Vegan dining on South African Airways

There will be an update to this blog entry in January when I next fly on South African Airways (SAA), but this is a summary of my last flights with them. An epic failure if I do say so myself!

So last time I flew SAA was when I was off to Kenya for work (Sydney-Perth-Jo’burg-Nairobi). At the time, I was forced to fly economy class rather than business due to budget cutbacks, so bearing that in mind…

As usual, I booked my vegan meal and had it confirmed a few days before the flight, and again at check-in. Everything was good to go apparently. Get on board and settle in for the flight from Perth to Johannesburg, and what was the main meal served to me? Cheese ravioli. I kid you not. Cheese ravioli?

Ravioli contains egg. Cheese is dairy.

I brought this up with the SAA cabin crew and they said that it was a vegan meal. When I pointed out that it was vegetarian and not vegan, they said “same difference, right?”…

Uh, no.

They had nothing else on board they could serve me apparently. It’s an approximately 11 hour flight. At the time I hadn’t packed any rice crackers or Vegemite in my carry-on because I didn’t actually have the room (now I force myself to find room). I went hungry.

The flights from Sydney to Perth (Qantas connection) and from Jo’burg to Nairobi were actually ok. I got a vegan meal on those, albeit one that was full of gluten on SAA, but they were indeed vegan.

Then on the way back to Australia on the Jo’burg to Perth flight, same thing happened. I got served a vegetarian meal rather than a vegan meal. Thankfully by this stage I had lost confidence in them being able to get me a vegan and gluten free meal, so I made sure to pack some appropriate snack food in my bag before leaving Nairobi.

When I got home I checked all the booking information to make sure there hadn’t been a screw up on my behalf and that I hadn’t accidentally requested a vegetarian meal rather than a vegan meal. I hadn’t screwed up. South African Airways had.

I find it bizzare that it was only the flights to and from Australia that were messed up and it wasn’t the whole way through. Which indicates an issue with the catering company rather than with SAA themselves, since the meal trays did say it was VGML.

At any rate, I found SAA to be hit and miss with regards to their vegan offering,

Time will tell if the situation has been remedied. I have another work trip to Africa in January, this time flying SAA business class, so hopefully there won’t be another “but the cheese ravioli is vegan!” incident.

I know there’s a direct Sydney-Jo’burg flight on Qantas by the way, but the connections on that rarely work out very well for me as it lands late in the afternoon. So I’m usually booked Sydney-Perth-Jo’burg because that lands at 5am and makes for more convenient connections to the rest of Africa.

I wish I had a photo of the food to show you all, but at the time I didn’t think about it, as taking photos of my food never really occurred to me at that time. I’ll do it for the next trip though, promise!

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On the road in…England!

The motherland!

For the record, I am actually English, and spent my childhood being bounced back and forth between England and Australia. Most of my family still lives scattered throughout the UK (my brother also lives in Australia and when my parents retired, they relocated to Australia “for the weather”, but they still spend a fair bit of time in the UK). Me, my brother and my parents all maintain dual citizenship for a variety of reasons. So I have a UK passport and an Australian passport to travel on. I don’t have a good relationship with my family at the best of times, something that you may understand more at the end of this blog entry…

I travel to Europe a fair bit. Usually it’s to attend scientific conferences, or passing through in transit on my way to Africa. This blog entry is kind of a culmination of travel experiences in England over the last few years since I went vegan.

As nearly all my family lives in the UK, when I visit, I usually drop in to say hi to a few people. Since my vegan diet is necessitated by a medical condition that is hereditary, I kind of had to inform my family of it so that they could get tested for it as well. To find out whether they had it or whether they were carriers of the gene and might one day end up passing it on to one of their kids. So everyone in my family knew I wasn’t doing this by choice. Yet I show up for a visit (not without warning – I always let them know when I’ll be flying over), and am accused of being a picky eater and being difficult.

