Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Sin Miedo, Sin Gluten! It ain’t a Pain being a Celiac in Spain

About a week ago, while I was enjoying another heavenly dining experience at Il Tulipano Nero, I overheard an Irish couple trying to tell the waiter how much they appreciated the gluten free pizza in English and the waiter trying to understand very unsuccessfully. I butt into the conversation to soothe the communication barrier and soon became acquainted with this charming Irish couple. We began discussing and comparing being a Celiac in different countries in Europe and they mentioned how much they love Spain and they’d even bought a house there. Spain? Ah yes, how could I forget! I went there last year and had a great time…so here’s some of my advice and impression of going gluten free loca in Espana (being intolerant to eggs and dairy at the time as well):

I was surprised, or better yet impressed... that the Spanish treat their Celiacs well! I had lived with a Spanish chica when I was studying in Bologna and I remember how much bread she and her posse would eat. But when I actually went to Madrid to visit a dear friend of mine last fall, I realized that pan was just a compliment to a dish…not necessarily an important staple in their cuisine and very easily substituted with gluten free bread found at a tienda de alimentación natural (the local health food store). What Spaniards tended to eat most, to me, seemed like huevos (eggs), chorizo y carne ( sausage and meat), verduras (vegetables) like peppers, tomatoes, onions and garlic, patatas (potatoes) and arroz (rice).

I think everyone and their mother knows that Spain is known for their Tapas (small dishes to be munched on with drinks in the early evening usually around 8 or 9pm, and this is very early for the Spanish!). Lucky for us Celiacs, we aren’t excluded from indulging in this tradition either. There’s much for us to eat like, torilla Espanola (an egg and potato omelet sometimes with onion or other vegetables), patatas bravas (fried potatoes, usually fried by themselves but it’s better to ask, see below how to ask in Spanish) , cacahuetes (peanuts), manchego (a type of Spanish cheese), jamon serrano (the Spanish version of Prosciutto, thinly sliced cured ham) and aceitunas (olives). And this can accompany their delicioso vino rioja,( yes, I admit, even me, who lives in Italy and is a bit biased towards Italian red wine, can say it is delicious).

As for other dishes for us Celiacs, it depends where you go in Spain. Generally speaking, there’s Paella (a tasty saffron rice dish with seafood and meat and often snails), which is very widely eaten, especially in Valencia where it was born, and lots of meat and seafood (just avoid the pesce fritos!). The Wikipedia online dictionary goes into detail about specific Spanish cuisine and it wouldn’t be a bad idea to glance at it before you hop on that plane to Spain: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_cuisine

If the weather is nice, you can also take a picnic in the park, especially if you’re tight budgeted, like most of us travelers. You should be able to find health stores relatively easy or there should be plenty at the supermarkets as well. For local health stores, markets and restaurants with gluten free food check out the regional Celiac association websites : http://personales.mundivia.es/acecan/asociacionesp.htm It will link you to region specific Celiac associations and so you can find one exactly in the area you are going. If you don’t know Spanish, grab a friend who can read and understand Spanish to help you translate what you need to know.

Another great thing about Spain is that they have many thriving ethnic food restaurants, so if you’re a been-there-done-that Celiac traveler to Spain, someone who wants to broaden their food horizon, or someone who just wants to do Spain with a twist, you’ll have lots of choices. My friend, Shira, who I was visiting, was a vegetarian, and I was a Celiac avoiding dairy and eggs, so together you can imagine we were not exactly the easiest customers to wait on, or please for that matter. Yet, at Esfahan, a Persian restaurant on Calle San Bernadino (address and phone below), we managed to get pleasantly full and were even offered after dinner liquors…on the house (I imagine they didn’t hate us)!. The food was absolutely incredible, a rich infusion of delicately sweet meats, sauces far and beyond the traditional hummus, supple dolmas (rice wrapped in olive leaves), and although it wasn’t Spanish, if I lived there I’d go back all the time. Sin miedo, sin gluten (No fear, no gluten)!

