Sunday, January 18, 2015

Week One: Trials and Tribulations

So the first week of my gluten free diet has come to a close. This week has certainly been filled with challenges, but I am still on the wagon and determined to continue my gluten free mission.

Since last speaking I have been facing the challenging of purchasing gluten free foods both inside stores and restaurants. The former has certainly been easier than the latter. There are many great stores in my neighborhood, Sai Ying Pun, that cater to gluten free eating. One in particular has stood out, SpiceBox Organics on Third Street. They have a vast amount of gluten free eating options, many of which are alternative grains like quinoa, amaranth, and millet - these come in easy to make packages that run about 40-50HKD each, so quite affordable.

I know the shopkeepers from before, and they were extremely sociable and willing to help me in my pursuit. I even got the chance to set up an interview with the owner of the shop, Punam Chopra. She was able to provide some valuable insights on gluten free, organic shopping, and other natural products. Punam had moved from NYC to Hong Kong in 2006, at this time she says she was shocked by the lack of organic quality food products and produce on the market here. She opened SpiceBox hoping to provide these products to the public. She noted that there has been a surge in the demand for gluten free products in the past few years, and therefore nearly all of the products in her store are gluten free.

Here were a couple of the things I tried upon first purchase:

This was the Ancient Grains Spanish Style blend with quinoa, millet, and amaranth. I thought this one was just so-so, not quite as flavorful as I would have hoped for. However, it was still an alright selection and the Ancient Grains line as a whole stood up pretty well.
Here is the Ancient Grans Macaroni and cheese which I coupled with mushrooms and fresh garlic. This was perhaps my favorite option so far. I would definitely recommend to add some mushrooms if you like and the Tabasco Chipotle (also gluten free) adds some flavor which seems to be somewhat lacking in the gluten free products I have tried so far.

Now that we have gone over my good experience shopping in stores, it is time to target the challenges that I faced. My first difficulty came about on the first day when I was having an intense craving for chicken. I previously had always gone to La Rotisserie on 3rd Street, which is a French run organic chicken joint, with really great tasting chicken. I figured I would call in advance to inquire if the sauce which they marinate their chicken with contains gluten or not. So I called and I think it might have been a language barrier but no one had a clue what I was talking about, they didn't even understand the word allergy. 

I ended up going to the store to speak in person. The attendants had no clue what I was asking about and eventually got out the head chef and manager, Rudy Quintana. He informed me that the chicken had been seasoned and he was not aware as to whether or not the mix contained gluten. Somewhat frustrated, I purchased chicken for my friend and resolved to eat something else that day.

Rudy did provide a card and email through which we further corresponded. I gave him some information on gluten free and he got back to me shortly. The seasoning did in fact, contain bread crumbs. He let me know that if I could order in advance a whole chicken, he would prepare it gluten free. He also provided me a list of which sides were gluten free. This was all helpful and I did appreciate his willingness to accommodate my request. Still, I was beginning to see first hand the difficulties and inconveniences that go into having an allergy to gluten.

Other restaurants were much more difficult, as of course in Hong Kong there are severe language barriers. I completely avoided very local style shops as any time I even attempted to ask I  would be glared at and of course perceived as incomprehensible. I shortly became limited to eating at home or at very Western, eating options in Soho like Life Cafe and Little Burro. Though these restaurants were easy to order from and had a great level of awareness into gluten free eating, they weren't exactly cheap. So for some of the days I went to work, I would pre make gluten free pasta to eat in the office.

I also quickly became aware that nearly all of the food in 7-11 contains gluten. It seems as if gluten is a staple in most processed foods, which we tend to eat out of convenience. On a particular hunger filled day I was confronted with the vending machine.
It was in this vending machine that I assessed my options. I usually wouldn't eat this junk but I was totally starving and knew I was liable to fly into some sort of a hunger filled rage if I didn't eat within the next half hour. So, I searched peanut butter m&m's on my phone and to my surprise found them to be gluten-free. So I quickly purchased and scarfed them down. This was certainly not healthy, but it did provide convenience.

This week has come with its challenges and a few times I experienced increased fatigue and irritability when I couldn't find a thing to eat. Convenience has been thrown out the door and it has been incredibly frustrating at times because I feel out of control, in terms of being able to eat. It has taken a lot of preparation and planning to regain this sense of control. The more I pre plan my meals the better my days go. Being extremely busy with my 3 jobs and school, this has been incredibly exhausting. I am certainly gaining a sense of empathy for those with celiac disease living in Hong Kong, it is not an easy task!

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