Can I speak to the chef? How to travel on a special diet

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New flavours are among the great joys of travel, but there’s a whole crowd of travellers out there who have to ask exactly what they’re eating. Those of us with food allergies or intolerances suffer all the inconveniences that travelling veggies and vegans do, with the added fear-factor that we could get ill from eating the wrong thing.

As a traveller who has to eat gluten-free (that means no wheat, barley, rye and yes, no croissants), I’ve done a lot of sign language in restaurants and supermarkets. Not to mention squinting at ingredients lists, furtive dictionary use in cafes, and silent seething at bland in-flight meals. Following a special diet hasn’t curbed my appetite for travel. And I’ve found sympathetic and knowledgeable chefs the world over, who have cooked gluten-free nasi goreng (Malaysia), pizzas (Italy), pierogi (Poland), and left that wheaty wafer off my ice cream (too many countries to count). So don’t be daunted if you or your travel buddy has to avoid certain foods. These eight tips have seen me stuff my face safely all over the world, and there are benefits to careful eating that might surprise you.

1. Prepare for in-flight disappointment. If you’ve ticked the dietary requirement box for your in-flight meal, you may be in for a flavourless feast. I’ve watched fellow passengers eat bacon sandwiches while my gluten-free substitute was a shrink-wrapped apple (thanks, Etihad). Until airlines jazz up their free-from menus, you need to travel prepared. Bring back-up snacks for the journey (taking care to check import regulations so you don’t cross borders with illegal foodstuffs), and stash away some emergency supplies for when you're on the ground.

2. Know your enemy. A bit of research into the local cuisine will flag up danger zones, whether it’s a food group you have to avoid (dairy, gluten) or you have a more specific allergen (like certain nuts, soy, prawns, eggs). Is every curry laced with peanut oil? Do they dip in flour before they fry? Arm yourself with the right questions: southeast Asian salads are often dressed with shrimp paste, French chefs add beaucoup de butter, and many eastern European dishes are dotted with hidden bacon. You might need to be explicit when asking about ingredients that are second-nature to the cook.

3. And know your body. Only you can say whether a crumb of your enemy food will leave you feeling slightly ill or fighting for your life. If you could be hospitalised as a result of eating the wrong thing, it’s particularly important to tell your airline, research restaurants (on a site like Allergy Eats), have a good stock of your allergy medication (and accompanying doctor’s note if you carry an epipen), and know local emergency phone numbers. Stay in self-catering flats or hostels with kitchens if you need to prepare your own food. And keep language cards close when you hit the town: a translated explanation of your needs is heaven sent for gluten-free eaters, dairy-avoiders and those with allergies. But make sure they reach the person preparing your meal, not just the serving staff. I’ve had plenty of experiences where the waiter has been daunted enough by my requirements to say there’s nothing in the restaurant I can eat, but once the chef has seen the language card, I’ve left with a full belly.

4. Get a sympathetic travel buddy. ‘I don’t know what I’d do if I couldn’t eat dairy!’ sighs your travel partner, in between mouthfuls of creamy English trifle. Resist pushing their face into their dessert and hit the road with someone who ‘gets it’. Someone who won’t whine about window shopping restaurant menus, shift awkwardly as you quiz the waiter or tempt you to take chances that imperil your health. (At the other end of the spectrum, you don’t want to dine with someone who champions your cause to the extent that they’re rude to the serving staff.)

5. Ask before you order your drinks. There’s nothing more awkward than a snooty waiter saying all he can serve you is lettuce after he's uncorked that pricey bottle of Pinot. Ask early and you can make an easy exit if they have nothing you can eat (or if their attitude stinks). But be sensitive that your requirements might be out of their comfort zone: countries have very different levels of awareness about food intolerances and allergies. Some eateries might be too scared to serve you in case you drop dead, others will assume you’re just a fussy eater. Keep smiling to make it clear that you’re not rejecting the local cuisine, you’re asking for help to sample it safely.

6. Bask in the victories. There’ll be some shockers on your travels: I couldn’t believe it when I found a bottle of water in Portugal that said it was 'fortified' by wheat. But there will be fantastic surprises too. I imagined it would be tricky to dodge the dough in Australia, homeland of pies - but nearly every bakery seemed to have gluten-free cake. People clucked in sympathy when I said I was venturing for flour-free adventures in the spiritual home of pizza and pasta, but Italy turned out to be one of the easiest places I’ve travelled, with superb flexibility from cafes and farmaccias packed with gluten-free pastries, breads and pasta. (I didn't want to return home.)

7. Enjoy freshly-cooked fare. Food intolerants aren’t popular at many eateries because our meals often have to be cooked in a separate pan from scratch. Added hassle for the chef, but rather nice for you when you glance over from your piping hot meal at the lukewarm all-you-can-eat buffet or curdling vat of days-old soup being slopped out for the other punters.

8. Make the most of human interaction. Travelling with a food intolerance is a hassle, sure. But it will also open doors you don’t expect: genuine, involved conversations with a food-loving market vendor, a passionate exchange with the chef whose daughter has an allergy, and kindly old ladies guiding you through a local supermarket. And I've been hugged by enough chefs to see the silver lining.

Related article: Tips from a food writer: how to find culinary bliss around the world