be adulterated with it. Soups won’t need to be thickened with flour, local tortillas will be 100% corn and chances are, the meat will be cooked up without any crumbs or flour added. It is the western food that proves problematic. If you ask for grilled chicken, the locals may well assume that, because you are western you want grilled, breaded chicken. Croutons will find their way into your Caesar salad. Disaster will ensue.
The key to eating out abroad is to do your research beforehand, suss out what the local dishes are and what they contain, go to a restaurant before you leave that specialises in that region’s cooking and try out a few dishes, with a waitress who speaks (a little) English to explain what you can have, and then learn how to read, write and order those dishes in the language of your holiday destination. This may mean learning to read and write a new alphabet, but it’s all part of the fun. It’s also worth taking the time to learn the names of a few dishes that you definitely can’t, or don’t want to eat while away, for example pacha, which is Bulgarian for head cheese. Not immediately obvious on a menu (especially in Cyrillic) but one for me that’s definitely to be avoided.
To me food is completely entwined with culture, and it is impossible to experience a different country without food being a part of that. To eschew local foods in favour of “simple dishes” of poached fish and vegetables is to miss out on a huge part of going abroad (unless of course the local food is grilled fish and fresh vegetables, in which case chances are they will be the best fish and vegetables you’ve ever tasted), and to completely ignore that insight into locals’ lives. A trip to India is not complete without a masala dosa, covered in chutney, eaten by the side of a dusty road with cars and tuk tuks beeping at each other, nor a trip to Central America without stopping at a roadside stall to eat fresh corn tortillas, still hot from the griddle and scented by smoke. This, to me, is real travelling, and eating is a big part of it; to cut that out for fear of being glutened, to spend your holiday days fearfully ordering the same grilled fish again and again, is to miss out on the best part of travelling.
And now for something completely different, a quick and easy potato salad. I made this with some spare new potatoes I had sat around, which I boiled up when I was cooking something else. This is very quick to throw together and is ace hot and cold; it was ideal prepared in advance for a Monday night dinner when I didn’t get home til late, but knew I would still want some proper food.
New potato salad with pancetta
10 small new potatoes, washed and halved
100g pancetta, cubed
12 spring onions, green and white parts, chopped
2 teaspoons wholegrain mustard
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon cider vinegar (or another light vinegar)
2 tablespoons light olive oil
1. Boil the potatoes in salted water for 25 minutes, or until fork tender right the way through. Drain and set aside to cool.
2. Fry the pancetta for 5-6 minutes over a high heat, until cooked through and turning golden. Set aside to cool.
3. Make the dressing by whisking together the mustard, lemon juice, vinegar and olive oil with a tiny pinch of salt (you may not need this as the pancetta will add saltiness to the salad) until an emulsion forms.
4. Toss the cool potatoes with the cool pancetta and spring onions. Pour in the dressing and toss until everything is coated. Serve cold, or reheat for 1 1/2 minutes in the microwave.