Friday, July 1, 2011

2011 Gluten Free China Flashback

I spent the entire month of May in China.  It was my 5th time visiting the Middle Kingdom, and most certainly will not be my last.  Since returning home my life has been super busy.  I just handed in my first complete draft of my dissertation, have spent countless hours working my business HELPING HANDS BOOKS, am gearing up for my orientation for my new position as a Social Work Professor at West Chester University, and have made sure to enjoy the weather by rafting, biking, skateboarding and hiking:) 

I miss China. Not only because of the amazing people and things I get to see, but because of the food.  Now you might think that being forced to eat gluten free would be a barrier to enjoying one's stay in China, but if you're well prepared, it's not a problem at all.  I always bring numerous copies of my Chinese Gluten Free Statement with me.  You can download it for free from SCRIBD.  I also bring a couple bottles of Gluten-Zyme, just in case there's a chance at accidental gluten exposure.  Every time I went out to eat, I simply handed the wait-staff a GF statement, pointed to dishes on their menu and asked "hao, bu hao" = good, no good?  With that simple exchange I was able to eat safely, and amazingly well throughout my time in China.

I collected quite a number of food pics during my journeys, and I'd like to share them with you:)
First I'll start off with a few pics of coffee drinks.  One of my favorite places to kick back, study, or socialize was the International Coffee House located at the top of CTBU's campus.  The prices were reasonable, the service was exceptional, and the coffee was top-grade.  The coffee shop also had an amazing view of the city of Chongqing.  I spent many hours there loving life.  The baristas were also amazing artists as demonstrated by these pics... 

The first place we stayed at was called the Bamboo Garden Hotel, and was located in Beijing.  They had an amazing breakfast buffet (catering to us foreigners) every morning, from which I could order fresh omelets or scrambled eggs.  After showing my GF statement to the waitresses, I was shown what was safe and not safe to eat.  It was nice starting everyday with an anxiety-free full belly:)

The following are some of my favorite staple meals I enjoy when in China.  This first one is called "ma po dou fu" which basically means spicy chili tofu with a bean-based sauce, topped with minced meat.  This can be easily made gluten free (i.e., no soy sauce, no wheat/rye/barley), so show them your GF statement when you order this!

These next two dishes are among my favorites!  The first is simply thin slices of pork or beef, with chopped chili peppers and bok choy.  I always order a bowl of rice with this dish and leave completely satisfied.  The second is sizzling beef with peppers and onions.  It comes out on a cast-iron hot plate steaming and spitting oil all over the place... and it's soooo goood! 

Here's a picture of some local moonshine I tried out.  From what I was told, foreigners never ask to try this local delicacy, so when I asked that they fill up a bottle for me, they were equally shocked as they were impressed.  The jugs were filled with an extremely potent form of aged rice liquor. Each jug had a different amalgamation of herbs, berries, and other fruits that gave the liquor it's unique taste, and from what I was told, medicinal qualities.  The only medicinal effect I experienced however, was that it put me to sleep!  Boy was it strong! and tasty:)

And finally, I want to talk about large group meals, of which there was many during my month-long stay in China.  As is tradition in China, when a quest comes to visit, especially a guest from far away, large formal meals are always planned as a way of showing hospitality, strengthening friendships (and political alignments), and showing off one's local culinary delicacies.  These meals were always a little uncomfortable for me, not because of the people, but because I hated having to ask for special treatment due to my gluten intolerance.  However, wherever I went, they were always more than accommodating.  They would always point out what dishes were naturally gluten free, but would also make special dishes just for me.  I would, of course, put my gluten free dish on the round robin and let everyone else share it with me.  Such meals ultimately ended after round after round of toasts of beer (which I couldn't drink) and Bai Jio (Chinese rice liquor).   I love the communal meals that are very much a part of everyday life in China.  And I miss sharing food the way that the Chinese do, after I return home to the land of individual plates:)  But as I said earlier, I'll be back! And when I do, I'll enjoy every single bite as I eat my way across China.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Gluten Free in Roma Italy

