Part 4: Mama's challenge
One wrong decision and it could be painful psoriasis, eczema flair ups, debilitating headaches, loose stools, smelly farts, poor gut health, increased irritability, allergic rash and even anaphylaxis. The reality is, it isn't easy feeding a family when ALL of us have food related allergies. We suffer from gluten/wheat intolerance, lactose intolerance, oat allergy, shellfish allergy and onion allergy. It’s crazy!
Being the main person in charge of everyone’s daily meals, my biggest concern for this month-long road trip was the accessibility of food that was safe for us. Having your own kitchen in your home base can be difficult enough. Travelling makes food preparation even more challenging. Don't get me wrong, we LOVE travelling. We long for life on the road where we are free. We accept that without the lows/challenges, there isn't the highs and triumphs!
Understanding the challenge and preparing for it
The fact is, Asian countries are far behind in legislating compulsory allergy warnings and labelling on all restaurant menus. There is also little awareness of the seriousness of food allergies. Supply of gluten-free products are scarce and expensive. A regular loaf of bread can cost just $2.50 but an equivalent loaf of gluten free bread can cost between 400% to 500% more.
I made the decision to cook at least one meal a day so as to not overwhelm our systems and end up sick. My 1st hack was to bring 2 bottles of Zyrtec-R allergy solution and a half-used bottle of Lee Kum Kee Gluten-free Soya Sauce. Asian cooks can't live without soya sauce but do you know it contains GLUTEN?
Second hack is to deliberately make stops at major supermarkets before checking into our accommodations to stock up on wheat free/gluten free snacks just in case we were not able to find any suitable snacks in the smaller shops (especially when up in the highlands). We found these at really good prices at Jaya Grocer in JB and Cold Storage in KL. They also carried a good selection of GF Barilla Pasta, Bob’s Red Mill products and other GF premixes for cakes and pancakes. Pre-marinated frozen meat varieties we bought were very useful for our meals too!
Breakfast so far has been easy to sort out - eggs or corn/rice cereals with fresh milk from the supermarkets for the kids and a big batch of mochi brownies I had baked the day before our trip (lasted about a week). Vincent and I are not big on breakfast, but coffee is an absolute must. It doesn’t help that we are such picky drinkers that we had to lug along our smaller Nespresso machine and all our favourite capsules. No lactose-free milk in the places we shopped at, so it’s long blacks or americanos or BOH tea everyday for me
Lunches and Dinners
On days that we don’t eat out, our meals mostly consist of rice/hash, vegetables, fruit, nuts, eggs, tofu, pork and fish. I must say that the best meals were made from the fresh veggies we bought at the Cameron Highlands Pasar Malam. A bunch of completely unassuming vegetables and fruits for all of Rm10. (So fresh that we even found a tiny earthworm at the bottom of the bag the next morning in the fridge!) You can read about our awesome time and see the mind-blowing views here.
Vincent and Matthias are now willing eaters of cucumbers and brinjals because these were so crunchy and tasty! And OH! The strawberries! It’s not exactly peak strawberry season now so the prices were slightly different at 1+1 box for Rm15 OR 2+1 for Rm25 (depending on stalls) but it didn’t really matter to us because every single strawberry in the giant box was a deep ripe red with no bruises whatsoever, complete with bright green sepals and they smelled AMAZING. We only bought a single box (Rm10) because we didn’t want any to go to waste in the event we failed to finish consuming them. I remember telling Vincent earlier today that I’d totally be making strawberry bakes and frosting all the time if we lived here because 1. price, 2. the consistency of colour and taste of every strawberry.
Fresh produce aside, I had other things to adapt to, like cooking in someone else’s kitchen. Up to this point, we’d lived in 3 Airbnb apartments.
The JB apartment that we started our trip with is not worth talking about. It looked the best and most promising prior to arrival, but the kitchen was absolutely unusable and grotesque. Let me just simply put it as the house had a mould problem. We left after a single night.
House #2 in Bentong, Genting Highlands surprised us with clean surfaces, sheets and upholstery. It actually smelled clean. The kitchen was equipped with an electrolux oven (which we didn’t use). It came with mugs, plates (no bowls), the usual cutlery (but no teaspoons! We drank coffee with tablespoons haha), a small non-stick frypan (but no spatula) and a medium sized pot. My biggest pet peeve is disgusting dish sponges and while the sponge in this house didn’t come with food residue like the previous house, it had a strange odour to it. Thankfully we managed to solve it with soap and boiling water and basically revived it’s freshness. Grabfood/Foodpanda options here were extremely limited. I think at one point I remember seeing only a single restaurant on it despite having many local zhichar restaurants within a 10min walking radius. We had many simple but satisfying home-cooked meals here which the kids found comfort in. The Electrolux induction cooktop here was an absolute breeze to use. I honestly enjoyed cooking in this place until the day we ran out of pasta/noodles on the last night and I had to cook rice. First ever attempt at cooking rice in a simple pot turned out surprisingly decent (credits to YouTube of course).
House #3 in Brinchang, Cameron Highlands which had a large and new Panasonic rice cooker! You can imagine how excited I was. Rice cookers are essential items in a (mostly GF) Asian home. (We spotted 2 other families carrying their rice cookers into their cars as they checked out from their apartments too!) The kitchen here was half the size of the previous one BUT it came with bowls and teaspoons and a microwave oven! The single ceramic cooktop here was not as great as the induction top, because temperature control was relatively inefficient. Add to that, a stone wokpan that wasn’t nonstick in the middle and we got quite a bit of charred bits on our dishes this time around. We also had to get our own spatula and dish sponges in the end because theirs was mouldy. We aren’t big on diy steamboat meals, or steaming dishes but this kitchen was well-equipped with steamers and steamboat pots. Apparently people in Cameron love a good steamboat meal which explains why you can find restaurants offering them at almost every corner! FoodPanda/Grabfood app offerings are pretty decent here. You’ve got the usual Starbucks, CoffeeBean, Maccas, Marybrown, Dominoes, PizzaHut and some other local restaurants. Delivery fees and food prices are reasonable too. We haven’t had the need to use any food delivery service since the start of the trip but I thought I’d check and have backup plans for meals.
Some advice for anyone booking entire apartments on vacation with intent to cook meals:
Mummy needs a holiday too right? Some days we just decide to take small risks and eat out. Some particular cuisines are safer. E.g. Eating Sushis, rice bowls and Korean dishes is relatively safe because they are mainly rice based. But I still had a spell of bad headache from this meal because the soup had onions in them. Sometimes we just indulge and pay the price later on. It's a holiday and we all just want to enjoy really tasty food! Bak kut teh and Hor fun turned out alright with no immediate reactions.
We take risks and try to mitigate them. E.g. Chocolate ice cream doesn't hurt the kids but the gluten from the cone does. So we let them lick/eat the ice cream and not give them the cone. The kids ENJOYED their fish and chips and then had eczema flair ups and became really irritable. Some risks however we don't take. Vincent stays far far away from shellfish because his allergy can kill him.
I’m really looking forward to the next leg of our trip. We are done chasing mountains and we really miss the awesome views, fresh air and cool temperature. Back to the city, we’ll probably be eating out more, especially with greater availability of allergy-friendly and familiar food establishments!
Vincent & Debra Kwan, Founders of Hiro & Jack and stay-at-home parents with the odd life.
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