As you know I spent most of last week away from Gluten Free and the City and the United States. I was in Budapest for a big work meeting. Budapest is a lovely city, and this past trip was my third time there. Memories of previous trips to the city (which is really two cities Buda and Pest, joined by many bridges over the Danube River) are dominated by herding adults to various locations, puzzling over the spelling and pronunciation of Hungarian words, and enjoying hearty Hungarian food. This past trip was sure to include the first two items, but I wasn’t so sure about the third. This past trip was my first time in Budapest gluten-free.
Traveling abroad gluten-free is a challenge. Speaking the language is a serious benefit, but even then, trying to explain celiac disease and gluten in my native tongue can be difficult. I do not speak Hungarian, and I bet that most gluten-free travelers are also not armed with that tool. So because you will probably not be able to eloquently articulate your gluten intolerance and why it is important that your salad not be prepared in the same bowl as the one with croutons, you must arm yourself with a couple of other tools.
Knowledge of the Cuisine
Having been to Budapest before, I am familiar with the food. It is hearty, meaty, starchy, and has all the potential to be contaminated with gluten. Since I was at a large meeting, all our meals were buffets and I didn’t really have the option of grilling the waiter anyway. I avoided anything that looked like it could have gluten. Sadly, this meant I didn’t enjoy the goulash, any sauce dishes, and rarely a dessert. I did have a mix up once though, where I thought what was actually gnocchi was rice. I luckily asked a native Hungarian before I ate any, but it was on my plate. I stuck to salads and simple meats. Knowledge of the cuisine is especially important when traveling to China or Hong Kong, since pretty much every dish is seasoned with soy sauce, which is wheat based.
Since one of the joys of travel is tasting the cuisines of different cultures, you’ll probably want to sample as much of the local food as you can. At least, I do. In this case, do your homework and research potential gluten-free restaurants or grocery stores where they carry gluten-free items. I’ve heard rumors that European countries are more gluten-free friendly than the US and it is possible you’ll find some great GF restaurants or reliable GF shops that you would not have found otherwise. You can also do research on gluten-free brands worldwide. Also, if you have your heart set on going to some great restaurant that isn’t gluten-free, contact the establishment. Most likely, someone there speaks some English and can help you out. It is better to prepare the restaurant for your arrival then to spring your dietary restrictions on them (especially true for set menus).
Know the Terms
Learn how to say gluten-free in whatever language is spoken where you are going. If that isn’t a popular phrase or saying, learn how to say wheat, barley, spelt, rye, and the most common gluten-containing items like flour, pasta, and bread. You can use these phrases in your email or phone call to the restaurant. A great service that does this for you is Select Wisely. They provide information cards that explain your allergy/intolerance in many different languages. This should ensure that you can dine free of gluten.
Worst case scenario is that that the cuisine is gluten abundant and your research has failed to provide an alternative. This is super unlikely. Most likely, you’ll be sick of eating salad all day and not enjoying dessert with your travel companions. Because this is likely to happen unless the cuisine is amazingly gluten-free friendly, you should have some snacks on hand to satiate your cravings. This is especially important on long plane rides. I request gluten-free meals, but sometimes they are really pathetic and sometimes gross. I bring Larabars and trail mix on my plane rides, and usually this does the trick.
Traveling to Budapest gluten-free was actually quite successful overall. Despite eating only yogurt, fruit, plain meats and salad, that was really all I craved since it was quite hot and humid there. There were some gluten-free victories: ice cream and chocolate mousse for dessert instead of pastries; and mishaps: a waiter not understanding English at all and ending up with a wrong but thankfully gluten-free order (the same waiter misunderstood my order or lemonade and instead I got Grand Marnier!).
I’m off to Austria in a week for a much needed vacation with the boyfriend and his family (read: mom, sisters, and sisters’ significant others) and I’ve just requested my gluten-free meal on Air Berlin. I’ll let you know how it goes!
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