Rome was a beautiful place.  The final part of a three-week international journey... Rome proved to be an excellent ender. I was excited to arrive in Rome, not only because it was what it was, but because  I've read that Italy is a sweet place for living gluten free.  From what I've read, it is common to find restaurants offering a variety of gluten free pasta, breads and desserts.  Soon after arriving in Rome, we met a friend, who had a friend with Celiac Disease; and said he would be happy to bring us to a nearby restaurant that specialized in gluten free options called Il Maggiolino. So we said "let's go!"... and we did.  My very first meal in Italy was completely gluten free.  It was pure heaven!

I started with a small bottle of local red wine and gluten free focaccia bread drizzled with olive oil
and dusted with freshly chopped herbs. Yum!  The menu was loaded!  It took me a while but I finally settled on the gluten free gnocchi.  I have not had gnocchi for more than 5 years.  The last time was a gnocchi and Gorgonzola cheese dish I put together in our little dorm kitchen at Buffalo State. That was real good, but this was even better! I ate my gnocchi slowly and deliberately, not uttering a word for blocks of time.  Awesome...

For dessert I ordered the gluten free tiramisu.  It was drizzled with a cream cheese sauce and covered in cocoa powder.  I thought the presentation could use a little work but the taste was out of this world.  When I left the restaurant I was drunk with food more than wine.  It actually heart to move for an hour or so.  The remainder of my stay was filled with being a tourist, going to some of the historical areas, eating great gluten free meals, snacking on gelato, sipping cappuccinos and watching the world do its thing.  Italy...  We're far from done... I'll be back.

Here's all the information off the card from the restaurant "Il Maggiolino": Ristorante - Pizzeria Forno a Legna Pesce e Carne. Specializzati anche in PRODOTTI FRESHI Pizza - Pasta - Pane - Dolci - Gelati SENZA GLUTINE.  (Address) Via Alessandro Cruto, 9 - 00146 Roma. Tel. 06 557448.

Gluten Free Flashback: Galway Ireland

As I'm writing this, I'm sitting on a neon beanie bag seat in the Netherlands home of my good friend Maaike. Mindy is on her computer going through photos she's recently taken, our morning cups of instant latte are half gone, and life feels refreshingly relaxed.

About a week ago we arrived at our first destination, Galway, Ireland.  I've never been to Ireland and have always dreamed of it.  Galway is a small seaside, fisherman's city.  It's filled with quaint, warming pubs where everything is made out of wood, Guinness flows like rivers, and Jameson Whiskey bottles decorate a good proportion of bar-side liquor shelves.  Unfortunately, I was unable to locate any gluten free beer, but their local hard cider, Bulmers, was just fine by me, and was absolutely everywhere.

At the very first meal we had, within our hotel "The House", the waiter knew everything about celiac disease, and could easily identify what was safe for me on the menu.  I went for a plate of sliced meats, olives, artichoke, sundried tomatoes, roasted red peppers, and a spicy wasabi mayo. The bread served with it - warmed and gluten free!  That set the tone for what would be the easiest and most enjoyable gluten free eating adventure I've ever been on overseas.

It felt sooo comforting to know that 9 times out of 10, any place you went to eat at, would either have gluten free options on the menu, or they would know exactly what celiac was about, including cross-contamination issues.

At a dinner-meeting with a woman from the National University of Galway, I happily ordered the lamb chops with mint glaze and potato wedges.  It was cooked medium, a bit pink in the middle, and melt-in your-mouth delicious. The eatery we were at, The Cook House, was three floors of winding wooden bannisters and railings, decorated to the T with everything from antique paintings, bronzes, to vintage Halloween decorations and mood lighting.  Awesome place!!

