Sunday, March 2, 2008

The Cross-contamination Problem

Eating away from home is tough if you're soy-allergic.

I make a point to go to the same neighborhood restaurants over and over, so the owners and cooks get to know me and will watch out for me. But this is not foolproof.

One time I had cultivated a neighborhood Chinese restaurant. I told them I was allergic to soy. I only ordered steamed shrimp, steamed rice, steamed vegetables, and sweet-and-sour sauce on the side, while the family ordered what they wanted. Everything was fine for months until the staff apparently forgot WHY I only ordered plain steamed everything. I can only guess that they used a spoon to serve my food that had already been in something else. I was sick before we left the restaurant that night. I won't go into details, but it wasn't pretty.

Another time I started getting asthma 2 or 3 times a week at the end of the workday. I couldn't figure out what was doing it, until I realized I had been buying fat-free pretzels out of the machine in the break area on those days. Those pretzels had no oil, but the company that made them made a non-fat-free version made with soy oil, and I am willing to bet they were run on the same machines without cleaning them in between. I stopped eating the pretzels, and I stopped getting asthma.

Last week I realized that a Swiss Bakery had opened a few doors down from my Tae Kwon Do studio. I stopped in after work before the evening rush to talk to the owner. She readily identified the rolls and bread and even cakes that had no fat or only butter in them. But as she kept talking, she realized that everything is rolled out on the same tables, and they run everything through the same mixer, starting with the lightest color and ending with the darkest. So everything in her bakery, potentially, could have some amount of soy in it.

Right now my favorite neighborhood restaurant is a Pho place. Pho, for those of you who don't know, is Vietnamese soup, and it is made with fish sauce, not soy sauce. It's very good, and comes in different varieties, including chicken, beef, seafood, and other things I am not familiar with. But, good as it is, Pho gets old, so I asked the manager about soy in his other dishes. It was quite a production, with the language problem and the manager going back and forth to the kitchen to talk to the cook. It eventually turned out that everything else on the menu, with the exception of the uncooked rice paper spring rolls, had soy in it, usually in the form of what the manager called "soybean vegetable salad oil."

Oh, well. Like I said, Pho is good.

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