Watch What You Eat

One man's meat is another man's poison

03 May, 2015 by Vir Sanghvi

Do Indian restaurants pay enough attention to food allergies? The short answer has to be no. Some allergies are easy to handle. For instance, if you are allergic to shell-fish and tell the server, he will point out dishes on the menu that you can avoid.

But there are some allergies and intolerances that are much harder to spot.

Lactose Intolerance

On the whole, people who are lactose intolerant rarely die as a consequence of consuming a scoop of ice-cream. The most common symptoms are pain, cramps, bloating and discomfort. One theory has it that most of us lose the ability to digest milk as we grow older. But judging by the way ice-cream has taken off in the Far East where locals were supposed to be lactose-intolerant, I suspect that may be changing over time.

If you are lactose intolerant, most hotels will offer you a choice of soya milk. But unlike restaurants in say, America, which will offer you non-dairy ice-cream or desserts, Indian restaurants will not go the extra-mile.

Shellfish Allergy

This is a major allergy because it causes inflammation of the tongue, the windpipe and other parts of the upper respiratory tract. Hotels think you are okay because you have the choice of steering clear of seafood dishes. But it is not that simple. I know of at least one case where a guest had an episode at a five star hotel because a fish dish contained a shellfish sauce even though no mention was made of this on the menu. If you have a serious shellfish allergy then steer clear of many oriental dishes: real Tum Yom soup will include prawn brains in the recipe.

Nut Allergy

The bright side is that this appears to be relatively less common in India. The bad side is that you will find nuts in many dishes where you would not expect them to be there. For instance, peanuts crop up again and again in Chinese food and cashew nuts are routinely used by North Indian chefs, not just as a garnish but also in the form of kaju paste.

Monosodium Glutamate Allergy

This is called Chinese Restaurant Syndrome in the US because people reported headaches after eating at Chinese restaurants. Ajinomoto, the world’s foremost manufacturer of Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) seasonings did research and found that glutamate had no effect on our immune systems and therefore could not cause allergies.

Fair enough. But many of us have MSG-intolerance. Usually we can take small quantities of MSG but when it turns up in our food in great doses then it can cause a tingling sensation in the body and possibly, breathlessness and headaches.

Fortunately this is not as common as we think otherwise, as the American food writer Jeffrey Steingarten has pointed out, over a billion Chinese would have permanent headaches.

Gluten Allergy

The big one. It isn’t enough to avoid wheat though nearly every restaurant in the UK and US (but not India) will offer you gluten-free bread.

The problem is that gluten pops up everywhere: in such seasonings as soya sauce, in the covering on capsules, in hash-browns and many other products that you think of as being wheat free (sausages with a filling that includes bread, for instance).

If you have coeliac disease, then wheat can be potentially fatal. If its just an allergy or an intolerance, then the consequences do not extend beyond discomfort and bloating. But be very careful. Gluten is all around us.

Written By



Vir Sanghvi is India's best-known food writer and TV host. His book, Rude Food won the Cointreau Award for Best Food Literature book in the world and his food and travel shows on channels such as TLC and NDTV Good Times have won numerous awards and continue to be watched by millions.

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