Allergic traveller in Malaysia.
November 18, 2018 1:07 PM   Subscribe

I am allergic to all nuts, as well as peanuts. I am allergic to sesame seeds and fish. (I am not allergic to shellfish). I am NOT allergic to their smell or even minimal contact, but I must not ingest these foods. I carry 2 epipens with me at all times, but obviously I don’t want to deal with super-high stress at every meal. Can I travel in Malaysia easily, and without feeling every single meal is problematic? I can get a card describing my allergies in Malay. Thanks
posted by uans to Travel & Transportation around Malaysia (17 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I would say pretty confidently the answer to your first question is "no", in fact, I would probably say "hell no!".

Fish sauce, dried fish, fish pastes make their way into a lot of stuff. Likewise, peanuts, satay and peanut oil is ubiquitous. Even if you didn't eat these things you would be eating stuff from kitchens where these ingredients are everywhere.

I mean, it might be possible, but eating there "easily", without meals being problematic or high stress? I'm sorry but I don't think so.
posted by smoke at 1:24 PM on November 18, 2018 [11 favorites]

I travel to Malaysia regularly. There is a lot of fish. There is not a whole lot of understanding of “I don’t eat this” except for halal. I would advise against going.
posted by doomsey at 1:25 PM on November 18, 2018 [2 favorites]

That was my thought too—the things that trigger your allergies are some of the most common ingredients in the cuisine of this part of the world. Peanuts and fish sauce are worked into practically everything, not as star ingredients but as part of the background flavor profile, the way Western cooks would use butter, salt, or garlic. You will likely have a hard time communicating your dietary needs to people or getting them to take them as seriously as they should, given the language barriers and cultural differences involved. And dual epi-pens, as I'm sure you know, won't save your life in the event of an anaphylactic reaction—they will only buy you 30 minutes or so in which to get yourself to a hospital where you can be treated. It all just sounds tremendously fraught and stressful, to me.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 1:31 PM on November 18, 2018 [4 favorites]

Seconding everyone else's answers. I think you'll probably be stressed out at every meal and there's a very real and dangerous possibility you would accidentally ingest one of your allergens at least once. I'd avoid it as a travel destination, I'm sorry.

Source: I grew up eating (and helping to prepare) a lot of Malaysian, Indonesian and Singaporean food.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 1:33 PM on November 18, 2018

I'm going to wager that Malaysian allergy-culture is not substantially different from allergy-culture of general SE Asia.

I saw a fascinating video about Uzbek-Korean food, and how that variant has vegan kimchi. Apparently, if you move a cuisine to a land-locked country, you stop using fermented / dried fish products, and I'm gonna say that if you have fish products, you're going to use them in your cuisine, because they're damn flavorful.

Is Malaysia land locked? No...

Again, can you do this trip? Sure, if you stick to groceries purchased at expat-level grocery stores and don't mind skipping the local food. (I did this in Denmark because I was cheap and frankly, did not mind skipping the local food.)
posted by batter_my_heart at 1:54 PM on November 18, 2018 [1 favorite]

Unless your can plan an itinerary of hotels and restaurants that cater to tourists and serve non-local food, I wouldn't advise it for reasons stated by others. You might be able to avoid subtle use of fish products by saying that you're Buddhist but that would eliminate meat that I assume that you do want to eat, and peanut is everywhere still. Even in places that cater to Western tourists, you'd still have to keep an eye out for peanut oil.
posted by Candleman at 2:17 PM on November 18, 2018

You couldn't eat anywhere unless you ate only in places you supervised food or very high end restaurants that understood allergies, it's that ubiquitous. Cambodia and Vietnam are out too, prahok seasoning and fish sauce are in everything. My nephew had the same issue.

Singapore is possible and has more allergy aware restaurants, and a much more limited land mass so if you do get a reaction you are literally twenty minutes from a hospital anywhere. If you really want to visit Asia, it's your best bet.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 2:23 PM on November 18, 2018 [7 favorites]

Consider some of the assumptions one with a severe allergy must make. This uses peanuts, but obviously replace that with anything you can't eat.
- The written translation is accurate
- All who must understand it speak Malay
- All who must understand it are literate
- Kitchen staff knows which prepared (purchased, not created in the restaurant) liquids contains peanuts
- Prepared liquids have ingredient labels
- Those labels are accurate
- If Kitchen staff doesn't know which liquids contains peanuts, they will read the label
- The cook will overcome habit of preparing the dish with peanuts
- The food will not touch surfaces contaminated by previous contact with peanuts
- Everyone involved will gladly and diligently fulfill your request

The cultural and language issues alone make it seem to me like a form of Russian Roulette.
posted by Homer42 at 2:56 PM on November 18, 2018 [11 favorites]

No. I question whether you could safely eat at a restaurant down the street from you.
posted by killdevil at 4:34 PM on November 18, 2018

The only way I can see this working out (as a Malaysian) is if all your meals were home-cooked. It's not impossible but super tricky.

