Food: Wheat Nostalgia (Entry 1/many)

I miss ramen.

Not just steaming bowls of fresh, hand-pulled noodles, served in loud, dark, crowded restaurants in bowls the size of my head, where I slurp my special vegan broth with joy while making delighted faces at my friends, who I can’t hear over the din. No, I also miss the cheap instant stuff I ate as a kid, with a toasted cheese sandwich beside it. Or the fancy-yet-still cheap instant ramen with brand names like Szechuan Chef or MAMA, which not only had the powdered broth packet, but also a chili paste or powder packet AND an oil packet, often with sesame oil in it.

Those instant soups were SO TASTY! The deep fried wheat noodles were just amazing in those spicy soup bases. I would dress those up with chopped scallions and bell peppers, or when I was feeling especially fancy, with a frozen veggie medley of snow peas, mushrooms, water chestnuts, and sprouts, which cooked along with the noodles. It was ready so quickly! It was so warming! It was so SATISFYING!

Packages of instant noodles are ubiquitous, but they are no longer for me: I have a medical condition that means wheat… doesn’t work for me anymore. Not just digestively (although that is terrible), but also immune system wise.

I am learning to let go, while also looking back at wheat fondly.

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I hadn’t thought of myself as a big wheat-eater, since I love Asian and Mexican cuisines, which are rice and corn centered. Yet wheat was always somewhere in my kitchen: as the light, flaky crusts of my homemade apple pies; as the most sauce-absorbent tortillas of my homemade zucchini enchiladas; as the layers of pasta in my homemade artichoke-flavored lasagnas, as the linguini beneath my homemade mushroom-tomato sauces, or the crust of delicious veg local pizzas. Not one but TWO local beer halls that a friend liked to meet at had wheat-based vegan sausages on their menu, which they grilled on a veg-only grill and served on organic wheat buns.

Wheat was EASY.

Also, wheat can be beautiful: my cousin STILL sends me lovely photos of restaurant tabletops covered in hand-pulled pizza crusts, or delicious pastries he is enjoying with coffee. The crusts are beautifully browned; the pastries are streaked with spices or filled with air pockets from a slow, yeasty rise. They called to his camera for good reasons!

Wheat was important to me on special occasions. I can name at least three local bread bakeries whose loaves back in the early 2000s would absolutely make my day. While enjoying them, I felt I was living my best possible California life. (Acme (swoon), Grace Baking (I read they closed down), and Semifreddi’s, if you were wondering; but there is also great local sourdough…) Olive oil, some tapenade, some fresh, local herbed chèvre if I was dining with non-vegans, heirloom tomatoes, fizzy water, a glass of wine, and a fresh loaf of olive bread…

*deep sigh* So, wheat was not a daily food for me (unlike rice!), but it had a PLACE, and if I included it, I included a REALLY GOOD manifestation of it.

But then there was a medical incident. My digestion became impaired, and when it failed to resolve on its own (as a doctor suggested it would), a gastroenterologist had me try an elimination diet. Fructans (type of plant structure found in very firm/crunchy/tall plants, including wheat) turned out to be a villain in my new story. Once wheat in particular was off my menu, my bloodwork for my other doctors improved dramatically…

Which means there is no going back.

Not that I didn’t try: my bloodwork was so good that my doctor expressed doubt I’d ever had an issue, so I recently did an immersive personal-wheat-festival to confirm it, and… Things went south on about day 10, remained bad for WEEKS, and weren’t right for MONTHS. So, my wheat issue really is a thing.

*

You may wonder how I was able to work in Europe when I was there for business without being able to tolerate wheat. Or lactose, for that matter.

It was… difficult.

Here at home, I can make my own choices, but when relying entirely on office cafeterias, hotels, and business restaurants in Europe, things get dicey. I chose hotels that offered hot foods, rather than pastry-toast-cheese-coffee breakfasts. Eating in company cafeterias was possible thanks to salad bars, grilled veggie side dishes, and random vegetarian specials were were NOT wheat-based; catered lunches were a disaster, as my hosts would kindly accommodate my vegetarianism with a wheat pasta dishes or cheese sandwiches. Team dinners were usually at places with limited menus, and I would have to accept whatever the vegetarian option was, and ritually nibble on it if it was wheat-based.

Left to my own devices in the larger cities for business or pleasure, I manage(d) exceptionally well. Thai red veggie curries in Budapest (with local beer!); Japanese veg sushi lunch and Thai dinner in Switzerland; Vietnamese in Berlin; Thai or Indonesian or Vietnamese or Ethiopian or Persian or hybrid cuisines in London; Indian and pan-Asian pan fried rice noodles topped with veggies and sauces of my choice in Copenhagen; Nepali foods, Breton buckwheat savory crepes, felafel salads, or any number of fancy French vegan restaurant meals in Paris; beautifully arranged rice noodle plates with fresh beans and colorful veggies in Amsterdam; risotto in the Hague; Korean stone pot, Indian curry-poutine, and savory Chinese mushroom dishes in Toronto…

(Yes, I have tried eating Mexican food in Europe, and… it is not. I appreciate the effort, and conceptually I can see how it happened, but the interpretations are… novel.)

But: this worked when I was alone, or when I was with a fellow veg-gf friend who helped me research our options. When ordering airplane meals for my 10+ hour flights or if going out for a compulsory business meal, the odds were not in my favor. There are rules, and no one is supposed to have more than one restriction. Even now, when I order groceries, I can choose vegetarian OR I can choose “gluten-free.” Not both! Airline meals have the same issue. I always choose vegan (or vegetarian if that is the only veg option, as it is on some airlines), but can’t ALSO ensure my vegan dish it isn’t pasta in tomato sauce or a grilled veggie sandwich. This is not EASY.

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So: I will periodically have a nostalgic outburst here about some food I miss, or I will bemoan wheat being added to something unnecessarily. (People who “bread” their fried potatoes with a wheat batter: I’m looking at you!)

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Yes, I have tried rice-ramen; yes, it is healthier because it isn’t fried; no, it is not THE SAME. More importantly, non-wheat ramen (which is technically some other noodle, I’m sure) is only available in certain (amazing) restaurants. I can’t just walk into any old ramen place now, even if they have a vegetarian special broth.

So, my world is a little smaller, and has fewer steaming bowls and fewer merrily-slurping crowds in it.

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