A typical Rajasthani Thali By Jorge Reverter
I'm allergic to nuts. Not just peanuts, but all tree nuts, and certain legumes like lentils. Another family member is allergic to all nightshades - potatoes, tomatoes, sweet peppers and eggplant! We've traveled in India for several months, mostly in Delhi, and the small town of Rewalsar in Himachal Pradesh.

Most important, there is little or no awareness about food allergies, expecially in the remoter places. My family has this apocryphal joke that most Indian cooks don't know much about allergies, because any allergic folks are dead already. Seriously though, many Indian restaurants don't understand the seriousness of allergies, and don't pay much attention to things like cross-contamination from using the same utensils in different dishes. Vegetarians have the same problem with mixed-cuisine restaurants. You're really on your own with keeping allergic reactions down to a minimum.

Here are some of the lessons we learned about having allergies in Northern India. Maybe someone can add something about their experiences in the South. 

Before you go

  • Stock up on Benadryl, Epi-pens, inhalers, and other meds. Pack more than you think you could ever use.
  • Read up on Indian cuisine, so you're familiar with the main ingredients in common dishes like curries, biryani, tikki, and so on. The Lonely Planet phrasebook has a whole subsection on food that includes a food glossary. Be sure to study up on regional specialties as well.
  • Find out the Hindi/Bengal/Tamil names for the stuff you're allergic to. This will come in handy for reading package labels and recipes--many times ingredients lists will be half English, half Hindi.
  • A company called Select Wisely sells laminated allergy translation cards for use while traveling. These cards include pictures of the foods with a big red circle on them, as well as questions as to whether stuff has the allergen in it. You can custom order language and ingredient combinations. My card set includes Hindi and Tibetan translations for questions like "Does this food contain nuts or nut oil?" and statements like "I need a doctor".
  • You can get carriers for Epi-pens that are rugged, include slots for other meds, and are easily labeled with your name and medical info.

Once you're there

  • Make sure any folks traveling with you know how to get to your meds if you can't. Also make sure they know about Epi-pens and how to use them. You can get 'trainer' pens so you can show folks what to do.
  • If you'll be using a cell phone in India, always make a contact entry labelled 'ICE'. ICE stands for "In Case of Emergency". This contact should list the name and phone number of the person to call if something happens to you. If there's a notes or memo field, you can include info doctors need to know like "Asthmatic" or "Allergic to Penicillin". It's becoming a standard practice in many countries for paramedics and ER doctors to check for this entry on patient cell phones.
  • In restaurants you cannot be too emphatic about your allergies. Stress that screwing up means a trip to hospital and that you could possibly die from a mistake. Just saying certain foods make you ill might not register, because hey, it's India - tourists get sick all the time. Otherwise waiters and cooks tend to tell you what you want to hear.
  • In Northern India, what we've found is that nuts are an expensive ingredient to use for everyday cooking, so many foods with nuts as an ingredient tend to 'advertise' by having a lot of nuts garnished on top.
  • We found that cookies and ice creams that were "Butterscotch" flavor tend to include pecans and cashews.
  • Familiarize yourself with the local versions of snacks and drinks--know what you can eat, and what you can't. For example, if you buy "Cheetos" in Rewalsar you may end up with a spicy tomato variation that bears no resemblance to what's sold in the States. Sometimes a wallah selling "ice cream" is really selling "kulfi", a frozen treat made with almond milk.
  • For long bus or train trips, pack a lunch if you don't think you'll be able to handle the dhabas at rest stops. If you forget, many of the big dhabas along the roadway tend to have several stalls selling different things, usually including one that sells packaged snacks and drinks.
  • Street food is tricky, but not impossible. I tend to stay away from mixed treats like bhel puri, because although you can order the stuff to be made without nuts, the possibility for cross contamination is too great. Single-ingredient snacks like roasted corn, fresh fruit juice or fried potatoes work better.
  • If you're staying for a long time, you can work things out with hotel staff or a dhaba-wallah to get your needs met. Make friends with a dhaba cook. He can custom-cook something up for you if you buy the ingredients for him, pay a small 'pot fee' and give him plenty of notice.
  • Read the labels on cosmetics, too. I discovered that almond milk (also labelled as 'milk badam' or 'doodh badam') is often a major ingredient in creams and soaps.