Picture this – You are on one of the most beautiful & remote islands in the world, with the best scuba diving and bio-diverse marine life you could ever experience, the clearest water and the nicest people – basically HEAVEN…. and then you find out most of the food being offered at your resort is highly processed and tainted with MSG, artificial colors, flavors, preservatives and other additives, etc. This happened to me and here’s the story on how I dealt with it.
Earlier this year my husband and I celebrated our 6th year wedding anniversary at one of the best diving spots in the world called Sipadan. Mabul island, where we stayed, is located off the east coast of Borneo in Malaysia and it took 2 days of traveling, a 1.5 hour car ride and a 1 hour boat ride to get there from Thailand. Mabul is definitely one of the most remote locations we have ever been and we knew we were going to be a captive audience at the resort and the food choices offered would be limited.
We spent a week in this overwater bungalow (pictured below), in the middle of absolute paradise. It felt like we were on our honeymoon again 6 years earlier in French Polynesia. The water was just as clear and even more fish to see, it was just breathtaking! Obviously, there weren’t any french bakeries, local farmer’s markets, or restaurants nearby and basically nowhere to buy food except the resort store (which didn’t have anything but highly processed snacks, candy and soda). The best we could do on Mabul was to buy coconut water and fruit from a nearby village but that was it.
Of course I had my travel food but this was our last stop at the end of a 3 and 1/2 week journey away from home and our stash was getting limited. So to say I was a bit worried about the food and what I would be eating, is an understatement! I did manage to pick up 7 lemons in Kuala Lumpur on the way into Borneo, so I would at least have my lemon water with cayenne habit covered.
The first night we arrived, we took a look at what we would be eating each day. Breakfast & dinner were served buffet style and included an assortment of raw veggies and fruits (which was great). For lunch, the resort sent picnic lunches to the dive site for you to refuel between dives.
For dinner our first night, the hot food looked tasty but suspicious. I asked the manager if she knew if MSG or other additives were used in the food and she said she was almost positively sure it didn’t. For some reason my gut reaction was not gelling with what she told me and it was written all over my face that her answer wasn’t good enough. She finally suggested after dinner that I speak to the kitchen directly and make sure my requests were answered definitively. I found it a bit odd at the time that the manager said I couldn’t speak to the kitchen until after my meal, but I just went with it…because for goodness sakes I was on vacation and didn’t want to start an argument.
That night, because my husband and I eat pretty much exclusively vegetarian (unless we can trust the meat source) when traveling, asked for a vegetarian meal which was not offered in one of the buffet choices. Out came fried tofu, covered in a thick brown sauce with vegetables and white rice. I tried some, but filled up on raw vegetables and fruit. Seeing what kind of vegetarian option they served me, I remember sending an email to my friend Max that night saying I was going to become a raw vegan for that whole week living off my bags of trail mixes, nuts, seeds and whatever raw produce that was served. This was going to be the only way to stay clean, I thought.
After dinner, as the manager promised, I had an opportunity to go back into the kitchen and meet the chef. He was more than accommodating and showed me the packages of spices and powdered sauce mixes they used on almost all the food. Looking at list of ingredients I saw on the processed food packages, I could feel my head starting to spin. In hindsight, I wish I had taken a picture of these packages, but I figured I could probably find them on the internet instead of freaking out the chef with the request of a photo, especially at the beginning of a week long stay. (I needed him on my side!)…I still haven’t been able to find the package of “Lipton – Brown Sauce” on the internet. The package was written in Chinese, but thankfully had the ingredients listed in english. The “brown sauce” they used to make my tofu definitely included MSG, along with probably every other harmful crazy ingredient I’ve ever mentioned on here! My worst nightmare.
Luckily, after a polite request to only make our food with salt and pepper and nothing else… (including the margarine they served instead of butter)…. we didn’t have to worry any longer. Rosy, the lead cook in the kitchen made us some incredibly delicious food during our visit that didn’t include any of these additives from the sauces. She would check with us each morning and ask us if what she was making was ok. She even made special soups for us and a popular Malaysian dish called Roti Canai from scratch with vegetable curry that totally blew us way.
Meanwhile, all the new friends and other guests we met ate the food loaded with these additives and I bet probably wondered why we were getting such special treatment. I have to be honest here, it was so sad for me to watch all of these people on their vacation eating this food, not knowing and really not caring enough to ask. To think we could have been eating potentially toxic food for a week, is a horrific situation that thank goodness I know now how to avoid. You just have to ask. But most people simply won’t do this and that’s why food companies continue to make profits on selling us chemicals instead of real food and even in far off places like Borneo!
In the future whenever I travel and know my food options could be limited, I will always send an email ahead of time to the hotel listing out the ingredients I would like to avoid and confirm with the kitchen staff upon arrival.
This tip came really useful in my recent trip to Charleston, SC too… which you will hear about soon.
So if you take one thing away from this blog post, it’s this. Ask about what is in your food! It’s worth the extra effort. And don’t be shy!
And the best part… You’ll save a lot of time from having to do a detox when you come back home
Here’s a snapshot some of the eats during our time in Borneo…click on the + to read the description.
One of my hobbies I wish I could spend more time on is underwater photography. Here’s a look at some of my favorite moments taken from the waters of Borneo. Enjoy!
Got any interesting travel food stories to share? I’d love to hear them, as I bet other readers would too.
Thanks for reading and going along on this journey with me.