I can tell you it’s a nasty thing to have.

I only found out more than 15 years ago when my wife and I visited Kerala in India. The food there is pretty good and we especially loved the various breads the state had to offer. Unfortunately, I was violently assailed by hives and it ruined my holiday.  

When I got back to Kuala Lumpur, I went to see a skin specialist and he suggested I test for allergies.

He proceeded to take a blood sample and told me to come back in a week. I did only to be told that I was allergic to shellfish, wheat and peanuts.

Astounded wasn’t quite the word to describe my state of mind.    “But I never had these problems before,” I said feebly.

“It happens,” said the unmoved medic. “It’s called aging.” I was then in my early fifties.

It wasn’t really hard to accept in the end because where allergies are concerned, you get better but you never get well. I’d never cared for shellfish anyway – I’ve never had an oyster in my life – and, frankly, I didn’t give a fig for the nuts.

But bread?

It was really quite simple, almost alimentary, my dear Watson. To avoid the hives, I simply had to eschew gluten. Whole legions of food became instantly forbidden before my despairing gastro-intestinal tract.  Croissants, cake, Southern-style fried chicken, burgers, even the humble hot dog – they were all verboten on pain of an itch that refuses to go away. It makes an immune system turn against itself.

You learn to adapt, of course. There are a surprising number of gluten-free foods that can be obtained in Kuala Lumpur – even more so than in Singapore. But gluten-free pasta is, well, gluten free and not quite what Marco Polo envisioned on his trip back from China.  

Then came the pandemic and what Singapore called a “circuit breaker.”

It lasted for three months and my wife had to work from the house.

When Rebecca has time on her hands, she generally finds things to do. And she likes to experiment.

She decided to make sourdough bread.

It’s pretty expensive here too with a loaf going for about S$9 (RM27) per pop. You might even say it was mildly uppercrust.

After some consultation with Youtube – which, let me tell you, is seriously the answer to life’s culinary problems – she was off and baking.

The best thing about sourdough bread is that it does not affect gluten-intolerant people. It is essentially made from the fermentation of dough by yeast and bacilli cells that naturally occur in the air. That means it’s also good for you in the sense of having a probiotic effect on your gut.

It also tastes great. Now I know what they mean when they say, after sourdough you never want to go back to white bread again. And a crisply done beef patty on melting cheese between two slices of freshly toasted and buttered sourdough bread with some lettuce and bacon bits is enough to send McDonald’s screaming into the night.

Because that’s a real burger right there.

Try making some. All you need is air, water and flour. Rebecca has even experimented with olive oil but that’s another story.

Something’s living on my skin

Did God who gave us flowers and trees also provide the allergies

E Y Harburg, lyricist

When we went to New Zealand for the first time, Raisa was only two.

We remember the trip vividly because it was there that we discovered that our child had asthma. She suffered breathing difficulties at a friend’s home and had to be rushed to hospital where she was speedily and efficiently treated. 

The pollen count – a difficult job, that – especially if you’ve got allergies. As the doctor in the emergency section of Auckland’s hospital informed us: “This is the asthma capital of the world.”

I’m happy to report that Raisa is now an asthma-free young adult mainly because she took up swimming as a child and became a strong one. This was also thanks to a doctor who advised just such a course of action when we returned home from New Zealand. 

But it was the first time I was confronted with the savagery of allergies. 

Then in my mid-30s, I found my fingers swelling after a gig at a pub where a pal and me played once a week. You could say I itched to see a doctor only to be casually informed I was allergic to nickel. 

I told him I’d been playing guitar since I was 16. He shrugged indifferently: “It happens.” But it was cool: I switched to phosphor-bronze strings and that was that. 

But that was certainly not that in my mid-fifties. I became aware that certain foods distressed me. It peaked after a trip to India when it became obvious that I had at least one thing in common with bees – hives. 

The specialist I went to see suggested I do an allergy test and drew blood for the purpose. When I went back for the results, he informed me, with a raised eyebrow, that I was allergic to crustaceans, peanuts and wheat. 

I wasn’t crazy about prawns or crab and I could easily give peanuts a miss but wheat?

“Welcome to old age,” said my doctor cheerfully. “Nobody said life was fair.”

Allergies are no joke. Essentially, it is a damaging immune response by the body to a substance like food or dust that it has become hypersensitive to. 

Some allergies are a mere nuisance. My daughter, for example, is allergic to dust mites. On a recent visit to our apartment in Singapore, she sneezed repeatedly in the living room and we diagnosed the furniture: its cushions probably hadn’t changed for the longest time. 

The management of our service apartment kindly brought in new furniture and, voila, problem solved. 

But other allergies like a nut aversion are potentially fatal. That’s anaphylactic shock for you in a nutshell. 

But the strangest one I’ve heard came from an ex-journalist friend of mine who’d returned home to Texas to pursue a new career in information technology. 

On a recent trip to Singapore, Matthew told us he’d been bitten by a tick while hiking through the woods. He thought nothing of it until after he’d had a steak dinner that night. 

He woke up in the intensive care unit of a hospital in Austin to be told he had developed a rare condition passed on through tick bites: a violent allergy to mammalian meat. Matthew could still eat chicken, turkey or fish but beef, lamb or pork were potentially fatal choices. 

Like all allergy sufferers, I have learnt to live my life by never leaving home without it: antihistamines. Singer-songwriter Paul Simon must have been a fellow sufferer because he wrote a song about it. 

I also agree with his conclusion on Allergies.“You get better but you never get well.”