by Sharon Wong
My parents were immigrants to the United States. I grew up listening to their nostalgic stories from their childhood, including memories of their favorite foods that they miss. Sometimes when the nostalgia got too strong, they recreated their favorite dishes. However, not all the right ingredients were available in grocery stores here, but my parents told me that the substitute ingredients were good enough.
My parents didn’t know it, but they prepared me well to be a food allergy mom. When we have life threatening food allergies, we avoid those certain allergens to stay healthy. But in doing that, we miss out on a lot, including family favorite recipes or new cultural culinary experiences. Through the adaptation of family and cultural recipes to what was available here in the United States, my parents gave me the mindset for adapting recipes for food allergies. When I thought about it that way, it didn’t seem too hard.
Adapting Recipes for My Family
At any given point in my family’s history, we have had a long list of allergens and a short list of safe foods and recipes we loved. Now we mainly avoid peanuts, tree nuts, and some fruits and veggies. (In the past we have had to avoid 30+ different foods; it was exhausting). It seemed like we ate lots of mac and cheese, chicken, corn, and rice. However, my kids asked for specific foods we used to eat before life with food allergies.
Before my younger son was diagnosed with food allergies at age 2, my older son was quite the foodie. We had to restrict our dining options due to his food allergies and my older son told me how much he missed eating Chinese dim sum, noodles, and other favorite dishes. That’s when I started adapting recipes and making his favorites at home. Later, when my older son was also diagnosed with food allergies as a middle schooler, I became determined to write down and share our family’s recipes so they can always know how to prepare their favorite meals.
I noticed that a lot of the recipes my kids requested were Asian foods. Many food allergy experts in the United States advise avoiding Asian foods if you have nut allergies, just to be safe. But this recommendation never sat well with me. It’s a complicated issue and statements about what to avoid need improvement to be more inclusive. Instead of saying avoid “ethnic foods” as a general statement, experts need to frame it as a case-by-case issue. Euro-centric cuisines such as French, German, and Italian foods contain just as many allergens as “ethnic foods,” they are just more familiar in the United States.
Making the best of both worlds
I knew there had to be a way to satisfy my family’s food cravings, embrace our cultural heritage, AND be food allergy safe. I took it upon myself to become the Rosetta Stone of food allergy moms. My mission is to translate traditional Asian foods into recipes my family can safely enjoy.
First, I checked out a variety of cookbooks from my local library to familiarize myself with different ingredients and techniques. I try out recipes that are safe for us or might be easy to adapt. I also make a short list of recipes and dishes to be aware of such as recipes with hidden allergens.
Next, I simplify recipes and ingredients to reduce allergy risk and exposure. For example, if a dish calls for a bottled sauce, it might be safer to substitute with simple ingredients that you already have.
Check out my blog: www.nutfreewok.com for Asian inspired recipes free-from peanuts and tree nuts. To get you started, here is a recipe of one of my favorite customizable Asian dishes: Lettuce Cups.