First off, this isn’t going to be easiest of challenges but it is possible. Gluten free products are much harder to find in China than in the West and with a premium price tag.
For this Gluten Free Guide I am going in a slightly different direction. In this guide I’ll outline useful tips and foods that are on the Black List and the White List and a few things to be on the lookout for.
Many people in China are multilingual but don’t expect everyone to be fluent in English. In fact, it’s better to be under the impression that English is not a widely spoken language in China, even in the bigger cities like Shanghai (Hong Kong is a different story).
I firmly believe that you should experience every type of food you can in China. Let’s face it, Chinese food in America has become a watered down version of original recipes to meet the U.S. customers’ needs. In other words, that sesame chicken you like so much is totally different in China. So here are a few tips to keep in mind when eating gluten free in China.
Pre-select your meal on your flight
Most airlines that fly to Asia have a genius feature during the check-in process of selecting your meal. Since I fly KLM more frequently, I can fully attest to a generous selection of meals and gluten free is one of them. The bad part about it is that sometimes, the airline meals that are gluten free aren’t that tasty. I was a bit bummed out that my very good looking seatmate got a Chinese meal on our way from Amsterdam to China. It looked and smelled better than hwo my GF meal tasted.
Pack your own snacks and meals
If you’re not willing to try the airline offered gluten free meals, you can certainly pack your own snacks and small meals that hold up at room temperature and don’t spoil so quickly. I usually found that I eat half of the airline meal because the rest just doesn’t taste good and then whip out my mason jar of salad or sandwich. A few snacks I pack to keep me sated between meals or when I cannot eat with the people I am with I opt for fruits and veggies, nuts, and Quest bars (which are gluten, lactose, and sugar free).
Tell your tour operator of your dietary restrictions BEFORE you leave
When traveling to China you might have booked a guided tour. This is fine. Actually, this puts you in a good position for someone to help you finding gluten free food. Tell your tour operator that you’re celiac before you leave for your trip and ask them to scout some foods and restaurants that you can eat at while on the tour. The benefit of doing this is that you have someone that speaks the local language and can translate your concerns and dietary restrictions.
If you don’t have a tour booked, carry a Celiac Traveler Card in Chinese
Remember when I mentioned before that you should expect people to not speak English? This is where you can use the Celiac Traveler Card when you search for restaurants. It’s important that there are no “lost in translation” moments that might result in a revolution in your stomach later.
Wash fruit before eating
If you’re planning on purchasing fresh fruits and vegetables in China, be sure to wash them in filtered water. Bare in mind that China is a different country with different health standards. Better to be safe than sorry and bed ridden your entire trip.
Bring your medicine with you everywhere
I carry around gluten digestive enzymes on the happenstance that I might eat something tainted with wheat products. This may help people with intolerances but perhaps not those with severe reactions. In other words, take at your own risk. Other medicine you can travel with are indigestion tablets, water purification tablets, anti-histamines, cortisone cream, etc. You should talk to your doctor before your trip on what to take because most of these things will be difficult to find in China when in a pinch.
Be aware of fake food
The U.S. may have a lot of processed food but China does too. China also has been crafty in producing fake foods ranging from carboard steamed buns that should resemble pork steamed buns, fake beef, eggs, rice, and alcohol. When eating at a place you would consider sketchy, be sure to inspect your food carefully. Just know that not every dining establishment puts fake food on their menu’s; there are reputable and responsible restauranteurs out there. If you want to eliminate such possibilities, try to eat at higher class (higher price tag) restaurants.
Be brave to try new things
I’m not saying that you should visit China in a germ and gluten free bubble, but you should know your limitations. When you know what you can and cannot eat, go ahead and be brave to try something new. I was very worried about the food when I went but each region in China has their own culinary specialty and I was delighted with the exorbitant amount of fresh water fish, vegetables, lean meats, and a whole lot of questionable things. Heck, I even ate sea cucumber!
With those in mind, now we can head down to the food lists.
Black List Foods in China
When in China, do not eat the following:
- Soy Sauce
- Oyster Sauce
- Fish sauce
- Milk made with barley
- Some ketchup brands
- Malt vinegar
- Any dipping sauces or sauces used for stir frying
- Imitation meat and seafood
- Anything with Seitan (which is commonly used in imitation meats)
- Any cereal product
- Tofu (especially the kind found in dumplings, wontons, pancakes and stir fry’s)
- Beer (although some beer is gf)
- Rice Wine
- Deep fried food (bye-bye spring rolls)
- Tap water
**Be weary of Chinese vegetarian dishes as well, not all of them are gluten free!**
White List Foods in China
Foods that celiacs CAN eat in China:
- Steamed rice
- Steamed vegetables
- Hot Pots (definitely worth the experience)
- Rice noodles without sauces containing wheat
- Most clear soups (ask for the ingredients though just to be sure)
- Tsingtao brand beer
- Yangjing brand beer
- Steamed meats
- Skillet cooked/sizzling meats and seafood
- Seafood (mostly those cooked as the whole fish, not fileted)
- Pickled seaweed (but only pickled without malt vinegar)
- Balsamic vinegar
- Wine vinegar
- Green tea
In addition to these tips be sure to read up on my other helpful tips here.
Most importantly, enjoy your time in China.