When I was 7 or 8 or 9, I had one of my first gigantic allergic reactions after eating with my parents and extended family at an Italian resto downtown. After that I hardly had any restaurant food except for from Cross-Rhodes and The Wiener and Still Champion in Evanston, both trusted by my parents. If we did eat out at a restaurant, it was something American. Burger, no bun. Steak. Big hunks of USDA-approved beef were safe. McDonald’s was okay for a while (now their fries have dairy). And when I went on my college roadtrip, I found out I could eat Subway, wooo! But anything else – Asian, Mexican, French, and ESPECIALLY Italian – was suspicious, and thus avoided.
This changed when I went to college. Middletown, CT is not really a mecca of culture by any means, but there were solid Thai and Japanese restaurants that many students frequented. I went to Typhoon Thai and Mikado Sushi a couple of times with my group of friends during my first year, but I only ordered edamame or plain steamed rice out of caution. I was that girl that just ate rice. Whatevs.
I think I actually tried sushi my first year too, but it was the prepackaged kind they sold at the campus grocery store and the ingredients were all there. The first time I went to a sushi-proper restaurant I only had edamame. But I looked at the menu and asked some questions, discovering that sushi is essentially pretty simple: raw fish, rice, seaweed. Wasabi and ginger if you like. What could be easier to eat than that?
I’ve been a fan for life forever after. I know to avoid anything “spicy” and anything with a tempura batter. Only once have I been to a sushi bar (Hama Matsu in Andersonville) that added random things to their rolls not disclosed on the menu, and I spotted it immediately.
Early in my Junior or Senior year of college I took another risk. I tried some Thai food from Typhoon. I worked for the student health office at the time and we were always ordering thai food for our events in order to entice people to come. There was a stir fry that we ordered – it looked fine, and according to the menu it had nothing I was allergic to. The only thing I was worried about was peanut contamination.
Don’t get me wrong, peanut contamination is a big issue. Peanuts are used in several Thai and Chinese dishes. See my previous post on this poor girl.
But when I was young, my parents and I developed a plan for new foods. Take a bite and wait 15 minutes. So that’s what I did.
And I was fine. And pretty much have been with Thai ever since, except for the time I tried curry (I have an oral allergy to coconut – it won’t cause anaphylaxis but makes my tongue itch like mad).
A few years ago I found I could also have the wide rice noodles in pad khee mao, drunken/crazy noodles and that has since become my absolute favorite Thai dish. The best that I’ve had in Chicago so far is at Thai Classic in Wrigleyville.
I eat from Asian restaurants frequently now, and not just Thai and sushi places. Bon Bon is a Vietnamese sandwich and noodle joint down the street that has delicious vegan tofu banh mi and vegan pho. We also live by Bill Kim’s uhh-mazing Belly Shack, which has a number of plates that I’m not allergic to. At this point, Asian cuisine is almost a go-to when we’re looking for a place to eat.
I will never eat Chinese food.
Part of my reliance on Asian food comes from the fact that it’s so traditional – 90% of the time a dish you see on one menu will be exactly the same on another. Even so, I always alert any restaurant about my allergies.
The culmination in my experience with Asian cuisine was on my most recent birthday, when I went to Union Sushi & BBQ Bar and sat at the chef’s table.
So how horrified would my mom be if she knew I went to a restaurant without a clue as to what I’d be eating? Extremely horrified, so let’s hope she never reads this. Given my allergies, I’ve understandably never experienced any sort of chef’s tasting or omakase before. But after looking at the chef’s table form on Union’s website (there’s an allergy section), I thought, “well maybe I could be accommodated.”
And accommodated I was, to my delight and everlasting gratitude. I went over my allergies with a couple of hostesses before we came in, and then again with Chef Chao. I think he may have been a little annoyed at how paranoid I was, but everything that he placed in front of me was perfectly fine for me to eat, even the fried stuff (they used tempura breading without the eggs). He also made some dishes separately and without alterations for Jeremy, so he could enjoy his oyster shooter with a quail egg.
We felt like royalty, dining on quail, kangaroo, fatty and super white tuna, and all sorts of fried crustacean delights, even fried oyster, which I have never had before and never thought I could have.
I literally left my life in Chao’s hands, and boy was I ever rewarded. I could not thank him enough for taking care of us, and I think at some point during the meal I almost cried.
I think it’s the characteristics of Asian cuisine that make it more easily adaptable to my dietary restrictions – except for Chinese, the fast food nature of which I’ve never trusted. Italian? Cheese and eggs abound. Mexican? Cheese or sour cream in many dishes, unless you go out of your way to find a less “gringo” joint. French? Butter butter butter. And American? Cheese, sour cream, ranch, eggs, butter, mayo…etc. Asian? Rice, chilies, lime, soy, and some form of fish are the hallmarks of most dishes. Peanuts and eggs are usually more of a topping or a part of a sauce rather than a main element. It’s spicy, salty, sour, simple and delicious.
And that’s why I love Asian food.