The thing you have to realise is that when I was a kid and I was diagnosed with a dairy allergy, my parents flat out refused to buy me any kind of dairy alternative. They were of the opinion that I should eat the same food as everyone else, or I had to go without. Now it’s not like they put dairy in things, they weren’t that vindictive. But if I wanted milk, or cheese, or icecream? I had to go without. They wouldn’t buy me soy milk, or soy cheese, or soy icecream. In the 80’s when I was growing up, that was a perfectly normal attitude for people to take. These days the parents would probably get reported to DOCS (child welfare agency) for child abuse or something.

Their attitude and the attitude of the rest of my family hasn’t really changed over the years. They refuse to buy me gluten free bread when I go to visit. They refuse to cook vegan or gluten free food when I go to visit. And it’s meant that a lot of the time when I go home to England, I end up eating alone because my family will cook food for themselves and not for me. They think it’s punishment for me being a “picky eater”. What they fail to realise is that I actually have a full-time job now. I’m not a broke student. I actually have the money to buy my own food.

Because when I’m at home (for what that word is even worth), it’s not a stretch to go to Tesco or Sainsbury’s and pick up food and cook it for myself in their kitchen. It usually means having to wait until after they’ve finished eating to cook it, which means eating alone, but at least I can make edible food!

The other option of course is to eat out. I was actually incredibly surprised at how difficult it was to find vegan food in England. Having grown up at least some of my life in England, I always knew that vegetarian food was easy to find. I might not have been vegetarian, but I’ve never had any issue eating vegetarian food, even when I was growing up. So having gone vegan whilst living in Australia, upon my next trip the UK, I was astounded at how hard it was to go that extra step. Even in London I found it incredibly difficult and ended up having to go buy my own food at the grocery store rather than eating out. I was actually laughed at several times when I went to eat at some restaurants and asked about vegan options and one waitress actually said “you can’t be serious?”. Deadly serious actually. It’s not like I was trying to request vegan food at some dodgy £2 dive. This was in high end dining establishments.

I got frustrated with it very quickly to be honest. I figured with London being the centre of the cultural universe (in my opinion anyway – it’s still my favorite city in the world), that finding vegan food wouldn’t be an issue. Before you remind me, yes, I know England isn’t exactly known for it’s cuisine. But how hard is it to just stick one vegan option on the menu? Or for a chef to modify an existing dish and just use mushrooms (or something) instead of chicken? That’s what I do at home. I find regular recipes and just substitute vegan friendly options for the standard ingredients. Chicken becomes mushroom. Cream becomes blended silken tofu. Milk becomes almond milk. Honey becomes maple syrup. Surely given my notorious ineptitude in the kitchen, if I can figure this stuff out, a qualified chef should be able to?

Even outside of London, out around Bristol (where my family is mostly scattered), I struggled. Actually, even my father struggles in Bristol when he’s there. He’s been pushed on to a low cholesterol diet due to a heart condition, and he wanted grilled fish and salad one day while we were out. What did the restaurant do? Got the frozen battered fish fillets and loaded up the grill with oil and “grilled” them. I cracked up laughing. My dad wondered what the hell had happened and went off on a rant at them. Yet he still doesn’t seem to understand that this is the kind of thing I have to face almost every time I try to eat out. He doesn’t think that restaurant staff telling you that they can serve you [insert food here] to meet your dietary needs when they can’t is the same thing as I am facing.

The one place I actually found it easier to eat out as a vegan was in the Cotswalds. Different attitude maybe? I don’t know. It’s not an area I usually spend a whole lot of time in, but I do remember it being easier there.

I’m not saying England is difficult as a vegan. If you can stay somewhere that gives you access to a kitchen (even just a microwave/cooktop and fridge in your hotel room), you are set for good. There are tons of vegan and gluten free options available in the grocery stores. I just found eating out to be a problem. Not everywhere, but enough that I’d often go out for dinner with family or friends and not end up eating anything, just drinking soda until I got back to whoever I was crashing with or my hotel room and could make something for myself.

