Saturday, January 4, 2014

"Hey, remember when Jen tried to be gluten-free in Central Europe?"

{Ed. note: this is directed at search engines producing results for words in the subject. I didn't really find much guidance online earlier this year, so I thought I'd throw my own experience out there. In other words, if you *can* eat bread and/or don't plan to visit this part of the world, you probably won't care about any of this...}

A year and a half ago I found out I was potato- and wheat-intolerant. So when I told people our first Phase Two stop was Central Europe, the land of bread and potatoes, it was always with a laugh... and also a tiny prayer to The Universe that I wouldn't wither away from malnutrition.

Our first few days in Poland I meticulously avoided everything wheat- or potato-related. Armed with a Polish translation food list, we would carefully scan ingredients on grocery store packages and restaurant menus. It wasn't too different from being back home, actually.

Turns out that "no potatoes no wheat" in Central Europe really is a pretty ambitious endeavor. At first this meant a diet of corn flakes or oatmeal or yogurt for breakfast; a salad for lunch (pre-packaged from the grocery store or from a cafe); rice/rice noodles and veggies/canned tuna/kielbasa for dinner; fruit (fresh or dried), carrots, peanut butter, peanuts, and chocolate for snacks.

our intro to Warsaw
his: pierogies
hers: chef salad
... sooooo not fair

welcome to Prague!
... now that's fair

Eating the same things over and over again got kinda boring. One day a guy at a hostel made eggs for dinner, and that opened up a lot of new ideas for us.  But even that got boring after a while.

also boring?
"English" breakfasts in foreign lands

I was thrilled to find rice cakes, rice vermicelli, bean noodles, dried soy products, and of course peanut butter in Polish grocery stores. Up until we got to Turkey these items were actually pretty easy to find in all the countries we visited (though for some reason the rice products got more expensive the further south we went, and peanut butter was more scarce in Romania).

sometimes the labels
were even in English -

A chain called Carrefour - kind of like the Safeway of Central Europe, slightly overpriced with a decent variety of food - carried everything I needed and their markets were in all the major cities. Even tiny markets in Bialowieza and Nemcicky had rice snacks and dried soy.

Bialowieza makeshift dinner by tea kettle:
rice noodles, rehydrated soy, mystery spices

Fruit stands were also easy to find; plums and apples during fall harvest season were fantastic.

Krakow fruit stand:
part one

Krakow fruit stand:
part two

Nemcicky rule:
pick one, eat one

After a few weeks in Poland I got curious and tried bread. Nothing terrible happened so I continued to experiment. Turns out that for whatever reason, wheat has not been as offensive to my system here.

the first offender:
thanks, little old pastry shop lady

it was all downhill from there

It could be that the wheat strain here is more pure. But my guess is that it's everything *other than* the wheat, yeast, salt, water and sometimes egg that goes into packaged wheat products in the US that caused me the real trouble. (I'm talking to you, potato starch, guar gum, xanthum gum, and everything I can't pronounce!) Here, I can't always read the ingredients but when there are just three or four listed on a package, that's a good sign that the product is not going to have too negative an impact on me. And bread is baked each morning, sold so fast that it's not even individually wrapped, and stale by day three.

we must've eaten 847
of these fresh-baked rolls
in Central Europe

Wheat products are not always fun on my system but they are almost always tolerable, and this has made life so much easier. Leftover hostel breakfasts of bread, cheese and meats became free lunch.

whereas pierogies become
not free lunch...

... so did dumplings

Cheap eats from doner kebap stands became viable snack options.

our first kebap -
thank you, Olomouc!

our 53rd kebap -
thank you, Bucharest!

So did bagel carts and pastry shop snacks, which ended up being lifesavers in some cases. Like that day in Budapest when we were starving and a two-mile walk from any signs of a supermarket. Of course, they weren't exactly the tastiest options...

best when purchased at 6am -
otherwise, for them there birds

... or the healthiest.

as the was the case
in Brasov

and Olomouc

and Krakow

But with all that walking it really didn't matter.

Pasta (which I can mostly also eat) became dinner. And garlic bread was often involved too.

Budapest hostel livin'

Lisinia farmstay livin'

Bucharest homemade pasta livin'

And all these lovely cheeses and jams now included bread accompaniment!

homemade cheese: even better

And beer was back on the menu!

Prague beer

Olomouc beer

Brasov beer

... you get the point.

Sometimes I even got to make AND eat bread made from scratch - something I have really missed.

There is still the mysterious yeast/potato connection... But I'm not doing a science fair project, I'm just trying to eat pain-free. So whatevs, we'll just roll with it.

Have not tried potato yet... Not intentionally, anyway. It's hard to avoid in soups and for some reason doner kebaps often include a topping of "chips" ("fries" to you US folks). I definitely know when I have had it and I still suffer afterward. But it's much easier to explain a potato allergy to a new volunteer host or restaurateur than to rattle off the list of things I can and cannot eat.

I shouldn't eat bread with every single meal but I still do. BECAUSE I CAN. But less bread and less sugar (mainly via honey in my yogurt and tea) are in my future - I'm starting to need less weight so that I don't need more pants.

luckily, we are past Krakow's zapiekanki

unluckily we are still in the land of pide
(OK, this is not exactly a bad thing)

However. When we get to Vietnam, I dare say all bets on "less bread" are off... but at least I will be able to counter the bánh mì with loads of delicious vegetables!


  1. remember when i took that home wine-making class and forgot how to drive?