I'm not really a food snob. I may be the pain-in-the-bum person who reminds the noodle seller not to douse my bee hoon goreng with monosodium glutamate (MSG), and yes, I have induced many an eye roll when I ask a waiter for gluten-free options, but I assure you I did not choose to be a food snob; I’m just severely intolerant and allergic to a lot of ingredients.
The most serious of my intolerances are that to gluten and lactose, and I have a severe allergy to MSG. In the most minor of cases, I start itching and then it develops into a rash. Soon, my nose is running and in more extreme cases, my airway closes up, mimicking an asthma attack. My lactose intolerance just makes me severely bloated and uncomfortable.
Between my partner – who is allergic to many things including peanuts, dairy and soy – and I, our future children will have to hang sandwich boards on their necks listing their food allergies.
Intolerance vs. allergy
No, I didn’t go gluten-free just because Miley Cyrus did it.
Allergies cause immune-system reactions, and are different than food intolerances, which cause digestive reactions. According to a pharmaceutical distribution company, a National University of Singapore study estimated that 95 per cent of Chinese Singaporeans suffer from lactose intolerance.
Intolerance, also known as 'non-allergic food hypersensitivity', is the difficulty in digesting a food, a result of the absence of specific enzymes or chemicals needed to digest the food substance. Unlike an allergy, it can be dealt with supplements, re-establishing tolerance in the long run, or avoidance altogether.
"Religious dietary restrictions are understood in Singapore, but for a country that consumes a startling amount of dairy and wheat every single day, food allergens aren't taken very seriously."
The latter is more severe: an allergy is a hypersensitivity disorder of the immune system, in which the immune system misinterprets a usually harmless compound as a threat. When you're faced with it, you pay the price with sneezing, itching, or in the most dire and extreme of cases, death.
In other words, a lactose intolerant person can often handle a touch of butter in a sauce, whereas a person with a nut allergy might not risk a piece of sourdough resting on a slice of walnut bread.
Why is it some immune systems react like this while others never do? Some of this bodily vulnerability is indeed genetic; some cite the importance of environment, right from time the womb – certain microbes seem to stimulate a mother’s immune system during pregnancy, preventing allergic disease in children.
Plenty of foods in Singapore cause allergies
Nothing will make you realise how many foods have gluten or dairy in the like being told you’re not allowed to eat any of them ever again; imagine not being able to eat a simple snack like Sunshine bread spread with Nutella. Or kaya toast.
As far as foods are concerned, nearly all allergens are proteins. The most common are touted 'The Big Eight', which account for 90 per cent of all food allergies in the world. They are eggs, fish, milk, nuts from trees, peanuts, shellfish, soy and wheat.
Religious dietary restrictions like not eating pork and beef are understood in Singapore, but for a country that consumes a startling amount of dairy and wheat like your favourite Sunshine bread, or egg noodles in your mee rebus every single day, food allergens aren't taken very seriously.
My partner found ourselves at Starbucks once where he ordered a non-dairy drink. His lactose intolerance is so severe that tiny traces of milk has resulted in him on the floor convulsing in abdominal pain. It was an honest mistake: the barista topped off his drink with a generous serving of creamy, full-fat whipped cream. When my partner explained that he didn’t want whipped cream because of his lactose intolerance, the barista took a spoon and removed the dollop of cream.
Such "remedies" would, of course, be fine in circumstances where you’re avoiding cream because you’re watching your waistline, but not in the case of food allergy where a trace can set it off.
Cross-contamination is a common problem for the allergic and intolerant in Singapore. This occurs when food is prepared on a surface or using a utensil that has touched an allergen. For example, someone allergic to nuts might have a reaction when eating a salad even though it doesn't have any triggers but a spoon used to toss the salad may have touched a peanut sauce prior. There are many people in the Singapore food and service industry who can’t fathom food allergies, and the lack of understanding can lead to kitchen staff taking the preparation of food (a little too) lightly.
The main ingredient in a dish may be tofu, but if you’re allergic to prawns and it’s been cooked with dried shrimp, you’re pretty much screwed (yes, it’s happened before). Some of this is common sense, others come with education – just as croutons in a salad means there's now gluten in your salad.
This is not to say that allergy requests won’t put restaurants who give a damn in a tough spot: if a customer says she’s allergic to something, the kitchen has to assume that the allergy is life-threatening and scrub every pot, remake every sauce and rethink the dish itself.
This works both ways: while restaurants should make accommodations for people with allergies and train their staff to understand at the very least, The Big Eight, of food allergens, those making the request should also be genuinely allergic to something. Saying that you’re allergic to spinach when you simply don’t like its taste doesn’t count.
I’m referring to primadonnas who give the rest of us allergy- and intolerance-ridden folk a bad name – I have a genuinely dire intolerance for them.
Faz Abdul Gaffa is the editor of STYL+ and spends her time in Singapore and Los Angeles where her partner resides. She can usually be found writing up a storm, working out at Ritual or obsessively Instagramming. If you rummage through her hot pink bag, you will probably find, buried in the midst of heavy-duty antihistamines and organic skincare, a stash of gluten-free soy sauce for on-the-go sashimi cravings