We live in Toronto and travel often especially to visit family and friends in India. This annual trip has been challenging to say the least since being diagnosed with food allergies and intolerances. Over time I have figured out ways to navigate the culinary wonders of Indian cuisine and keep my daughter’s eczema at bay at the same time. Here are my tips for eating out with allergies in India.
30-40 % of the world suffers from allergies of varying degrees and types. In India, the awareness of allergies is still low but in recent years the number of diagnosed people has seen a steep rise.
In my daughter’s case, we started our food allergy journey a few years ago. Her symptoms were difficult to pinpoint because of the delay in reaction and the diagnosis was difficult. It was when we started keeping a food diary that we found some success in tracking her triggers.
During this time and since then, travelling with allergies has been a challenge. Dairy, soy and tomatoes are the big culprits for my daughter and guess what? Many Indian dishes have at least some form of dairy and many are cooked with tomatoes.
Eating at Home vs. Eating Out When You Have Food Allergies
One of the things I look forward to in India is meeting up with aunts and uncles and cousins. Most of the entertaining in India happens over a meal or two. With food allergies, it is a lot easier when the meal is at someone’s home. Home kitchens usually have a routine and I can always call beforehand to talk our food limitations through with the lady of the house. It’s dining out in restaurants that poses a challenge. Thankfully with a little bit of awareness and preparation, one can eat out with peace of mind.
Caveat: the advice in this article is based on my personal experience. I am not a doctor just a mom on a mission trying to help my family, my youngest, inthis case, be more comfortable in her skin. She has food allergies that make her very uncomfortable and cause skin-flareups. My choices are based on my research and experience.
Travelling to India? 11 Tips For Eating Out With Allergies in India
1. Awareness of allergies in India is increasing.
Many restaurants in larger cities are aware that there are foods that people avoid for health reasons. But many are not. So be prepared with your questions – make a note of what is important to you especially in regards to ingredients, the oil used and cross-contamination.
2. Call beforehand with your questions, and be direct.
I have often visited the restaurant beforehand to speak with the chef. It’s easier to gauge the doubt face to face, and often the host/ess or the waiters don’t have the knowledge of what takes place in the kitchen.
3. Choose restaurants whose cuisine is more adaptable for your needs.
For example, North Indian cuisine is usually heavy in tomatoes, dairy (paneer, ghee, butter, milk, yoghurt or cream), grilled meats, occasionally cashew and almond paste, wheat-based roti, naan, kulcha, parantha.
South-Indian dishes use rice and lentil flours, coconut and coconut cream and peanuts for garnishing. Curries are coconut-based though there may be some ghee that sneaks in, along with yoghurt.
In general wheat and dairy allergy sufferers have more options in this cuisine. Nuts can be avoided in South Indian dishes too if the chef is made aware.
4. If you are dining at a high-profile or westernized restaurant there is likely to be a website and there may be allergy-related information online.
5. Eating or drinking at a food court is likely to be riskier because the food is not made in a controlled environment.
But the upside is that in a group people can choose different cuisines and dishes as per their preference. My youngest will invariably choose dosa (rice and lentil flour crepes) and idlis (steamed cakes made with fermented rice and lentils) both are widely available street foods.
6. Read the menu carefully.
There may be ingredients and techniques listed that will give you all the information you need. Then ask your questions to verify what you have read.
7. Choose restaurants where the food is prepared in front of you.
In Indian cafes and restaurants, this is quite popular especially when it is street food. As long as the kitchen can be trusted to use clean water and fresh ingredients, this option works. Its easy enough when the food is being cooked and assembled in front of you, you can ask the cook to skip or add in ingredients based on what you need.
Other Things I have Learned Eating Out with Allergies
8. Religious restrictions mean that vegetarian and vegan dishes are easier to come by.
9. Many processed items are naturally free of dairy. The use of butter and cream reduces the shelf-life of foods and so often manufacturers will avoid using them to give a longer expiry date. Check the ingredient labels.
10. Dalda or hydrogenated fats is used often as the grease of choice in cooking. Restaurants and manufacturers though will hesitate to be honest about its use because the general perception is that “good restaurants use oil and ghee.” Dalda while awful for many other reasons (blend of oils, hydrogenated fat and disgusting flavour) is always dairy-free and mostly soy-free as well.
11. You can’t always trust the label. Yup, that is true for India. Research the company, restaurant and packaging before taking the plunge. Trust your gut.
Eating out with allergies can be challenging for sure. The upside is that we are eating more homemade meals to avoid certain foods for fear of an allergic reaction. Travelling in India though is amazing partly because of the delicious food. I’m glad that with a little bit of preparation we can still have peace of mind while we dine out with allergies in India.
Puneeta Chhitwal-Varma Photo by Tanvi Madkaiker
Author, Educator, Speaker
Puneeta is a writer, food advocate and guide for those who seek earth-friendly, delicious solutions that work for real life.