Traveling is one of my greatest joys and I recently had the privilege of embarking on an exciting adventure – a group trip to Israel.
However, travel like this is also when managing my food allergies becomes the most challenging. In Israel, English is not the primary language, and food allergies are not as common or well understood as in North America. In my life, I’m managing anaphylactic allergies to peanuts and tree nuts. But to complicate matters on the Israel trip, I also worried about the fact that I have an intolerance to chickpeas.
With Israeli diet staples like hummus and falafel, chickpeas are the main ingredient. Unlike my severe allergies, this intolerance would just upset my stomach and give me an itchy mouth. While not life-threatening, these symptoms are certainly unpleasant.
I wondered whether restaurants in Israel would both understand my food allergies, and if they would be insulted when I had to say: “no hummus, please.”
Of course, managing food allergies while traveling starts before you even arrive at your destination. A stressful part of planning for me is ensuring that I’ve brought sufficient safe food options for the plane. I am consistently surprised by how poorly food allergies are managed by airlines overall.
I have never eaten a “safe” meal served on a plane, since airline meals seldom have ingredients listed, and cross-contact information is lacking. Besides my own food, sometimes, if I’m lucky, a nice flight attendant may bring me some labeled, prepackaged snacks.
But no such luck on this trip to Tel Aviv, which was also the longest flight I’ve taken (12 hours!). Even with all my snacks, I was famished by the time we finally landed.
Israel Trip: Chickpeas Everywhere
One of the challenges of traveling in a group trip when you have food allergies is that you have less control over what you eat. In a group, you’re meant to eat whatever is being served that meal. This can be a positive because group trip organizers often have experience managing various dietary concerns.
Before we’d left, I thoroughly informed the Israel trip organizers of my food allergies. They assured me there would be safe options to suit my diet requirements throughout the trip.
Yet, if I’ve learned anything from years of managing my food allergies, it’s to “never assume.” Even if you’ve been promised in advance that all food served to you will be safe, it’s best to double-check and ask someone who knows. This is what I did at all of our meals, even though it meant I was often the last to sit down and eat. Inevitably, this drew unwanted attention my way, but that is allergic life.
Surprisingly, I was the only person in my 40-person travel group who had anaphylactic food allergies, but luckily everyone was very understanding.
I did carry a food allergy card in Hebrew that read “I am allergic to peanuts and all other nuts.” But I didn’t run into issues avoiding nuts in Israel, which I was very pleased by.
Chickpeas, on the other hand, were everywhere. Hummus was a staple at breakfast, lunch and dinner. It would have been impossible for me to eat as a vegetarian on this trip – all vegetarian meals were chickpea-based.
Luckily, because my chickpea intolerance is mild, I didn’t have to worry about cross-contact. If I ordered a pita at lunch, I simply asked for no hummus. While this was clearly an uncommon request, I never had an issue.
Allergies in Remote Israeli Desert
One of the best parts of the trip was the night we spent in the middle of the desert. We would sleep on the ground in huge 40-person Bedouin tents. We were truly in the middle of nowhere, with only intermittent cell service. On the bus out to the desert, our tour guide made a point of stressing to me how remote the location was. He stated that it would be best to avoid an allergic reaction – since there are no hospitals nearby and I would probably die.
I was shocked; although being blunt is not unusual for Israelis, his phrasing really upset me. Of course, I would do my best – as I always do – to avoid having an allergic reaction. But now I was scared! I hadn’t brought any safe meals to the desert because I hadn’t been informed that I might need to.
Luckily, when we arrived, I realized this would be a lot more like “glamping” than our tour guide had suggested. Although we were remote, the venue’s managers had experience accommodating food allergies, and they were able to provide me with a prepackaged, allergy-friendly meal.
It was disappointing that I couldn’t partake in the Bedouin buffet that had been prepared for everyone else. However, with the tour guide’s dire warning still ringing in my ears, I wasn’t about to risk an allergic reaction.
In the end, the food really didn’t matter – I had an amazing time stargazing and exploring the desert. And I was happy that my food allergies had been handled safely in a more high-risk environment.
Proud of Allergy Management
When we returned home from our trip, I felt proud of how I had managed my food allergies in Israel overall. It is intimidating to travel somewhere where English is not the primary language, not knowing how your food allergies will be treated.
As a foodie, one of my favorite parts of travel is sampling the local cuisine. But that’s not always easy when you have life-threatening food allergies. Luckily, with my food allergy translation card and a little planning, I was still able to safely enjoy many delicious Israeli dishes. Plus, I survived an adventurous night in the desert to boot!
Allergic Living contributor Hannah Lank is an associate lawyer practicing in Toronto.