I think the thing that makes vegan eating in England easier (so to speak) than in other places I travel is the fact that everyone there at least knows what vegan means. I’ve never had to explain myself. I’ve never inadvertently been served something I couldn’t eat because the wait staff or kitchen staff didn’t actually understand what vegan meant (as opposed to some other places where people think vegan is the same as vegetarian and therefore it’s ok to serve you something as long as there’s no meat in it). Sure, most places I went couldn’t actually cater a vegan meal for me, but they knew what I was asking for. When it comes to food allergies, this is a good thing, because you’re much less likely to be served something you’re allergic to when people know what you actually mean!

Such is life.

eggplant

Roasted eggplant with garlic and green stuff…

For what it’s worth, London is still my favorite city…

On the road in…Indonesia (Raja Ampat)!

So this is part of my “On the road in…Indonesia!” series. As I’ve travelled around Indo a fair bit, I believe each region deserves it’s own special blog entry.

Previously, I’ve posted about Bali and Sulawesi. Now it is time to talk about Raja Ampat!

Raja Ampat is another destination in Indonesia that I travel to for the sole purpose of scuba diving (at least so far). There’s some mining going on in West Papua, which is the gateway to Raja Ampat, but my current employer won’t let me travel there due to security issues. I’d love to get out there into the highlands one day though!

Travel to Raja Ampat is through a port called Sorong, which is in West Papua. It’s a bit convoluted to get there, but I tend to go Australia-Bali-Makassar-Sorong on Garuda Indonesia. The connections are terrible, but that’s just the way it is I suppose. I’ve posted before about the vegan food offerings on Garuda Indonesia. They get vegan food well enough, it’s just that nearly everything on your tray will contain gluten. I’m used to it, and despite the long overall travel time, the actual flights to get from Australia to Sorong are relatively short. You just end up spending a lot of time sitting around airports in transit. So I have never been especially bothered if I am unable to eat the food on board Garuda flights. I can always eat at the airport on my layovers. And I always have my trusty stash of rice cakes and Vegemite in my backpack!

As for the food in Raja Ampat, please bear in mind that the best way to dive the region is on a liveaboard dive vessel. Which means that my options were extremely limited because boats are small and subsequently don’t have a whole lot of storage space. I knew a couple of people who had been diving in Raja Ampat before, and while they were happy with the boats they went on, they did make it clear that they wouldn’t recommend them to someone with dietary restrictions, which meant I was back to square one with my research. After my issues with the boat I went out on in the Galapagos Islands and the whole “you get what you pay for” lesson, I decided to just spend the money and go on the best boat in Raja Ampat and basically cross my fingers that they could cater for me like they said they could.

They did. Thankfully I was able to eat more than just fruit on my 10 day liveaboard dive trip! Amazing! Seriously though, I was able to get fresh fruit, salads, vegetables, and they managed to pull together some other things like vegan and gluten free Gado Gado and other Indonesian dishes that they modified. I was ecstatic! Don’t get me wrong, I do love fresh fruit, salad and vegetables…But I do like eating regular food like everyone else as well.

This is yet another case where you need to notify the boat (or booking agency) well in advance of any dietary requirements. They have set menus on the boats, so if they need to deviate from that to meet your needs, they need to know so that they can buy appropriate food for you. If you don’t tell them, they don’t know to buy the food, and once you’re on board, it’s too late to do anything about it.

The diving is always epic in Raja Ampat!

Actual vegan and gluten free Indonesian satay! Drooling over the thought of it…

On the road in…Indonesia (Sulawesi)!

I’ll probably have a number of Indonesian blog entries. I spend a bit of time there, and the cuisine and attitude towards dietary issues differs depending on where in the country you are.

I’ve previously posted about travelling in Bali here.

This entry is about my travel to Sulawesi. I have been to Sulawesi a few times. Once for work and twice on diving holidays.

Since for the work trip I was staying at a minesite and therefore not ever actually eating out, I won’t comment on that much. The company who runs the site is Australian, and I was travelling with a company executive. I notified the executive in advance that I had dietary restrictions, because minesites normally have set menus that are scheduled way in advance so that they can buy the appropriate amount of food. They knew I was coming and made arrangements for me. Honestly, I think the chef on site was just happy to have some flexibility, and was happy to come and give me my “special food” during meal times. Or maybe he just wanted to be seen chatting with the pretty blonde woman by all the locals who worked on site? 😉 Yes, I get hit on a lot when I travel for work. I’m young, female, blonde and white – and visiting minesites where pretty much everyone is male. And not everywhere has the same laws regarding sexual harassment as Australia does. It’s fine, you just need a sense of humour – and occasionally a thick skin.

