Monday, October 22, 2012

Gluten-Free & Dairy-Free in the Philippines: Finding Fresh Perspective

I'm finally back.  

After three amazingly fulfilling weeks in the Philippines, here I sit in front of my computer, almost recovered from jet lag, and ready to start writing again.  As you might imagine, I was in no rush to get back to the States.  I'd found a sense of "home" with my family, my grandmother, and my cousins overseas that I'd never experienced before.  For the most part, the pace of life there was so much less harried and stressful - people took care of each other and looked out for one another.  And making time to eat as a group, sitting outside drinking beer or fresh coconut juice in the shade of a mango tree, and singing karaoke at any given opportunity would always trump stacking one's day with obligations and appointments.  It was the epitome of bittersweet to leave that life and my loved ones behind.

And the food.
There is absolutely no way to speak of the Philippines without speaking of the food. 

Caturay blossoms, wing beans, bittermelon, and saluyot in Laoag.

 Mangosteen, front and center, at an organic fruit stand in Tagaytay.

Vendor in action at the Villasis Bagsakan.

The way of eating there redefined the meaning of fresh for me.  Our trips to the public markets were an overwhelming and heavenly smorgasbord for the senses and my mind was continually blown by how much we would get for how little we would spend.  And while it's true that carnivores do reign supreme, vegetarians and vegans can still eat like kings and queens.  And so can those adhering to a gluten-free diet, as long as you're crafty and clear.

Naturally, when I first arrived, I had a generous helping of anxiety with each meal, wielding my digestive enzyme supplements like a sword.  Is knowledge of a gluten-free diet or Celiac Disease something's that widespread in the Philippines?  Absolutely not.  What about lactose intolerance?  Ditto.   I could count the places that I saw any mention of gluten-free, dairy-free, or vegan (or any allergy information for that matter) on one hand. And because of that anxiety, I didn't really enjoy eating for the first few days and was a bit of grump.  But what I eventually learned was that my way of eating in the States could not and would not translate to how I ate in the Philippines.  I had to wipe the slate clean, take my basics (i.e. the things I could not eat because of allergy/intolerance), and adapt.  

Organic red rice and Kare Kareng Gulay at the Corner Tree Cafe.

Breakfast of pandan steamed rice cake and fresh lanzones. 

Salad display at the famous Taal Vista Hotel buffet - all gluten-free.

For example, in the States, I only eat grains on occasion, preferring a vegetables and protein diet.  But saying that you don't eat rice in the Philippines is like saying you don't breathe air.  So I began eating rice with everyone.  And while most of my diet is vegan here in the States, it became much less so in the Philippines, so much so that I might coin the phrase, "What happens in the Philippines, stays in the Philippines."  But it didn't matter - because I was eating with everyone.  Eating like everyone.  And so long as my non-negotiable basics were met, I was going to be okay.  One's diet should promote wellbeing and the ability to thrive, and with some adjustments in my approach to eating, I was able to sit around the family table, loosen up and be happy, and avoid becoming sick, despite eating a drastically different diet.  

Family style.  Rice, meat, and then more rice.

3 types of banana: (L to R) Saba, Latundan, & Lakatan.

Kutsinta, a steamed and sticky rice cake covered with coconut.

(L to R) Gulaman at sago, green mango salad, fresh dalandan juice.

While wheat and dairy products are now everywhere, especially in the form of Western restaurants like McDonald's, KFC, and Pizza Hut spreading like wildfire though the Islands, when you dig down to the roots of Filipino cuisine, it's amazingly gluten-free and dairy-free friendly.  The most prominent seasonings are vinegar, fish sauce, salt, and sugar, and a lot of the traditional recipes are soups, stews, and steamed or pickled salads that are gluten and dairy-free by nature.  Where one with a gluten allergy/intolerance would need to be concerned is soy sauce, which is a seasoning associated with the more Chinese influenced dishes like fried rice and stir-fried noodles.  And when it comes to dairy, most food will not involve it, but many desserts will use it in one form or another, whether it be cream, cheese, milk, or butter.  So the key is 1) knowing what the highest percentage choices will be, and 2) knowing how to ask questions and effectively communicate your basics to others, whether it be friends, relatives, or staff at a restaurant.

A rest stop on the way to Subic Bay.  Isn't it tragic?

A message from the mayor in Villasis  to keep it clean.

During the first week or so, I had been saying hindi puede in reference to gluten and dairy, which translates to "I cannot" in Tagalog.  But what I learned was that while I meant, "I cannot," it was most often understood as, "I choose not to," which I would attribute to the fact that most people there have never heard of a gluten or dairy allergy.  And as those of us with food allergies know, the difference between how one treats an allergy versus a preference can have huge implications.  

A breakthrough was learning the word bawal, which translates to "forbidden" or "prohibited."  I'd never heard it before, but on my trip I saw it everywhere in reference to laws and regulations, so it entered my vocabulary as I fumbled to regain some sort of fluency. When a cousin asked, "Bawal kabang kumain ng kanin?," which loosely translates to, "Is it forbidden for you to eat rice?," I realized that I could use bawal in the context of food.  And when I began doing that in reference to particular food items, like soy sauce, milk, butter, and flour, everything changed.  For my relatives, they now understood that it was no longer a choice that could change day to day, but a hard and fast rule: Jonathan cannot eat A, B, C, and D.  And soon enough, they were even more thorough watchdogs than me when it came to my food, asking questions of the servers or whoever cooked the food that day and checking back with me to make sure it was safe for me to eat.