Other notable meals included a salmon and caper sandwich at our hotel restaurant, and a totally amazing traditional Irish stew at one of the coolest pubs I've ever been to: The Quay.  It was a lamb stew, with huge chunks of soft, slow-cooked lamb, potatoes, cabbage, spices, and tomatoes. It included sides of mashed potatoes, cabbage and a julienne of onions, red and green peppers. The Quay was, like most restaurants and pubs in the area, woody, tortuous, and soul warming. Unlike many, The Quay even had a glowing fire-place right next to the upstairs bar.  That was my last and best meal in Ireland.

I loved Galway. I loved the feeling I got as I was walking around the cobblestone streets, or along the sea-side paths.  First time in Ireland... but absolutely won't be the last:)

Our Final Days in Jamaica

The Honeymoon is over. Boooooo!  Mindy and I are back in body but not in spirit.  Granted, our work week was short, but after the amazing experience we had in Ochos Rios, Jamaica, we're having a hard time getting back into the grind.  After our Blue Mountain adventure, the next trip we made was to Dunn's River Falls.  We hopped aboard a "booze-cruise" and sailed along the coast to the mouth of the falls.  They made us all hold hands while we climbed, which was pretty ridiculous for us since we've spent countless summer days climbing the waterfalls of Ithaca, NY, but it was still fun.  I think they have everybody hold hands due to the high amount of inebriated tourists that descend on the spot throughout the day:)  It can be pretty slippery too. As soon as Mindy let go of my hand and began to pave her own trail, her feet flew out from under her and she took a spill.  She got right up though. She's tough like that.

The next adventure we took on was a trip to Bob Marley's grave. We ended up meeting a couple of Londoners that hooked us up with two great local tour guides.  We spent the entire day with them driving through mountain villages, meeting people, and taking in amazing views from lookout points.  The driver took us through the 9-miles of road that led to Bob Marley's house.  Mindy and I have always been big Bob Marley fans. In fact, our mutual love for Marley's music was one of the first things that drew us together back in 1996:)  Being there was kind of emotional.  It was an amazing experience for both of us, and we'll definitely go back the next time we visit Jamaica.

After leaving Bob's house our tour guides asked us what we wanted to do.  We said we wanted to visit a local restaurant popular with the locals.  They both said "no problem mon!" and brought us to a great place specializing in curried mutton and Jerk dishes.  I ordered the Curried Mutton, which came with rice and beans cooked in coconut milk, and some slaw. The meat had a good deal of bones throughout, but I didn't mind since the taste was amazing!

We spent our remaining days getting massages, laying out, swimming, snorkeling, and eating at all the resort's restaurants.  We also took advantage of the buffets and room service meals. It was awesome!  I wish we were there right now:(  Oh well, I'm sure the two of us will be on another amazing adventure sooner than we think... that's kind of how we roll:)

Biking Down Blue Mountains

The days are passing much too quickly.  I wish our honeymoon here in Jamaica could go on forever:)  We are both feeling so spoiled, and we're loving every minute of it!  Tuesday evening we ordered room service dinner again. This time I chose the "Saumon Fume": Smoked salmon served with caviar, sour cream and capers. I'm not very accustomed to caviar, but I have to say, it was pretty good.  It's definitely a textural experience.  The eggs tasted like condensed sea, and they popped like little water balloons on the roof of my mouth.  The salmon was excellent, especially when mixed with capers and a dab of sour cream. Very good meal!

Afterwards we wandered down to the chocolate bar, which had about 20 plates of chocolate goodies, and a chocolate volcano to coat fresh chunks of fruit. I kept to the solid chocolates and the chococano. We loaded up our plates, walked onto the beach, and enjoyed our chocolate while reclining on beach chairs watching for shooting stars.

The next morning we woke up to room service knocking on our door to deliver our breakfast. It's awesome having your breakfast delivered every morning. We have an ocean-view room on the top floor of our building. Sitting with each other, having meals, completely private, the sounds of gently lapping waves in the background, the distant cries of gulls, and the wind blowing through the coconut trees; it's all very romantic. Like I said... I could get used to this:)

After breakfast we headed off to the Blue Mountains, to take part of a mountain biking adventure.  The ride was about 2 hours, so I was able to really get a good look at the countryside of Jamaica. Mindy said it was just like Tanzania, and I thought it was very similar to the less wealthy areas of China.  But it was beautiful everywhere. The Blue Mountains were gorgeous and tropical. The air was warm, humid, and sweet with the scent of flowers and vegetation.

