An open letter…

Dear UAE restaurant community

We need to talk, it’s not me, it’s you. Or more accurately it’s you and me but you’re the one that needs to change, because I literally can’t and neither can thousands like me.

The stakes are high. They concern my most cherished hobby, and it’s one that has hospitalised me twice in the past few years. It’s got nothing to do with TikTok challenges, car park parkour, or licking windows on public transport. It’s eating food.

Written down on the admission slips, on both these A&E check-ins was ‘an allergic reaction to tree nuts’. Not, as some of you might have guessed, unchecked enthusiasm at the buffet station. I have a moderate-to-relatively severe allergy to tree nuts.

I’m not completely asleep at the wheel of duty of care to myself, I almost invariably carry the strongest street legal antihistamines the pharmacist will hand over. Although, I confess, that despite owning an EpiPen, since Pulp Fiction came out, I don’t trust first aiders with adrenalin needles. So it stays at home.

The fact that I’m here writing this now, is proof of life and confirmation that no eatery has yet succeeded in finishing the job on me. It’s not being overly dramatic to say that they have come close though, this genuinely is a life and death situation, and not just for me.

These allergens

‘Tree nuts’ might sound like a pedantic classification, but it’s actually quite an important one. For you non-allergy-suffering muggles, groundnuts (basically peanuts) are not true nuts, they’re legumes, more ‘pea’ than ‘nut’. You can be allergic to tree nuts, groundnuts, neither, or if fate really doesn’t like the cut of your pistachio flan, both.

Aside from making me, and my fellow nut dodgers, an assassin’s dream assignment (make it look like an accident, *opens jar of Nutella), it’s a pretty manageable condition within controlled settings. Just don’t eat nuts. It’s dinners out, or ordered in, where the roulette wheel begins to spin.

Nut job

Nut allergies are a common enough affliction in my home country (the UK) for there to be legislation in place to ensure food providers act in respect of that fact (appropriate labelling, coaching staff on the dangers of cross-contamination, as well as stiff penalties for noncompliance). And I fully appreciate and understand that there are many cultures and locations across the world where there just isn’t the prevalence of these allergies to merit, or force kitchens into catering for them.

But when you’re in a truly multi-cultural society, of which the UAE is one of the world’s finest, most tolerant, most enviable examples of, the balance of ‘ought’ shifts. There are many restaurants here that are onboard the allergen woke ship, but there are still many more that aren’t. I’d make a generous estimate, that it’s about 50/50, which are fair odds for a coin flip, slightly less so for a round of ‘will I have a functioning trachea after this meal’. One cannot live on instant ramen alone. Especially if you’re celiac.

Quick stat check for you. It’s estimated, worldwide, the number of people with a food allergy now sits at around seven per cent of the total population. And, for whatever reason, that number is growing. Parents with allergies are more likely to have children with allergies, we know that allergic reactions come from a misfiring immune response to foreign proteins, but there is currently no universal cure. Do not talk homeopathy to me.

A completely nuts approach

Let’s get hypothetical. Imagine we weren’t talking about nuts, let’s say instead that it was drain cleaner that may or may not be lurking in your pesto pasta. Level the playing field.

“Erm, does this pasta have any drain cleaner in it?”
“Are you sure? It’s just, I’m unable to consume caustic industrial solvents, would you mind checking with the chef please?”
“Ok so the chef says, he hasn’t used any drain cleaner, but there is drain cleaner in the kitchen so he cannot guarantee ‘no drain cleaner in the dish’. Wanna chance it?”

Or worse, they’re absolutely adamant that there’s no drain cleaner in the dish, you eat it, and 30 minutes later you’re on a drip, surrounded by tutting doctors. “Oh” the server later reflects “you know what, maybe the drain cleaner soufleé did have drain cleaner in it”.

It’s an issue of awareness and accountability. What you’re saying by turning a blind eye to the allergy situation is either that you’re not aware of the importance of, or are not prepared to take accountability for, what’s in the food you’re selling. Nuts, shellfish, gluten, horse meat, radioactive isotopes, drain cleaner — don’t care, I’m not eating it, sounds like a ‘you problem’.

It genuinely wouldn’t take a lot to turn this around, but it has to be collaborative. And, ideally, backed by law. There are already strict guidelines on food hygiene and ensuring food prep meets halal standard and practices. We’re just talking about topping that up.

It’s not a blame game, about retribution or cultural profiling, it’s not that I want to sue, nor that I believe it should be made possible to do so (fines would work), I just don’t want to die over a mislabeled wholewheat bap.

That would be nuts.

Images: What’s On