Sunday, October 20, 2013

Gluten-Free & Vegan in the Philippines

How do I know that jet lag has subsided?  Not waking up and feeling confused at my surroundings.  The first few days back from the Philippines were definitely like that - disoriented and wondering if I was truly awake upon the random motorcycle revving of my alarm clock.  But now I feel 100% back in Texas.  Back to my daily routines and the things that are comfortable and familiar, like my bed, my car, the drive to and from work, teaching Pilates, grocery stores, and my favorite restaurants where they know me by name.  

But allow me to say that it was nice to be uncomfortable for that month on the other side of the world.

Austin is remarkably accommodating to dietary constraints, whether it be vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free, dairy-free, carb-conscious, paleo, etc.  Living here, it's actually strange if your diet isn't particular in some way, shape, or form.  Whenever I travel, whether it be cross-country or just an hour outside of town, I am always quickly reminded how easy I have it here; to have as many 'particularities' as I do and not only eat, but eat really well.  So I was not deluded that there would be challenges in finding gluten-free, vegan food options.  The tricky parts for me were (1) communicating that need effectively to others and (2) being flexible and adaptable to the gluten-free, vegan options once I found them.

As I wrote in my post last year on eating gluten-free and dairy-free in the Philippines, using the root word, bawal [bah-wahl], in reference to my allergies was invaluable.  It translates loosely to "forbidden" or "prohibited" in Tagalog and as opposed to hindi puwede [hin-dee pooweh-day], which means, "I cannot," bawal truly emphasizes the nature of your concern more as a need rather than a want.  Using allergic [ah-lair-jik] also came in handy, and I actually used it more often this time around.  Speaking of "lactose intolerance," "gluten-allergy," or "Celiac" seemed to confuse infinitely more than it clarified.  It just is not part of the daily conversation there.  So I kept description of what I could or could not eat ingredient specific for the most part, singling out milk, flour, soy sauce, meat, eggs, etc.

Here are just a few examples of sentences in Tagalog that helped me to communicate my "canary" diet to others:  

Ako ay allergic sa gatas, harina, at toyo. [I am allergic to milk, wheat flour, and soy sauce.]

Karne at itlog ay ipinagbabawal para sa akin. [It is forbidden for me to eat meat and eggs.]

Walang tinapay. [No bread.]

Mayroon bang toyo, patis, or mantikilya? [Does it contain soy sauce, fish sauce, or butter?]

The washtowels are to protect me from hitting my head. I was too tall.

My sister, Jessica, (who is also vegan) and I were super fortunate that everywhere we stayed, whether it was a relative's home or a hotel, we had access to a full kitchen.  My parents knew that she and I would not be able to eat most of the food that would be prepared for us, so that was a primary concern in planning our trip.  I don't know that most people plan to be cooking most of their meals on their vacation, but that was certainly the case for us.  And it was awesome.  The palengkes (open-air markets and bazaars) were a treasure trove of amazing local vegetables, fruits, nuts, seasonings, and dry goods, being sold at nearly incomprehensibly low prices.  To put it into perspective, I could easily buy two or three days' worth of produce for roughly 300 pesos, the equivalent of about 8 US dollars.  [insert a few beats of silence for emphasis]  You could even get it for less if you're good at haggling.  Being able to afford so much for so little, my sister and I had to restrain ourselves from buying too much - it was just so seductive, the freshness and the convenience of it all.

Beautiful, exotic, local ingredients.

At the palengke in Baguio.  

A view of the nationally famous bagsakan in Villasis.

And with our bounties, we regularly made feasts together, sharing our "strange, exotic" way of eating with family and friends.  Even though we were using ingredients that were familiar and everyday to them, the way in which we prepared them left them looking on in wonderment.  Filipinos tend to eat a lot of meat, especially pork, chicken, and seafood - it's present at every meal.  So for them to see us prepare entire meals without it was truly mind-boggling.  And when they tasted it, that would really floor them.  "No meat?  Really?"  That always made our parents very proud as they would gloat in Tagalog or Ilokano, "See, I told you gluten-free, vegan food could be delicious."

3-course meal prepared during our 1st week at my Auntie Becky's condo.

Dinner for eight, cooking at the hotel in Manila.

Cooking at the hotel in Mactan City.

But trouble presented itself whenever we would travel, go on a day tour, or be away from a kitchen for an extended period of time.  We would pack food: leftovers in our small coolers, fresh and dried fruit, nuts, banana chips, green powder, etc.  But even that would only get us so far.  It was frequent for us to be in a situation where our snacks would run out and the selection of restaurants available to us would have nothing that was both gluten-free and vegan.  This is where we had to fend, and while my sister was able to at least eat bread to sustain her when the going got tough, I did not have that option.  And that's when it would get ugly for me.