The bike trip ended up being only one way; down hill.  They brought us up as far as they could go and then guided us down the narrow winding road we had just driven up.  We stopped whenever we wanted to, talked with the locals, took in the views, and looked completely ridiculous in the helmets and pad get-ups they forced us to wear. 

At half-way point, we stopped at a small restaurant/coffee roasting station for lunch.  They served us Jerk Chicken with spicy rice boiled in coconut milk. I asked them about the various gluten sources I needed to avoid, and they assured me none were used.  It was an awesome meal. My lips were left slightly tingly and my whole body was being warmed from the inside out. 

Our meal was finished off with a freshly roasted, ground, and brewed cup of Blue Mountain Coffee.  I drank it black. Not something I typically do; I'm a light and sweet guy. But I could see the oil droplets, filled with flavor, appearing at the surface of the coffee after every agitation, and I had to know its taste. It was great. Very earthy and rich. I didn't even mind that it was black. It tasted that good. And it was grown right there, right around where I was sitting. I could see coffee plants all around me, scattered along the steep slopes.  I had passed many on the side of the road while riding down the hill.  And what I was drinking right now was locally harvested by Jamaicans working for a Jamaican company.  I just love this stuff!

After our meal we finished off the biking tour with a dip in a pool under a waterfall.  I was the first to swim out and climb behind the waterfall, and I dove off of every rock I could find:)  It was a great way to end the trip! I took in everything again as we drove back to our resort, enjoying every scene, knowing that all too soon this amazing adventure would come to pass. Like every other journey before it.  Like every journey ahead.

Arrived in Jamaica!

Wow, what a fast few weeks! The wedding is over and I'm in Ochos Rios, Jamaica at a Sandals resort with my new wife.  The Wedding was absolutely magical.  It was supposed to rain, but it didn't.  The ceremony was beautiful and flawless.  Our friends and family were wonderful. During the cocktail hour near a reflection pool surrounded by huge trees, the sound of an enormous bullfrog bellowing from the pond, flower petals caught by the wind lightly showered the guests. Everyone had a blast, getting goofy pictures taken in the photo-booth, eating, drinking and dancing their brains out. Mindy was unbelievably gorgeous! It was magic. It really was:)

Now it's Honeymoon time! Since we arrived in Jamaica all of our stresses, cares, concerns, worries, what have you - all of that is slowly seeping away into the sand, salty waters, waterfalls and pools. We have been eating a lot, drinking a lot, and relaxing a ton. It's nice. And it's only been a day and a half! I could definitely get used to this:)
Our room is completely stocked! It has a bar included, complete with mixers, wine, champagne, and four bottles of liquor where all you do is lift your glass up to the bottle and you get a perfect shot.  It has scotch, vodka, gin, and Appleton Special Jamaica Rum.  
Appleton is all over this resort, and is given out as contest prizes and bonus gifts when making "adventure tours." We're going to do a Blue Mountain Bike Tour tomorrow, and of course, we were given a complementary bottle of Appleton mon:)

The first night we were here they had a beach party with tons of food served out on the sand. It was pretty sweet. I gathered a smorgasbord of the offerings. The list included curried mutton, beet/date salad, local spiced greens steamed with carrot wedges, jerk chicken and pork, king prawns in chili sauce, and steamed clams.  Awesome!!  

Just in case, I took a couple of gluten-zyme tablets.  