As far as the card goes: there are TONS of restaurants run by Chinese or Indian people that may not necessarily be that fluent in Malay (hell they may be more fluent in English than Malay).
posted by divabat at 4:42 PM on November 18, 2018 [7 favorites]

Killdevil—i eat out frequently here in Ontario, and have travelled in many countries in Europe, as well as in Turkey, using allergy cards translated into the local language
posted by uans at 5:59 PM on November 18, 2018

I know someone who has severe allergies to nuts (including peanuts) and seafood and he refuses to travel to Asia despite very strong interest. He always has epipens on him, but his allergies are so severe that epipens really just buy him a fighting chance to get to the hospital in time. The ubiquity of nut and fish ingredients in many Asian cuisines leave him with a risk level and stress level that he can't tolerate. You would have to be incredibly diligent in monitoring all food prep and that seems impossible. In your position, I would only go if I have an allergy that's relatively mild in terms of being able to kill me.
posted by quince at 8:12 PM on November 18, 2018

Never mind Malaysia, when I traveled to the US (from Malaysia) I had a hard time even getting people there to understand what a dairy meant. So many times the waitstaff assumed dairy includes eggs (????) or conversely that dairy was just milk and then therefore butter was fine (????). Or that one restaurant where the waiter at lunch said the buns were dairy free and then the waiter at dinner said it was most definitely not.

I can't even imagine doing the same thing in Malaysia. Majority of restaurant workers and chefs are uneducated foreign migrants from a place much poorer than Malaysia. How could they even know whether the oil used is peanut oil, or if peanut oil was used in an ingredient bought from another supplier? Many places I eat at, none of the staff even finished high school.

In fact, awareness of allergies is so low that epipens were not even available in the country for many years: doctors at a private hospital in Malaysia have asked me in the past to buy over the counter epipens in other countries and bring them back into the country in my hand carry luggage for their friends. I hear there is some supply of pens now, but still, it's shocking to me: basically, if you had an anaphylactic reaction in Malaysia in the last 10 years, you would probably just die, literally.
posted by xdvesper at 9:46 PM on November 18, 2018 [2 favorites]

Potentially stupid question, but do you know if you're specifically allergic to fish sauce, or other fermented fish products? Some allergens break down during some culinary processes (e.g. I know people who can't have fresh dairy but can have it if it's cooked-in as an ingredient and baked thoroughly, something about the proteins breaking down with heat). Avoiding fish sauce is going to be very hard, but avoiding fresh fish might be doable.

If you really want to go to places with fish-dominant cuisine, perhaps you could work with your allergist and find the exact boundaries of your allergies?

As stated, it sounds like a no-go to me, but if you were able to refine your knowledge of your allergy and it turned out to be only specific types of fish, or not fermented fish products, etc., then it might be possible to develop a list of dishes from the country you want to visit that are likely to be safe and go from there.

(My SO is celiac and we have done a fair bit of traveling; the latter approach is what we do. We research the local cuisine and try to have an idea of what dishes are both safe and seem interesting. Obviously celiac isn't on the same level as an anaphylactic reaction, but could be a tool in the toolbox.)
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:52 PM on November 18, 2018 [2 favorites]

I think that the only way you could do this safely is by preparing all of your own food. Otherwise the risk is way too high- peanuts and fish sauce are ubiquitous.
posted by emd3737 at 11:14 PM on November 18, 2018 [1 favorite]

Hi, I am Malaysian.

English is widely spoken in urban parts of Malaysia but I concur with the above comments. Peanuts and sesame are ubiquitous in Malaysian cuisine. I would be very wary unless I was traveling with a trusted friend who is familiar with Malaysian cooking.

Your card may read like the following if you do choose to travel.

Saya ada alahan terhadap makanan yang berikutnya:
Semua jenis kacang
Biji bijan

posted by ianK at 2:46 AM on November 19, 2018 [4 favorites]

I lived and have traveled extensively in Asia and sadly I say, do not do this unless you are carrying your own food.
posted by 2soxy4mypuppet at 4:58 PM on November 20, 2018

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