Before coming to live in China, I found few resources about living and travelling in China as a coeliac. I hope my experiences from the past year can help those who aspire to visit China but are petrified by the idea of being glutened whilst on holiday.
The idea of eating at a restaurant in China fills me with fear and dread – and I live here! Soy sauce is used as often as salt is for seasoning and the number of other gluten containing sauces and seasonings used in Chinese dishes are staggering. China has to be up there for one of the worst places for coeliacs to visit, so I want to say to the braves souls who still yearn to visit here in spite of this – you are so brave. I hope this post can be of some help to you.
Having lived here for the last two years, and travelled about a fair few times, let me offer my tips to try and make it a slightly less stressful experience.
Make a travel card
Don’t rely on the Coeliac UK (or any other) travel cards to help you because you will need to make one specific to China – the generic travel cards are far too confusing and the Coeliac UK card is actually written in traditional Chinese, which not everyone in China can read! You don’t want a card that faffs around trying to explain coeliac disease – I promise you, no one has heard of it. Instead, I’ve created a simple one that says I have allergies and then lists everything I know is used in Chinese cooking that I cannot eat. This includes soy sauce, fish sauce, oyster sauce, black vinegar, bread, flour, barley, oats etc.
It’s also a good idea to either learn the Chinese, or write down in Mandarin, a phrase asking the staff to clean the wok before cooking your food. You can ask the receptionist at the hotel/hostel you’re staying at to write this phrase down for you.
The further you go, the harder it gets
Generally speaking, you should be okay in Beijing and Shanghai. Not the sort of “okay” we expect in the West but you will be able to find restaurants that cater for gluten free – look for organic/healthy cafes! If you’re planning to visit Beijing and Shanghai, Gluten Free China’s Shanghai and Beijing pages may be useful to you. I recently visited Shanghai so expect to see a blog post about my gluten free experiences in that city soon. Once you get outside of these cities, your choices will decrease. If you go to really far out places, the likelihood of finding something you consider safe to eat can be almost non-existent. However, I firmly believe some of the best places to visit in China are outside of Beijing and Shanghai, so please don’t let this stop you from visiting less well-known places.
Head for the Western restaurants
As frustrating and annoying as it is to fly halfway around the world and then eat food you could get at home, you are a lot safer in Western restaurants. Salads, jacket potatoes and the odd Mexican dish will generally be fine, there will be at least one member of staff who speaks English, and they serve wine, which the Chinese restaurants tend not to! And as we all know, wine is gluten free, yay! Thankfully I have the most caring and understanding partner who doesn’t mind eating in these restaurants and is happy as long as I am able to eat something. I suggest travelling in China with people who are extremely empathetic to your situation, so that they don’t mind missing out on all the Chinese food.
That being said, you can still taste some fantastic Chinese food, particularly if you opt for hostels…
Stay in international hostels
Or, if you prefer hotels, stay in hotels that cater for international travellers. I always opt for hostels catering for international travellers, as they always have employees who speak English. Also, the more international travellers a hostel has catered for, the more likely they are to have met someone with food allergies. I always email them before I arrive with a picture of my allergy travel card explaining what I can’t eat. They have always replied saying that they can help me. This has actually been the one way I’ve managed to eat Chinese dishes. Highlights include beautiful egg tomato and bamboo dishes in Longsheng Dazhai Jinkeng International Youth Hostel in the Longji rice terraces and gorgeously soft pumpkin and garlic in Wada hostel in Yangshuo!
Stock up on snacks
Most small corner shops and newsagents will sell dried fruit, yogurt, crisps, nuts and chocolate bars (Snickers, Hersheys and Kinder are widely available and all gluten free). Fruit is often sold on the street for a good price. Also keep an eye out for street vendors selling popcorn, sweetcorn and sweet potato (in Winter). If you can, I really recommend bringing a decent amount of cereal bars with you in case of an emergency food shortage!
Stay at an Airbnb with a kitchen
If you feel that you would be more comfortable cooking your own food than this is probably your best option – hostels tend not to have self-catering facilities here in China. Rice, vegetables and tofu are really cheap and easy to buy. Despite a common (and particularly stupid and frankly slightly racist) belief that you can’t eat the vegetables in China, you definitely can! I recommend buying some soap from a supermarket or corner shop that you can use to wash vegetables with (look for the little symbol of a vegetable) or bring castille soap with you. Once you’ve thoroughly washed your veggies you’re fine to eat them.
Now for the best part, gluten free things you can pick up! Every corner shop and supermarket will sell this sauce. Double check the ingredients as there are a wide number of these sauces and only some are gluten free. These sauces are super spicy and super delicious – just add a tea spoon or two to a dish!
I am addicted to this olive sauce – it is amazing!
And that’s the end of my advice for travelling gluten free in China! It’s difficult but with a fair bit of planning it is possible! Good luck with your travels. If you’re a coeliac who has traveled in China I would love to hear about your experiences, or of any advice you can add.