But, although Celiacs can eat many things in this spectacular Mediterranean country, there are also many things we had better stay very very very far away from. For example, Bola (meatballs usually made with breadcrumbs), Gazpacho (a cold vegetable soup made with bread), Salmorejo (like Gazpacho but made with lots of bread), churros (a sweet, long, fried bread with cinnamon and sugar) and virtually anything with trigo (wheat), trigo duro (durum wheat), escanda (spelt), Harina (flour), cereales (cereals), cebada (barley), centeno (rye), avena (oats), and Almidón, fécula, sémola, proteina (which could contain any of the forbbiden cereals).Heed my warning, all of these above should be absolutely avoided!!!

As for dulces (desserts), ask your server about the arroz de leche (rice pudding) or the flan (egg custard). Traditionally, they shouldn’t contain gluten but it’s better to ask or check out the ingredients on the package and stay away from the ingredients listed above.

Useful Phrases:
Tengo la enfermedad celiaca, hay algo sin gluten? (I have Celiac, do you have anything without gluten?)
Donde esta la (una) tienda de alimentación natural? (where is the (a) health food store?)
Son las patatas fritadas en un sartén separado o con otra comida rebozada? (Are the potatoes fried in a separate pan or with other breaded (battered) food?
Esta comida tiene gluten? (Does this food have gluten in it?)

Hope that helps!

Buen Viaje y Buen Provecho!

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Go on...Take Another (Gluten Free) Pizza My Heart

I think I may have died and gone to heaven…or maybe I’ve just found heaven on earth…or in Rome, at least. Or (horror) maybe I’m mistaken and the pizza I’m eating isn’t gluten free, it’s normal wheat infested pizza…oh god no!!! Waiter, take the pizza back, this isn’t gluten free! It’s too good to be gluten free…Excuse me? Are you sure? This flag means it’s definitely gluten free? Okaaayy, if you say so…

That’s precisely how I felt after I took my very first bite of Il Tulipano Nero’s gluten free pizza. And I was more than pleasantly relieved to not have any Celiac symptoms after I ate their delicious, to-die-for- and-happily-suffer-in-hell-for-pizza. Actually, I never felt better! I would definitely be back…tomorrow, and the next day and the next!! And soon enough, the little, barely visible, pizzeria in the touristy and quaint Trastevere area of Rome, would become my second home, making me officially dipendente (addicted). Now I’ve got to get my fix once a week at least. I mean, c’mon! I have to! I never, in my gluten free dreams, could have imagined eating a pizza that was so similar to regular pizza (and I have friends that actually prefer the gluten free pizza to normal pizza, if you can believe). I’ve been to Napoli, the birthplace of pizza, as a gluten eater before I was diagnosed with Celiac, and Il Tulipano Nero is definitely, without a doubt, competition and much closer for me to get to and the best part, Celiac friendly…

But they don’t only specialize in Pizzas…they also have indulgent and delightful appetizers, such as bruschetta (broo-sket-ah), suppli (sue-plee) – a native Roman deep fried and battered rice and cheese ball…first courses, such as pasta, ravioli… second courses, such as stracetti (strah-che-tee)- thinly sliced beef sauteed and tossed with rucola, and scaloppini (skalop-peenee)- veal battered (in gluten free flour of course) and fried in white wine or lemon… and my dear Celiacs, they have dolci, desserts, such as Tiramisu, pinenut cake, chocolate tort and many other special torte del giorno) (cakes of the day), all for us to feast on.

They do lunch on the weekends but don’t have the gluten free pizza at lunch. They also do pizza da portare via (take away pizza) and it’s a little less expensive. Pizzas range from 7-10 euros at the restaurant and 5-8 for take away. The pizzas are made in a completely separate kitchen and oven than the normal pizzas.As you can see, it won’t burn a hole in your wallet or your stomach! You don’t have to know Italian either because if you understand “senza glutine” (without gluten), you’ll be set.

