I was surprised seeing the number of mails that landed into my in-box after my last post on gluten free cupcakes was published. Surprised pleasantly. A few expressed happiness as the cupcakes did not contain any exotic or not-so-easily-available ingredients, and that they were just happy to have something healthier than all purpose flour, which though tasty and most suited for baked products, is unfortunately not very easy on the stomach. Some mails cleared the misconception that Indians do not suffer from allergies. One huge illusion is that allergies are not as prevalent in India as in the West. True to some extent but the closer truth is that, in India allergies are ignored.
From the time I found out my daughter’s allergies I have been paying more attention and reading up some literature related to the causes, symptoms and treatment of allergies. I felt that it was time that I shared some of my experience. I only speak of food allergies. Most of the information I have given here is from reading articles and books. Irrespective of whether it is pollen grains or food, one thing that is firmly established is that allergy is a defense mechanism produced by the body against an attack by a foreign agent. Allergy is not a short coming of the body but a communication by your body.
Allergy in young children:
Allergies are most common among young babies as they are introduced to a variety of foods with each passing month, after the first few months (6 to 8 months) of breast feeding or after weaning. The body sends out messages by reacting immediately either in the form of vomiting the foreign body, or in the form of un-digested solids that may show up in the poop. Milk apart from breast milk, milk products, and meat should not be consumed at any stage of life as the human body is not equipped to digest them. Ideally the baby can be introduced to cereals and light proteins after six – eight months of age but if the the mother is short of milk supply this can be done in a controlled manner under the guidance of a professional. It is common for doctors to advise cow’s milk or dilute cow’s milk, however, science has proved that it is unnatural and irrational to consume the milk from another species of mammals. It is however up to you, whether you are ready to accept this fact. For those interested, Sion hospital in Mumbai has a ‘breast-milk bank’ for children who have been deprived of mother’s milk during their formative months due to natural reasons. Even if one has to introduce cereals at an early stage, one may start with one cereal at a time and allow the body to get used to it before making a change. It is wrong to bombard the body with all kinds of cereals within a short space of time. The body is a machine that needs to be used and not abused.
Allergies can occur at any stage of life, due to change in the external or internal environ. They however seem to manifest themselves very noticeably during puberty among both the sexes, and among women during pregnancy, post-childbirth, nursing period or menopause, since we are subject to more hormonal upheavals than men! Whatever the cause, one thing to be kept in mind is that it is better to stay away from the allergen rather than ignore and go on abusing the body. This may lead to severe reactions or worse still even cancer.
Manifestation – symptoms:
Allergic reactions may manifest themselves within a hour of consumption of the allergen or even after a few days (maybe a week later). Common allergens among food products are milk, eggs, soy, wheat, fish, chocolates, nuts (especially peanuts), tomatoes, brinjals, chickpeas, pineapples and bengal gram. There are many others that make it to the list but the above are the ones I have noticed more often. So next time, you consume your food and notice itching, redness of skin, patches, swelling, watering of eyes, dizziness, breathing problems, runny/stuffy nose, constant cramps in the stomach, indigestion or constipation, please recall what has been consumed, if no other external reason strikes you. Seeking professional help at an early stage can dissipate anxiety as correct medication can help the victim deal with the condition better.
Our allergy diary:
I took my daughter to various dermatologists who decided that her condition was age related acne and treated her for the same with month long dosage of antibiotics, creams and soaps – for a whole year before we found the causative factors. One of my uncles who happens to be a skin specialist himself, visited us one day and he diagnosed her condition as an allergy. He even told me that while a blood test would be a guide it was definitely not the best way to deal with an allergy. On his advise I built a chart and started monitoring the shampoo and soaps she used. I changed over to soaps made of natural substances such as fruits and mung dal powder, but the condition did not improve. Then I made a food chart and started monitoring the food she consumed. Both of us went on a detox, raw vegan diet for 8 days. From the third day onwards her skin started improving by becoming less itchy. By the 8th day the itch and redness was gone but the boils remained. After that I started introduced kanji, moong khichdi, tuvar dal etc. taking care that every new ingredient was given only after a gap of four days. This way we were able to track the allergens. I reserved chickpeas, bengal gram, kidney beans, tomatoes, brinjals, peanuts, soy and wheat for the end as these are common allergens. Each and everything she put in her mouth would be recorded. It did not take very long to find out that her allergens were wheat (any product containing gluten such as wheat biscuits or multigrain pasta), nuts (the worst were pine nuts) and milk or milk products. Within a day of consuming any food containing these she would develop new boils and rashes all over her body.
One of my friend’s son was allergic to artificial colours and flavors (additives) when he was young. Within two years he got over it. If you are lucky the condition may pass in a few years, and sometimes it may just stay with you for life. Sometimes with age or with hormonal changes the condition may improve but it is best to not abuse the body further and stay away from any food product that contains the allergen.
Durum wheat pasta – use rice noodles or rice sticks instead. Many varities of gluten-free pastas are available in leading gourmet shops or online grocery stores. GF pastas cook very fast so keep checking every five minutes.
All purpose flour – a blend of superfine rice flour and cornstarch/arrow root/tapioca flour works equally well.
Milk in ice creams and cakes – Use thick coconut milk, almond milk, hazelnut milk or cashew milk in ice creams and shakes and wash the vessel with a little water retaining the thin extract for other cooking. Soymilk/rice milk/hemp milk are equally good. I haven’t tried hemp milk so far. Tender coconut meat when ground also makes a good creamy substitute that can be used in puddings and ice creams.
Eggs – easily replaced by firm or extra-firm tofu, flax seeds, apple sauce, mashed pears or bananas, cornstarch etc., depending upon which item egg is used in.
Nuts – Use seeds instead. Toasted sunflower, melon and pumpkin seeds are as good as nuts.
Paneer – use tofu and if allergic to tofu, just give it up. It is not worth all the attention. Paneer is over-rated and over-used.
Cornflour – Use arrowroot or tapioca flour. Tapioca flour is not readily available in India. My friend Rajani (of eatwritethink) gave this excellent idea. She stays in Dubai and receives home ground tapioca flour from Kerala. Just peel, chop and dry tapioca in the sun. When dry mill it to a fine powder.
Recipe: Musk Melon Soup
Muskmelon (honey dew melon, the orange variety), peeled and chopped into bite sized pieces – 1 (about 1 kg)
Freshly expressed coconut milk (first extract) – 1/2 cup
Vanilla pods, split and seeds scraped – 2
Blend the musk melon pieces and coconut milk together till smooth. I let a few small chunks remain as it is tastier to get some fruit bites in between sips.
Scrape vanilla seeds into the blend. Garnish with coconut milk and serve immediately.
To make ice cream freeze the mixture and blend it in regular intervals of an hour twice or thrice. Freeze in an airtight container and serve when desired. If you have an ice cream maker, I am jealous.