When we returned to our room a plate with chocolates had been placed on our bed with a little note congratulating us on our marriage.  It was a nice touch:) 
This morning we ordered a room-service breakfast.  I ordered the "Jamaican" which was a mixture of spicy non-battered fish, eggs, plantains, red pepper, onions and a healthy portion of black pepper. It was served with potato wedges and two bread balls.  I gave those to Mindy:)  The coffee was from Blue Mountain, and it was great!  And the papaya was sweet and perfumey.  
We spent the whole day swimming in the ocean, laying out, sitting under the shade of palm trees, reading books, listening to music, drinking from pool bars and doing absolutely nothing productive.  About an hour ago we returned from a couples massage that was given to us by our friends Andy and Peggy.  Thank you Andy and Peggy! It was awesome.  Now we're waiting for our dinner to arrive. And later there's a chocolate bar!!  What is this place? Heaven?

Chongqing Flashback - Part 1

I really miss China:(  I lived in Dalian, China for a year with my partner Mindy, and it was one of the best years of my life.  There's a special feeling you get when you spend a substantial amount of time in China immersing yourself in the culture.  It's a sense of belonging. A sense of timelessness. A sense of connection.  My partner told me she also felt that sense of homecoming while in India and in Tanzania; two of the places I can't wait to explore.  But it's also more than that.  Witnessing people in true financial poverty, who have very little in the way of material belongings, but who are happy, and unbelievably wealthy in the realm of human relationships, really helps to put life into perspective.
I spent most of last month in Chongqing Technical and Business University; teaching a Clinical Social Work class, spending time at an elderly community, and conducting cross-cultural research with students regarding sexual anxiety, the fear of intimacy, and body image issues.  I also spent a great deal of time simply exploring and making human connections.  It was the first time ever visiting that particular area of China, and I loved it!  By far, it was the best experience I've had in China thus far.  It had all the historical and cultural enticements of the North, but also a sense of ease and contentment unknown to me throughout my adventures in this "Middle Kingdom."  Describing the food as "spicy" would be an understatement, and when I happened to sample a "typical" Sichuan dish found my eyes and nose watering, and my lips burnt and tingling. But it was GOOOOD!!  
Eating gluten-free in Chongqing was only slightly challenging, due to my GF-Awareness dining statements I carried around with me.  The biggest challenge was when we were taken out by our hosts to huge pre-ordered meals at nice restaurants.  It was pure torture to sit in front of a banquet of amazing looking and smelling food, watching everyone gorge themselves with beaming smiles on their faces, only to know that even a single bite may lead to sickness. However, for the most part, and with the help of our hosts, GF dishes were eventually brought out for myself and my friend with the same dietary affliction. We didn't have the array of choices that everyone else enjoyed, but we enjoyed every single gluten-free chop-stick-full!
Eventually I found a handful of canteens (what the Chinese students called their cafeterias) and a Dalian-Food restaurant outside of campus, that became familiar with my face, and my unique dietary restriction.  I would frequent the same places to eat every day, bringing with me a list of dishes written in Chinese Characters with English translations, and asking if they could prepare them without gluten.  Most of the time they could with no problem, and if they couldn't, I'd just go down the list until I found something.  Life with Celiac Disease, at least for me, involves being much less picky about what you eat, just as long as it doesn't poison you!

Every day I started off by walking out of the International Dormitory, half a block down the street to a little shop that sold Dzonza and vacuum-sealed cups of sweet and light, instant-coffee.  Dzonza are rice-triangles steamed in Banana leaves.  I had to order a variety before finding out which ones I could eat.  Each kind was wrapped in a different color string to indicate the filling.  I ended up sticking to the green-string dzonza, which were filled with sweet bean paste.  For lunch I would hit up the one of three student cafeterias where I'd order Dan-Chow Fan/Ji Ro (Fried eggs, chicken, and greens with rice), Chinese cabbage with beef or pork, Tang-cu Jia Pianr (sweet & sour chicken), and whatever else they could make GF.  I also brought a small bottle of gluten free soy sauce with me wherever I went.  It ended up being a wonderful culinary experience.  I ate well (and cheaply) every single day.  Man do I miss the food!!!

Well, that's it for this flashback:)