We ate here twice.  Extremely gluten-free and vegan friendly.

I love this photo: cooking in the "dirty kitchen" in Laoag.

My grandmother with grandkids and great-grandchildren (and Bokie).

The combination of opening up to the experience of eating in the Philippines and finding the best way to communicate my allergies to those around me was truly invaluable.  Without either, I would never have been able to fully immerse myself in the joy of being with my family, celebrating my grandmother and her remarkable ongoing legacy, and breathing in the culture of the Islands.  Here in the States, I am solely responsible for nearly everything that happens in my life, whether it's driving from point A to B, paying my bills, putting food on the table, etc.  But there, I barely had to think about it.  While it was painfully challenging at first to relinquish control and the way in which I micromanage my day-to-day routine and to rely on others, in the end, I think it was the lesson I was meant to learn while I was there.  And perhaps the lesson I was meant to share with you today.

Connect with those around you, help them and allow them to help you, and then be profusely grateful for that opportunity.  Because it is not what we give each other, or even to whom we give it that really matters, but more the act of giving itself.  And while you have time, in this moment and each moment to come, find that gift and pass it on.


  1. Fantastic article, Jonathan! We need more articles like this one to encourage international travel for those with Celiac disease and food intolerance.

    1. Agreed, Rachel! I wish I could travel all over to help find ways for those with food allergies and dietary restrictions to feel more comfortable and safe in other countries. Thank You!

  2. Hi Jonathan,

    I was fortunate to have stumbled upon your blog today and I just wanted to thank you for this post.

    Initially, I was searching for gluten free versions of traditional Filipino recipes. I recently discovered that I am gluten intolerant (and soon will be tested for Celiac disease). Having been raised on my parents' amazing Filipino cooking, suddenly not being able to have it was saddening.

    Even though I love to cook, I'm ashamed to say I don't know how to make any Filipino dishes on my own. (Though I've helped my mom a few times to complete them.. if that counts) I have always thought of myself as American primarily since I was brought here at the age of 1. Although, my family reflects most Filipino ones-- very close, very large, and very rooted in their culture. They've instilled in me what ties they could which I'll always be grateful for.

    I've been back to the Philippines twice now and I was deeply moved by this post. I think my emotions on going back ranged from overwhelmed (with feeling like I was just meeting a lot of relatives for the first time) to focusing too much on feeling like an outsider. Perhaps in this small step to try to reconnect with ethnic roots, I can go back with a changed perspective.

    1. Walang anuman, Marielle. I know all too well that feeling of loss with confronting a food allergy/intolerance. And while I've come to a place of acceptance and celebration of my dietary constraints, going back and being surrounded by so much nostalgic food was definitely a challenge.

      But challenges can be roadblocks or stepping stones. And I chose the latter. I'm packed to the gills with traditional Filipino recipes that I hope to experiment with and adapt to make gluten free, dairy-free, and most likely vegan. And it's not only for me, but for the countless others that are searching for connection to their roots, like you.

      I sincerely hope you find recipes here to help you find that connection, Marielle. And if you ever have any questions, please don't hesitate to email me. Maraming salamat for your thoughtful and heartfelt comment.

  3. A very nice piece. It is always a challenge when you step away from your regular routine at home. Thank goodness for family; they never wanted us to be bored or forgotten about for one nano-second. I have to go through my notes from the trip and write a few stories myself =) I still have tons of photos to upload too. It's hard to come back to earth after such a beautiful trip. I've definitely been cooking some adaptations of some dishes we had. Tatay is intent on making a Vegan kaldereta ;p Nice job, Kuya. I hope out next trip back isn't too far ahead in the future. Mabuhay!

    1. It is *definitely* hard to come back to Earth. I'm almost there, but I think it'll be okay if I don't come back all the way. Looking forward to your posts and all the best with the vegan Kaldereta, ading!

  4. Your blog is quite revealing to me. I’m glad to have come across it while searching on the net to find out how expansive is lactose-free products in the Philippines in my quest to accepting my situation fully. I’m on my second week of experimenting on a lactose free diet as I think I have finally come to terms to the sad fact that I am lactose intolerant. It is really tough for me to face the reality and come to a realization I will no longer be able to feast on my favorite food, the desserts! At this stage, I am still “in denial” of this situation as I often still manage to cheat with a bite of mouthwatering cupcake after a boring meal and being a Filipino I should be least likely to be intolerant to dairy products as we love good food and we thrive on sweet food and we make good ones out of milk, butter and flour and I live in a country known for the best chocolates in the world. I have already entertained the thoughts of going back home without my list of must buy desserts that people are raving about and the chocolate lover in me will just leave all the good taste in my memories. My exact feeling now is like your vacation to the Philippines, all good things come to an end…


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