My travel to Sulawesi has always been on Singapore Airlines and their regional subsidiary SilkAir. Basically you fly Singapore Airlines from Australia to Singapore, then get a SilkAir flight from Singapore to Manado (the main airport for North Sulawesi). From there I get driven to wherever I need to go. Bunaken. Lembeh. Minesite.

As I’ve already briefly mentioned the catering on the minesite, I’ll spend the rest of this entry talking about the food at Bunaken and Lembeh.

At both Bunaken and Lembeh, my sole reason for travel is to go scuba diving. While there, I stay at all inclusive dive resorts. Of course there is the option to skip out on meals at the resorts and head into town to do something different, I just don’t normally bother. After a full day of diving, I’m usually too tired to do much other than drag myself to the resort restaurant. In Bunaken, I stayed at a placed called Two Fish Divers Bunaken and in Lembeh at a place called Kungkungan Bay Resort (KBR). The food in Sulawesi is unsurprisingly dominated by fruit, salad and seafood. It’s basically a fishing area (which sucks for the diving, but I digress…), and the climate is ripe for growing tropical fruits.

Two Fish Resort in Bunaken was really limited in terms of the food offerings. They’d been informed of my dietary restrictions in advance and I was told it was fine, that they could cater for it. I don’t think the message got passed on from the reservations office to the kitchen though, because they had no idea when I arrived. I ended up sitting down with the chef at one point and had them tell me what was in the kitchen, and we came up with some meal ideas together since I was going to be there for a week. Not what I expected, but it was actually kind of fun! Still, even though I worked out some suitable meals with the chef, we didn’t really have a lot to work with.

At KBR in Lembeh, it was a bit different. They too were notified in advance of my dietary restrictions, but they’ve got a more extensive menu at KBR as it’s a slightly bigger resort. KBR works on a more a la carte dining method. However they knew I was coming! Which turned out to be a good thing, because most of the regular menu options had egg, meat or seafood. It’s a very “American” style menu actually, so I suspect they get a lot of American divers staying there. There are a couple of vegan options on the menu, and there are a couple of gluten free options on the menu. However I don’t recall there being anything that was both vegan and gluten free (except for the fruit plate at breakfast). But since I had notified them in advance, I didn’t have to eat off the menu. There was one night where they did a bbq buffet thing which was a little more problematic as there was no “special meal” forthcoming that night. I managed to get some grilled vegetables though, so it’s not like I starved.

So my ability to eat vegan and gluten free in Sulawesi was actually pretty good! It needs to be noted that the only reason I think I managed it is because I notified them well in advance. Although at Two Fish in Bunaken that message didn’t seem to have been passed along, the kitchen staff there were clued in enough to be able to sort something out at short notice once I sat down with them and told them what I could and couldn’t eat. Plus, being Indonesia, there’s always fruit…

Not lunch?

Breakfast at KBR!

On the road in…Indonesia (Bali)!

I’ve been to Bali numerous times in my life. I surf. I scuba dive. And Bali’s cheap. Not much else to say!

As a kid, I went with my family. I ate pretty much anything back then, except for dairy. As an adult, I went and also ate pretty much anything except for dairy and pork. I’d had food poisoning from it too many times, so I started this “I’m not eating pork” thing. Then I went again a couple of times after I’d been diagnosed as gluten intolerant (which apparently I had been all along, it was just undiagnosed). And again once more after I went vegan.

I’ll comment here on the times I went as a gluten free and vegan traveller.