I really don’t think it gets better than this!

Check out Il Tulipano Nero at Via Roma Libera, 15 in Piazza San Cosimato in Trastevere…phone 06 581 8309…website http://www.tulipanonero.it/

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Great Tips for Celiacs Travelling to Italy

Italy is a spectacular country to visit, Celiac or not, and I don’t think I need to convince you of that. As a Celiac there are a few things you should know that will just make your life much easier and relaxing, like a real vacation should be. For whatever few days of vacation you have a year, you don’t want to be stressing about what you can and cannot eat and how to communicate your needs. The Italian are tremendously helpful and many speak English and are willing to try to speak with you in English. Of course, I always recommend learning a few words and phrases in the native tongue of the country you are visiting, but if worse comes to worse, they will help you out. They may get emotional at times, but they are proud and most are happy to take some time out of their day to aid a visitor to their beautiful country.

Luckily, most things in Italy are natural so if you buy cheese, it’s cheese. If you buy sundried tomatoes, it’s sundried tomatoes, etc. and you don’t need to worry about hidden gluten as much. Also many products say “senza glutine” (gluten free) or “non contiene glutine” (doesn’t contain gluten) or “non contiene tracce di glutine” (doesn’t contain gluten) or contiene tracce di glutine (may contain gluten). Nonetheless, if you are at the grocery store or deli and want to buy something, read the ingredients and

  • Amido modificato (modified food starch)

  • Glutine (gluten)

  • Grano (wheat)

  • Semolina

  • Durum

  • Kamut

  • Monodigliceridi (monodiglycerides from corn or wheat)

  • Destrosio (could be from maize: safe or grano: not safe!)

Especially be careful with the sliced meats like salami and prosciutto cotto. And if you are casein sensitive or lactose intolerant, it’s best to get your meat from behind the counter and ask for salami, prosciutto cotto, speck, bresaola, etc. that doesn’t contain gluten or casein (che non contiene glutine o lattosio– kay nohn cohn-tee-en-ay glue-teen-ay oh lath-oh-zee-oh). Someone behind the counter usually knows because luckily for us, there are many Celiacs in Italy. If you are a bit shy or don’t want to ask, you will always be safe buying good, ol’ prosciutto. It doesn’t ever contain gluten or casein (Horray!), but it does contain sulfites (being cured meat) if you’re sensitive.

Besides the supermarkets or small delis, you can get good quality gluten free products at the Farmacia. There are pharmacies practically on every street corner, as frequent and widespread as Starbucks or McDonalds in the US. Not all of them sell gluten free products but most of them do. It’s not uncommon to stumble upon a pharmacy that has a large and diverse gluten free section with many kinds of pasta, pane (bread), biscotti (cookies), crackers, congelato (frozen) ravioli and pizza and dolci (desserts), merende (snacks), chocolate and budino (pudding), birra (beer), farina per dolci e pizza (flour for desserts and pizza), and more. I remember the first time I went to the Farmacia near my house in Rome, I practically cried. It was a gluten free epicurean paradise and I was overwhelmed (did you hear me correctly? I said OVERWHELMED) by the amount of products without gluten.

