We were ready. Ready to embark on an incredible adventure to explore the coast, culture, and cuisine in Los Cabos, Mexico. This would be a Summer to remember.
Eager to indulge in a true Mexican meal, my mouth began to water as I scanned through the many delectable dishes on the menu. I struggled to settle on which item to try first. After an exhausting internal clash, I finally opted for shrimp tacos. The server approached us and began to speak in his native dialect, Spanish. While our family collectively has knowledge of more than 10 languages, Spanish is not one. I pointed to the item I wished to order on the menu, and the server began to scribble it down in his notepad. That's when it hit me. As I futilely attempted to explain my food allergies and the precautions necessary to avoid cross-contamination, the server nodded with a puzzled look on his face. Uh-oh. I took another quick glance at the menu and noticed the plethora of items that contained tree nuts, and didn’t know how to proceed. Luckily, another server, fluent in English, quickly came over and assisted us with our order and addressed my allergy concerns. After the delicious, and (thankfully) safe meal, we returned to our hotel room to prepare for the beach.
This incident lingered in my mind, however. Naturally, I turned to the internet in search of cards written in Spanish which would explain my food allergies to the chefs. After about an hour of pursuit, given the limited internet capabilities abroad, I finally managed to attain some cards which, for the time being, would have to do the trick.
Upon reflection, we, Arul Nigam and Shirali Nigam, the brother-sister duo, knew there had to be a better way for travelers to deal with food allergies. We were inspired to develop a more robust system. Building on our own experience with allergies, and reaching out to a world-renowned food allergy expert and linguists we built AllergySmartz – an app for travelers with food allergies. Requiring no internet access, the app helps to convey the necessary precautions for safe food preparation to restaurant staff despite language barriers. Featuring the Top 13 Allergens and 20 Languages (as of May 2017), the app is also user-friendly for non-native English speakers.
And so, with the launch of AllergySmartz, and our blog, FoodAllergyLowdown that soon followed, our “Crusade to Educate” began.
Disguised Allergens: Uncloaking Southeast Asia
Over the past decade, we have travelled extensively to Southeast Asia with severe tree nut allergies. While its charm and conviviality offer a nonpareil experience, dining out can be a challenge. The exotic cuisine is quite literally a palette of flavors. Often times it is a buried ingredient – that is the unseen enemy!
Twenty-five years ago, most people in Southeast Asia knew only their local cuisine. Today, with cultural globalization, food culture that existed locally has opened up to a wide range of foods that are now as diverse as its consumers, with each region having its preferred method of cooking. It is this synthesis of artful recipes that pose a substantial challenge for those with food allergies. The odds of a hidden ingredient are significantly higher. As you set out to dine out, the culinary intricacies might seem complicated and the allergy information long-winded… but NEVER assume, ALWAYS ask.
Following are some hidden ingredients to be wary of on your travels. Vigilance is key!
You are more powerful than the enemy allergen. Engage with the enemy on your own terms. You are in power. Being cognizant, well-informed, and aware, are key to combating this enemy. Until you cross the bridge of your insecurities, you cannot begin to explore the endless possibilities. With AllergySmartz on your phone and wanderlust in your veins – you can fly, roam, and explore.