I always travel to Bali on Garuda Indonesia. I know other airlines fly the route, but I have pure unadulterated loathing for low cost carriers. I’m spoiled in that regard. After one truly epic fail on Jetstar many years ago, I flat out refuse to fly low cost carriers unless there is literally no other option. And since Garuda Indonesia flies to Bali from Australia, and is not a low cost carrier, it’s my airline of choice. Unfortunately, the vegan meal option on Garuda Indonesia always seems to be full of gluten. Which sucks, but it’s just the way things are. After a couple of trips to Indonesia, I figured out that the best option for me is to order the “raw vegetable meal” or the “fruit platter” rather than the vegan meal. Since the flights from Australia to Bali are relatively short, I can deal with not having a substantial meal on the plane. The reality is that I can always eat at the airport before I board or I can tuck into my ever-present stash of rice cakes and Vegemite that I keep in my backpack on overseas trips.

The food in Bali itself is very hit and miss. Unfortunately Bali is pretty much the land of “yes men”. People will lie to your face. With a smile. Always with a smile!

Vegetarian food in Bali is incredibly easy to find. The problem for vegans is that often it contains egg.

I have honestly lost count of the number of times I was told “yes, yes, we can get you gluten free/vegan meal!”. It never usually eventuated. I’d generally get served something with pork. It’s always easy enough to pick up on the non-vegan food. It’s a little more difficult with the gluten free food though, because you can never tell what’s gone in to the sauces (Balinese food is all about the sauces). The restaurant and hotel staff all understand what gluten free means, there’s enough tourists that pass through the place, but here’s an example of what happens…

Me: Do you have anything that is gluten free and vegan?
Waiter: Yes! Yes! We can make you vegetable meal that is gluten free and vegan!
Me: Are you sure the sauce is gluten free and has no dairy?
Waiter: Sure! Yes! No wheat or gluten and no dairy.
Me: Ok, if the food comes and I can’t eat it, I’m not paying for it.
Waiter: I understand! No animal. No wheat.
(waiter goes to kitchen)
Cook: …But the sauce contains wheat?
Waiter: She’ll never know.
(waiter brings out vegan dish with random sauce)

Now before you accuse me of making this up, I’m not. This actually happened at a resort I was staying at on a dive trip to Tulamben. Because I’d overheard the conversation, I didn’t actually eat it – in this case. But this has happened to me so many times in Bali. I get told to my face that they can make me a gluten free and vegan meal and they can’t. I have been sick more times in Bali from inadvertently eating gluten than anywhere else in the world. If the places I stayed at had their own kitchen or something, I’d simply give up on eating out and just cook for myself. Which is the ultimate shame, because I love Indonesian food. But not at the expense of my health. When I go to Bali, I want to go surfing. I want to go diving. I want to go climbing volcanoes. I do not want to be stuck in a bathroom for days on end being sick.

Now before I go writing off the whole island as being dodgy…It’s not. Some areas are better at catering to dietary restrictions than others. For example, in my experience, Ubud (in the middle of the island) is better providing vegan and gluten free food. As are the restaurants at the 5* resorts in Nusa Dua. I hate the idea of going all the way to Indonesia and eating out at the Four Seasons rather than some local hole-in-the-wall, but at least they serve me what I’ve ordered.

I can always just eat fruit in Bali – I know that. There’s tons and tons of fresh fruit in Bali, and it’s cheap. But one of the main reasons to go to Bali is to eat Indonesian food. And I try. It’s just that I always fail at some point.

I love Bali, I really do. It’s beautiful, the surf is awesome, the diving is still pretty good during mola mola season, and the people are lovely. However it’s the one place that has really reiterated to me the dangers of having to take people at their word when eating out when you have food allergies or intolerances.

“Vegan” Nasi Goreng…What’s that on top?

Vegan and gluten free Gado Gado…Vegan? Sure. Gluten free? My stomach disagrees!

On the road in…Egypt!

Ah, Egypt. I’d wanted to visit ever since I was a little kid and saw all those documentaries on tv. I had to go see King Tut, the pyramids, the mummies…The stuff that entertains young kids. Simply put, I just never grew out of it. And I’m glad I didn’t, because Egypt was an amazing place!