As anyone can attest to, hunger and low blood sugar can bring out the beast in us, especially for those with a quick metabolism.  That was definitely me at various points on our vacation, as my frustration at the situation would sometimes begin to bleed over into frustration with those around me.  And after one particular incident on a full day of traveling where I ran out of snacks, did not eat for nearly 10 hours, and nearly blacked out in the process, I knew that something had to give.  How did I even let that happen?  Forget that we were in a foreign country where my dietary constraints are on the fringe and my explanation of them in slow, but sure, Tagalog is usually met with a confused smile - How did I forget to take care of myself?

That was a big reality check.  Here, at home, I am able to control and monitor just about everything I eat.  I pride myself on maintaining a clean, balanced diet and being able to respond to my body's needs with efficiency and precision.  Greens?  You got it.  Protein?  Beans and nuts are on the way.  Sugar?  I've got some fresh fruit with your name on it, Jonathan.  But being on vacation and actively on the move, that ability is taken away.  And you have to adapt to what's available and make it work, regardless of what your body may be telling you sub textually in terms of the type of foods that it wants.  Keep your blood sugar from crashing.  Stay hydrated.  Do not starve your body and brain as you pass up less desirable food options and hold out for what your body is asking you for.  Sometimes I thought I could will myself past those mandates.  

But no, I couldn't.  [sound of person running full speed into a brick wall]

What this translated into was sometimes doing things that didn't make me feel very good, like eating two bags of sugar glazed banana chips in one sitting, ordering rice as my one and only course, eating tofu at every meal.  But in hindsight, none of them feel as bad as when my blood sugar is lingering somewhere around the soles of my feet.  

The super silver lining of it all was when we would discover a restaurant where gluten-free and vegan wasn't just gibberish to the employees.  We found at least one in every city, where it would be clearly marked on the menu, where the servers spoke with confidence and gleaming smiles when asked about ingredients, and where I could be reminded once again just how fortunate I am to live in a city where this is the status quo.  The meals at those restaurants were amazing, clearly inspired in their creation, and with an attention to detail that did not go unnoticed.

Eating here just once is not an option.  

Kare-kareng gulay and Arroz a la Cubana at Corner Tree Cafe.

Discovered Azotea Greens randomly in Baguio.  Unforgettable meal.

Meeting my cousin for the 1st time over great food (of course).

So while it was not easy, it also wasn't difficult once I was able to get out of my own way.  Knowing the keywords, no matter how broken my Tagalog was, and embracing the experience for what it was, and not what I wanted to make it, were the cornerstones of successfully navigating my travels and avoiding getting sick from either gluten or dairy.  I definitely grew as result of my vacation, taking any discomfort and using it as a springboard to search beyond what is comfortable and everyday for me - to let go of the familiar and open my eyes to what is in front of me.  And hopefully, through reading some of these little tidbits of information from my side of it, you will be inspired to do the same.


And if you're in the Philippines and wanted to check out those "silver lining" restaurants, below are links to their websites and their addresses.  Tell 'em that Jonathan sent you!

Corner Tree Cafe
150 Jupiter Street, Bel Air, Makati City, Metro Manila

Azotea Greens
Lower Ground Floor, La Azotea Building, 108 Session Road, Baguio City

Edgy Veggy
#3 Brixton Street, Kapitolyo Pasig, Metro Manila


  1. Ahh! This makes me feel a lot better. In July I will be leaving for the Philippines for the Peace Corps. I'll be there for 27 months and I've been kind of scared about my diet. I'm vegan and in all the info packets and such that we've been given, they're pretty much all like "IT'S PRACTICALLY IMPOSSIBLE" since meat is such a staple in the daily diet of filipinos.
    I don't want to starve, but I also don't know how to approach this topic with the host families I'll be staying with and such.. I guess we'll just have to see. The translated phrases were super helpful! :)

    1. I'm glad they helped, Dorothy! It's definitely a challenge when traveling to maintain one's diet, especially when encountering different cultures, different languages, and different awarenesses regarding veganism. I wish you all the best and please enjoy your time in the Philippines! Ingat!

  2. I was so pleased to read your blog. We have just moved to Baguio City, and I was wondering if there would be places like these available. Thanks so much for sharing your experience - encouraging.

    1. Most definitely! I was sooooo happy to have stumbled upon Azotea Greens - it was delicious and they were very helpful and accommodating. If you find any other places that I should know about, please feel free to email me and let me know. :)


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