What would you do if you discover that you have a seafood allergy? Victoria Lim’s parents and relatives took drastic steps to cure her. Warning: do not try their solutions at home.
When an allergy strikes, it does not care who you are, what you’ve done and what an attack does to you. It will taunt, torture and haunt you. My first brush with seafood allergy occurred when I was five. My parents, one-year-old brother and I were at East Coast Parkway for our once a week dinner at Long Beach Seafood Restaurant. Our usual array of dishes had arrived at the table, including the signature chilli crab with golden pillowy mantous, highly addictive steamed razor clams with minced garlic and vermicelli, and sweet fresh scallops with vegetables. I went for my favourite, the soft fluffy seafood fried rice. And that was when the flare-up started.
After three bites, my throat began to hurt; it itched so badly that I wanted to rip it out to give it a good scratch. Meantime, my lips had swelled to a plump size a la Kylie Jenner. I thought I was going to collapse. My parents went into freeze mode. Fortunately, the service staff knew what to do – they gave me antihistamines. I was back to normal after the medicine kicked in.
You would think that after this near-death (at least, that was how I felt) incident in public I would be banned from eating or being anywhere near seafood. After all, I am my parents’ firstborn. I was so wrong. After getting over their initial shock, my parents recovered quickly. I was told in no uncertain terms to deal with my allergy head on and they would help me along, and they did it with unwavering zealousness. I was given weekly seafood tutorials. My parents would sit me down and coax me to polish off a plate of prawn fried rice or fried prawn noodles. A glass of warm water and a slice of white bread would be by the side to counter any allergic reaction. (The irony that white bread could potentially cause a wheat allergy was lost on them.) The lessons went on for a year but they didn’t work.
Then, there was my second aunt who believed that my allergy was all in my head. She would snuck in broken pieces of crabs, lobsters or prawns into my plate of vegetables or mound of rice. Of course, that wasnʼt successful because my breakout episodes were real. Undeterred, my other (crazy) aunts and uncles joined in and fed me fresh crabs, prawns and lobsters. The only silver lining in this dark cloud? We found out fourth uncle was also allergic to seafood. I felt strangely comforted in the midst of this suffering.
An allergy is a hypersensitivity disorder of the immune system, in which the immune system misinterprets a usually harmless compound as a threat. This means that although the main ingredient in a dish is pork, if you’re allergic to prawns and the pork has been cooked with dried shrimp, it can trigger a severe reaction too. You pay the price with symptoms like sneezing and itching of the throat. In severe cases, it can even be fatal. Looking back, it was odd that my parents did not think of seeking medical attention for my allergy, but then again, this was in the 90s when awareness of food allergies was still low.
Why this madness, you may ask? I come from a family of hardcore foodies who believed that allergies are just a sign of a weak body. The Lim family remedy has always been to fight poison with poison. Until the day I am free from my allergy, the seafood lessons will have to go on.
Thankfully, a miracle happened. I was cured after three arduous years! It was on a lazy Sunday and we were at my grandma’s place for our weekly gathering. The kitchen table was filled with a plethora of scrumptious delights, including a plate of harmless-looking broccoli that was cooked in prawn stock (which I didn’t know). I helped myself to a generous serving (because children must eat their greens) and nothing happened. Nobody realised this until my second cousin pointed out: “Vicky is okay, her lips are fine and she is not asking for bread and water!” After three long suffering years I was finally free.
Even though my seafood allergy was done and dusted, my mind was still scarred. When I’m not dining with the Lim clan, I would actively avoid crustaceans or shellfish of any kind.
As a writer for epicure, one must learn how to eat almost everything and anything. Revealing my seafood allergy would not have gotten me hired in the first place and I knew I had to face my demons. I went back into lesson mode again and tried as many seafood dishes as I could. From Esquina’s Uni and Lobster Paella to Atlas’ poached oyster with lardo and blue prawn tartar, I ate them all with gusto. And it was through all these tastings that I discovered a whole new world of produce. I fell in love with uni and carabineros. I could differentiate some oyster varietals. A smooth shell with a crisp and briny flavour? These gems are from the Pacific.
In the wise words of German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche “that which does not kill us, makes us stronger.” In a way, my family’s warped tenets not only worked – but paved the way for my food writing career. I definitely wouldn’t recommend the head on approach to anyone with a food allergy. Still, I have the Lim clan to thank for not killing me but curing my allergy.