I recently returned home from a fabulous trip to Hong Kong, Beijing, and Southern Thailand. Having had such an easy time finding delicious, gluten free foods on previous trips, I must say I was quite surprised by how difficult it was to find gluten free foods on this trip. Most of the restaurants and hotels I visited were not familiar with the term “gluten free” and it turned out that between noodles, soy sauce, and MSG, wheat flour was an ingredient in most menu items.
While not everyone follows a gluten free diet, we all have foods that we particularly favor and a lot of us are trying to fuel our bodies with certain foods in order to reach personal health goals. Traveling to unknown places can be quite a disruption to our normal eating habits, and if we don’t plan well, can derail us from our health track.
Having so many clients that travel frequently for business, I know I’m not alone in the struggle to eat well in a new place. I’ve put together this simple list of 8 Healthy Tips for Eating Abroad:
- If you have any dietary restrictions, request special meals from the airline when you book your ticket. Unfortunately these meals often aren’t very good (are the regular meals any better?), so see #2.
Pack food to take on the airplane with you. Airports and airplanes are (real) food deserts and you don’t want to be stuck for hours or days without food. If it’s the first leg of your trip, you can pack more perishable items like hard-boiled eggs, chicken salad, green salad, or whatever leftovers you have in the fridge. Don’t count on the airline-provided meal to be any good and don’t necessarily expect to find a balanced meal at an airport during your layover. (If you don’t plan well, you may end up eating potato chips and apple juice for dinner.)
- Consider the time that you will arrive at your destination. If it’s late, you may not have access to food when you arrive so plan to bring a snack to eat then as well.
- Pack non-perishable snacks that should last the duration of the trip like sprouted nuts and seeds, dried fruits, jerky, and protein bars.
If you have dietary restrictions, carry a card with you that explains your dietary needs written in the language of the country you are visiting. You can search for these online, or ask your hotel concierge to write it out for you. (This works most of the time, but be prepared in case you run into a server that can’t read.)
- Find a grocery store when you get to your destination to stock up on balanced snacks to eat during your stay so you won’t be at the mercy of restaurants.
- Just like you research where to stay and what to do ahead of time, research where to eat. For example, you can search for gluten free restaurants on Trip Advisor or travel blogs. There’s nothing worse than being hungry and not being able to find a restaurant to suit your dietary restrictions.
- Enjoy yourself! This is a time to try new foods and have an adventure. If all else fails, eat a protein bar.
If you are planning a trip to any of the places I visited (or just want to live vicariously through what I ate), here are some of my recommendations:
Hong Kong: I (gluten free) visited my friend (vegetarian) in Hong Kong so we had to find restaurants that suited us both. We found Mana! and Life which were both organic, vegetarian, and gluten free. While they weren’t necessarily unique experiences (the cuisine was similar to what I might find in California), the food was delicious and made our bodies feel amazing.
Beijing, China: Beijing is where things got really tough. Apparently Northern China cuisine relies more on wheat products like noodles and dumplings, while Southern China consumes more rice. Luckily, hot pot is a traditional dish that can easily be made gluten free by asking for no soy sauce and no MSG. We found a fun little hot pot restaurant called Little Sheep and it turns out they also have locations in California! My favorite dining experience in Beijing was at Temple Restaurant. The staff at Temple understood our gluten-free needs and offered to make us a gluten free version of anything on the menu. They sympathized with how hard it is to find gluten free food in Beijing, so they ended up bringing us the entire, 8-course tasting menu to make sure we had enough to eat. Needless to say, I was full.
Koh Samui, Thailand: Thai food is much easier on a gluten free diet as most restaurants offer curry, rice, and soup. I downloaded this handy gluten free restaurant card and most places were able to accommodate my needs. My hotel, Napasai was very accommodating, providing steamed rice and gluten free toast at the breakfast buffet, offered gluten free pasta, and helped explain our dietary restrictions to restaurants when making reservations for us. Our favorite restaurant was Barracuda (which we went to twice) for their wide variety of meats and vegetables and excellent flavor.
What are your experiences with food traveling in Asia?