Ristornanti, trattorie and osterie (More expensive restaurants, moderately priced trattorie and osterie) are all safe places to eat. Let the waiter know that you are Celiac when ordering. You can say, “Sono Celiaca” (So-no Chel-eee-aka) or “Non posso mangiare glutine, farina di grano, lattosio, uovo…” (Nohn po-sso mahn-jar-ay glue-teen-ay, fah-reena dee grah-no, laht-oh-zee-oh, ooo-oh-voh). Always ask about the meat because the meat can be breaded and fried or cooked on the same grill. “Non c’e farina o glutine?” (Nohn chey fah-ree-na oh glue-teen-ay) The risotto is generally safe for celiacs, but of course ask about the broth they use “Il brodo non contiene glutine?” (Eel Broh-doh nohn cohn-tee-en-ay glue-teen-ay) and no breadcrumbs, “senza pane grattugiato” (sen-tsa pah-nay grah-too-jah-toe) The cotorni (sides) of potatoes and vegetables are safe for celiacs, as are salads and generally meats. Semifreddi (creamish dessert), Gelato (ice cream), Macedonia (like fruit salad but better) and Pannacotta (cooked cream) are also desserts traditionally without gluten.
Almost always they understand Celiac disease and are very accommodating. I have never come across a waiter in Italy who is unfamiliar with celiac disease or gluten. On the contrary, a few times, the server even asked me if I’d like corn or rice pasta that they keep on stock for celiacs!

Tips for those off the gluten path but on the bargain road:

  • Buy food in supermarkets…it’s delicious and cheap…and then take it out to a piazza or park and people watch.

  • Avoid sitting down in Bars (it costs more to sit than stand at the counter) and avoid buying coke (although it does taste better here than the US) in restaurants.

  • Avoid tourists’ areas and explore other areas of the city for normal priced food.

  • Write me, comment and ask questions and I’ll help you out

Other Useful Phrases:

“Mi scusi…” Excuse me (formal)
“Scusa…” Excuse me (informal)
“E’ senza glutine?” Is it without gluten?
“Sono senza glutine?” (They are without gluten)
“E’ senza lattosio?” Is it without casein?
“Sono senza lattosio?” They are without casein.
“Cerco la farmacia, supermercato, etc. Dov’e’?” I’m looking for the pharmacy, supermarket, etc. Where is it?
“Grazie mille!” Thanks so much!


Mamma Mia, I’m in Love with a Gelateria! ~ La Fata Morgana

This gelateria is tucked into the corner of streets Lago di Lesina and via Nemorense between the African Quarter off Corso Trieste and the bourgeois Parioli area. You can barely see it from Via Nemorense (the cross street), as it doesn’t look like much on the outside but once you step through the doors, it’s a paradise-ical gelato wonderland. Any and every flavor you could possibly imagine, even beyond the feeble mind of normal imagination, will be found there anxiously waiting for the right person to come in for a lick. And for us gluten free-ers, it really is heaven on earth since none of the gelato, not even the cones (!!!) contain our dreaded enemy, gluten. Celiacs, it’s time to go buck wild!

Being intolerant of eggs as well, and sensitive to dairy, I still expected very little. I assumed my choices would be limited to the usual lemon or melon or strawberry sorbet. Limited…yes… to 20 flavors, at least! There’s even chocolate with fructose for those who can’t have sugar. And the adventurous owners are always trying new flavors so usually there’s at least new daring and delightful flavor every time I go (I refuse to say how often I go there but let’s just say I’ve contributed my part to the gelato economy).

The first time I was graced by the icy presents of La Fata Morgana, I was teeter tottering between sobbing for joy, and laughing gleefully and guiltlessly. I walked in and asked what flavors were gluten free. Tutti i gusti. All of them? Si, tutti. Then the ragazza behind the counter who was helping me asks if I want a cone or a cup. Coppa, ovviamente sono Celiaca. But the cones are gluten free, and egg and (mostly) dairy free as well, she replies. I don’t know what the look was on my face, utter dumbfoundedness I assume. But the ragazza said it simply, Sei scioccata. Yes. Shocked. To say the very least. And I hadn’t even tried one of the marvelous flavors yet.