I flew to Cairo via Singapore on Singapore Airlines. While the flight from Singapore to Cairo was problematic for a variety of reasons (delays, in-flight entertainment was down for the whole flight, screaming kids that could be heard from the next cabin), the food wasn’t one of them. Singapore Airlines is one of few that seems to get vegan meals right. I flew business class in this case as I had some miles to burn. Some of the food contained gluten, but I was able to eat most of what I got served. And being in business class, I could basically just ask for something and they’d do their best to try and appease me. I couldn’t eat the bread, so I asked for some rice cakes and got them. I couldn’t eat one of the sweets, so I asked for some fruit as an alternative and got given a small bowl of fruit salad. Not something that will generally occur in economy class. Or on less reputable airlines!

I have to admit I was a little surprised at how easy it was to travel in Egypt as a vegan. Admittedly a lot of the food came served with pita bread which wasn’t gluten free, but if you pulled the bread apart and just ate the filling? Easy! A lot of other vegan food items did contain wheat, but since it was always immediately obvious or my guide told me specifically what not to order, I was able to avoid them.

I ate a lot of falafels. Normally they come served in pita bread with either tzatziki or hommus. For obvious reasons I can’t eat tzatziki, but hommus is fine. So I ended up ordering falafels with a side of tabbouleh most days. I’d just take the falafel covered with hommus out of the pita bread and eat it separately with the tabbouleh. Now you might wonder how I ate tabbouleh since it traditionally contains cracked wheat (burghul). This is true even in Egypt, but there are enough places around that use alternatives such as quinoa, millet or buckwheat. My guide was able to query this with cooks or waitstaff wherever we went.

I actually liked the falafel, hommus and tabbouleh combination so much that it has now become a regular part of my diet at home! I wrap it all up in some gluten free wraps or tortillas and it is awesome!

I also ate a lot of vegetables. I didn’t find the fruit in Egypt to be particularly good, so generally tended to avoid it. Such is life?

This trip more than any other I’ve done I managed to make some life-long friends. Normally you meet a few people on your travels and then forget about each other when you get home. For some reason the people I met on this trip all kept in contact. Even now, when one of us is in the home town of one of the others, we drop in to say hi! It’s nice, because we get to reminisce about our adventures and there’s always the “hey, do you remember when…?” inside jokes that nobody else gets.

Good memories. Good times. Good food!

Believe it or not, you can get gluten free falafels pretty easily!

Cute kitty?

This is why I wanted to go to Egypt. It’s just mindblowing!

Perth Qantas Club

Really? 

I had an early morning domestic flight out of Perth. This is unusual for me as I’m normally on the red-eye overnight flights. So I was in the Qantas Club for breakfast rather than supper for a change.

The usual Qantas Club breakfast stuff was out. Eggs, sausages and beans, bread, museli, yogurt, fruit. I’ve been on enough early flights out of Sydney to know what the breakfast fare in the Qantas lounges is like.

Except in Sydney (or Melbourne, or Brisbane, or Cairns…), even though they don’t put it out, if I go and ask the lovely kitchen staff in the Qantas business lounge, they’ll give me some rice cakes because I’m gluten intolerant and can’t eat the breakfast bread offerings.

I went to ask the Perth Qantas Club staff about getting some rice cakes, and was told “no”. Really? It’s not like they don’t have them. They get put out for lunch and dinner every day. I know they’re not generally put out for breakfast, but they do have them in the kitchen or behind the counter. Is it really that much of an issue to go and get me a few because I’m gluten intolerant?

Qantas? This is not how your platinum frequent flyers should be treated. I know that the staff in the lounge wouldn’t know my frequent flyer status, but if they’re making an assumption that I’m just a paid Qantas Club member instead of being a platinum frequent flyer because I don’t fit the typical business traveller profile and treating me as such? You’ve got a problem.

Obviously I was able to eat fruit salad (sans yogurt and museli), but dammit I wanted some rice cakes!

Yes, I’m very well aware that I’m whinging about something that is very much a first world problem. Oh no, I’m complaining about the food in the business lounge at the airport! This whole blog is pretty much the epitome of a first world problem. I know this. I’m doing it anyway.

The usual Qantas Club breakfast bar offerings…Most of it’s a no-go for me.