I am a 22-year-old student from the UK, sending you an update from my year abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina. I am a peanut allergy sufferer and wanted to share a couple of dangerous experiences I’ve had here, to warn you about things that you might not have considered when travelling with allergies.
I would say that I am quite proficient in Spanish; I lived in Madrid for a bit and I feel comfortable asking in restaurants whether dishes contain “cacahuetes”, “nueces” or “frutos secos” (to cover all bases). However, I didn’t know that in Argentina, the common word for peanuts is “maní”. So, on my second day in the country, I picked up a pot of hummus from the supermarket, not realising that it contained peanuts, and had my first ever oral reaction to peanuts in the 15 years that I’ve known about my allergy. I am usually extremely careful about checking ingredients, but on this odd occasion I didn’t bother because I never would have expected to find peanuts in hummus! It’s not something that you’d find in the UK. When my mouth started feeling strange, I went to check the ingredients of the hummus – just in case – and the only ingredient I didn’t recognise was “pasta de maní”. I looked it up and it meant “peanut paste”. I was shocked. I was also freaking out because I was alone in a foreign country and didn’t know whether I was ill enough to use an EpiPen. Luckily, the reaction calmed down after a couple of hours and my body rejected the peanuts by vomiting. Whether you want to blame me for my reaction or not, the two things I learned from this experience are 1) to ask for the local names of your allergens even if you think you know the language, eg. Spanish used in Spain is different to Spanish in Argentina and 2) don’t assume that the products you can buy in the UK will be exactly the same as the ones abroad – you may be surprised to find your allergen in something you never would have expected.
There’s a local café that I frequent in Buenos Aires, and I always ask whether the dishes contain nuts. The first time I had pesto pasta there, I asked, they said no, and I was fine. The second time I had the pesto pasta, I didn’t ask, because I assumed that it would contain the same ingredients. I immediately started feeling ill, and, knowing how I reacted to the hummus a few weeks earlier, I was certain that the pesto must have contained peanuts. I asked the waitress about what I’d just eaten, and she assured me that the dish didn’t contain peanuts. Still not convinced by this, I asked to speak to the chef, and he told me that sometimes, when they run out of certain ingredients, they replace them with peanuts. On this occasion, he had replaced pine nuts with peanuts, and that is why I had the reaction. Again, you can blame me for not checking when I ordered, but the staff didn’t even know that the chef had changed the ingredients so I still would have had the reaction! Therefore, I want to warn you to be extra careful if you come to Argentina, as restaurants don’t have allergy lists like they do in the UK. I don’t know if it’s common to replace ingredients with peanuts in other countries as well, but be aware that this could happen to you, too. Don’t assume that ingredients always stay the same. If you’re worried about a dish, double-check with the staff in the restaurant, and if you’re still not convinced, ask to speak to the chef to clarify BEFORE you order a dish.
Having said that, the most recent reaction I had in a café came about even after I had double checked with the staff about the ingredients. I ordered a milkshake that came with wafers on top as decoration. The wafers, as I later found out, were not filled with dulce de leche but with peanut butter! When I asked the staff to confirm the ingredients whilst I was reacting (in case I was reacting to a nut I didn’t previously know I was allergic to), they realised that they did not, in fact, know what was in the milkshake and couldn’t confirm the ingredients. They were absolutely hopeless in the café and didn’t offer any help despite it potentially being a medical emergency. I returned a week later (it took me all that time to recover from the reaction) to speak to the manager. I asked to see the packaging for the wafers and other decorations on the milkshake I’d ordered, and the wafers clearly said that they had a peanut butter filling. I was shocked. I explained how dangerous it was and the importance of the staff knowing all the ingredients so that it never happens again. I wrote in their book of complaints and they promised to contact me to “resolve” the situation, which they didn’t. I was barely offered an apology. This just goes to show how careless people can be and how the standards can differ from country to country. The staff were completely ignorant and lied to me about the ingredients – they didn’t seem to care about the repercussions or show any empathy. Now I don’t feel that I can place my trust in restaurant staff wherever I go.
I honestly feel so blessed to have survived these 3 oral reactions, considering I was previously told I was anaphylactic. Others of you might have even more extreme reactions, so let my experiences be a warning to you all to be more careful when checking ingredients abroad, and to carry your medication with you everywhere.