You see, these gelato flavors aren’t normal and they aren’t afraid to express themselves. They are proud to be conservative, gluten, preservative, egg (most of them), and dairy (1/3 of them) free. They’re natural like a colony of nudists who don’t have anything to hide. They are the rebels and the revolutionists of gelato. They are the ones who stand up for their rights and are proud to just be themselves. Flirty, dirty, seductive, bubbly, eccentric, egotistical, outgoing, juicy, raw, rich and confident, curvy and just plain sweet as can be. Celery Lime, Poppyseed, Citrus Almond, Panacea (mint, almond and ginseng, my absolute favorite), Coconut Rum, Greek Figs, Gorgonzola and Pear, Plum, Chestnut, Apricot with Chocolate granules, Tobacco Chocolate, Salted Chocolate, White Chocolate with Pine Nuts, Blueberry, Lavender even the normal flavors like Lemon and Melon and Strawberry have a twist. Don’t be afraid though, they’re really just tame softies and who will just soak on your tongue, relaxing and invigorating the senses.

Maybe I’m biased. Maybe I’m a gelatist. But after going to La Fata Morgana, I’m tolerant no more of the normal gelateria with their circus colors, and the sugary, buttery overwhelmingness that leaves me feeling sick and tired. Luckily for me and the other thousands (no millions!) of Romans and tourists, there is not only one La Fata Morgana but 3. One is a 5 minute bike ride from my house (in North East Rome nearby Villa Ada), the other a 15 minute walk from my work (in the Vatican area) and the 3rd sister is just a lick away from the largest flea market in Rome and the train that can take you to the beach, Ostia. So no matter where you are in Rome, La Fata Morgana is waiting to entice you, grace you, inspire you, love you, and kiss you.

Locations Precisely:
Via Ostiense 36
Via Lago di Lesina 9/11
Via G. Bettolo 7

On the website they even include recipes to make gluten free gelato at home for those inspired!

My Personal History...Why I Write

I grew up in Sanaa’, Yemen, and Berkeley, California with adventurous parents who hand held my brother and I all over the world to 5 different continents before we were 10. Naturally, travelling is in my blood. I fell in love with Italy on the Almalfi coast when I was 12 and threw a lira into the Trevi Fountain hoping to someday return and live in Rome. And less than 10 years later, I was studying Anthropology and contemporary Art History at the oldest university in Europe in Bologna on a study abroad program and consecutively suffering my initial symptoms of Celiac disease (without being aware it was Celiac). After a depressing, exhausting, and very long 2 years later, I graduated from college at UC Santa Cruz and then was luckily (and shockingly) diagnosed with Celiac Disease. My life changed, my social habits changed and my eating changed but my love affair with Italy and food did not. My first trip back to Italy to visit friends terrified and apprehended me but I immediately noticed that the average Italian person did know what gluten was and were informed about Celiac disease. I had conversations with Italians who told me that Celiac disease is tested in all children before they start school and the health care system even provides an additional 100 Euros a month for each person with Celiac. This sparked my interest that maybe Italy would not be such a bad place to live in. Sometime later with this rational reasoning, “I’m young and unattached so if not now, when, if ever?”, I made my way back, to fulfill my dream of living in Rome, from where I write today.

I used to think, I love food. I love travelling. But I’m a Celiac. These things don’t really go hand in hand. It’s hard enough at home in the Bay Area in California, one of the culinary capitals of the world, to eat out in a restaurant without being accidently contaminated.

But the more I travel and the more I eat, I realize how wrong and backwards I was thinking this…I may as well have thought the world was flat! It is true that us, Celiacs and people with intolerances and sensitivities, have to be very careful and diligent about what we put in our mouths. But why punish ourselves? Why limit ourselves? There is much more to discover in this life beyond the borders of America and the package foods and exhausting lists of unnatural, gluten-ish ingredients.

As a diagnosed Celiac, I’ve been to Ireland, France, England, Spain, Turkey besides living in Italy and let me tell you, I’ve found that eating out in restaurants is a more delightful, relaxing experience than it ever was for me at home. Of course, in some places it’s not easy but that won’t stop me, and I’ve learned a few tricks among the way to share with you. Life is beautiful and it’s short so I’m determined to travel the world, off the gluten path….and I’m inviting you, if you dare, to join me