Living as a person with an extreme dietary restriction is a difficult feat. I spend my days constantly looking at food labels and looking food items up on Google. I’m a little more cautious than the average person when it comes to food. The extreme dietary restriction that I live with is Celiac disease. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease that affects the lining of your small intestine by producing auto-antibodies in response to gluten exposure. Auto-antibodies are a type of antibody found in the body that can attack an organ or system. Damage is caused by wheat, rye, barley and products containing gluten. Living in the states is difficult enough with this ailment. When I travel outside of the states, this condition can become very interesting to say the least.
In the midst of going to South Korea, the biggest source of anxiety was finding food. I didn’t speak any Korean at all. This already established a prominent language barrier for me. When I arrived, I discovered that Korea has a massive eating culture. Koreans take great pride in the food that they create and consume, using food to connect family, business people, and travelers alike. Some restaurants serve food such as Saengseon Jjigae ( 생선찌개) or fish stew in big enough portions to share among groups.
Below are a few tips that I have amassed to help me navigate having Celiac disease in Korea:
Obtain a dietary restriction translation card
Having this translation card has truly changed the whole direction of my trip. My Celiac disease isn’t exactly an allergy, but traveling, I’ve found that it’s easier to label it as an allergy so people can understand the severity of the reaction. You can obtain a translation card online by searching for a particular dietary restriction and the language of the country being traveled to.
Research dishes to eat beforehand and ALWAYS ASK about ingredients
I spent so much time researching gluten-free Korean dishes, from making lists of food that have gluten, to researching areas for possible cross-contamination during preparation process, to then finding the foods I could enjoy. Doing this research was not only beneficial for myself, but beneficial for the restaurant owners who I could ask about certain sauces or parts of the food within a dish.
Learn the word for your allergy or food restrictions
For example, I learned how to recognize a few words that relate to my situation. I kept the words in the notes section of my phone. In my case, I kept the Hangul spelling and the phonetic spelling for the terms of the different ingredients and sauces that were not safe for me to eat. Knowing these terms has helped me identify quickly what I can eat.
Download Google translate
Google translate was useful in a pinch when I needed to quickly translate the back of ingredients on food or communicate with restaurant staff about my condition since I don’t speak Korean. When using Google translate, try to form sentences in direct and simple phrases so they translate better. If the language entered is too complex, the translation will come out funky. For example, instead of typing: ”do I microwave this?”, type “Do I have to heat this food?”.
Even though Korea has many delicious dishes, it’s easy to develop anxiety over food or concern around your health due to a potential language barrier. Researching food, reading other travel blogs, and even asking my Korean classmates to help me has helped shape my travels into a minimally stressful experience.