After Japan, China is the second most difficult country I have ever travelled to on a gluten free diet. Typical Chinese food includes loads of soy sauce, dumplings, noodles, and fried foods. Not to mention communicating special food needs can be challenging, and reading food labels is impossible. It’s not just the language barrier that makes it difficult, but culturally, they don’t really understand food allergies so it’s hard to ensure they understand or will help.
Even with diligent effort to research in advance, communicate with language cards and the help of a guide, and carefully choose menu items, I got sick an average of once a week. China is not for the first time gluten free traveller, and I would strongly recommend venturing here with a bit more travel experience.
That shouldn’t stop you from seeing this incredible country though, China is diverse and vibrant. It has the biggest cities, jaw-dropping monuments and landscapes that are straight out of your dreams. Hiking along the Great Wall is a memory that will be burned into my mind for the rest of my life. So if you are determined to see this incredible place, here are my best tips for staying gluten free in China.
I reviewed several language cards and the best one I found was the celiactravel.com one here:
The reason being that it is short, easy to read and clearly emphasizes what you cannot eat. I had a Chinese speaking guide review 3 different cards and this is the one she recommended. In China, not everyone is fully literate as they have a complex writing system. For this reason, long language cards could be an issue. This card also strongly states that you will get very sick. Also important to emphasize the importance of your request.
Hire a Guide
I cannot recommend this enough. Having a bilingual guided who understand your food issues will be infinitely helpful. Our guide was great in organizing meals that I could eat without worry. She would read through menu’s for me, communicate with restaurant staff and help decide what I should order. Booking a tour with a guide will help a lot and I don’t really recommend travelling to China (especially if you are gluten free) without one.
Be Careful in Restaurants
You cannot have anything with soy sauce, noodles or dumplings. As a rule remember that, “if it’s brown, put it down”. Be prepared to eat a lot of eggs and rice. I ate hard-boiled eggs or egg with tomato for breakfast almost every single day, usually with a bowl of rice as a substitute for bread. Other meals were quite veggie heavy, typically stir-fried with spring onion or garlic. Many dishes were quite oily, which could easily mask brown sauces or thickening agents.
For example, I was told on a few occasions that KungPow chicken was ok to eat, but in fact, it was not gluten free. Although it was free from soy sauce, it must have been thickened or flavoured somehow. Deep fried foods are off limits too due to contamination with breaded items. Always air on the side of caution and get something plain.
It’s worth noting that when travelling in a group, most meals are served communally. This means that not all the dishes will be gluten free and there is a risk of gluten contamination because you typically use the same chopsticks you eat with to take more food. Be careful to tell your group about your food issues and ask to take your food first to avoid contamination if you are very sensitive.
There are quite a few options for snacks in 7-11 convenience stores. I was able to find American or UK brand chips (go for plain potato or corn chips) as well as some familiar brand chocolate bars such as Snickers. There are also usually hard boiled eggs and fruit (opt for something you can peel). It also greatly helps to bring some snacks from home to supplement between meals.
Bring Snacks/Food Items
I did bring my own soy sauce but found I hardly ever needed it (compared to Japan). In general, the food was more flavourful and didn’t feel like it was missing anything without it. It did help to have meal replacement bars or snack mix though.
Having shake powder to prepare for breakfast (be careful of tap water) and at least one meal replacement bar per day really helped. I had to skip a few group meals, and when in small towns it was extremely hard to find snacks.
It can be challenging to travel gluten free in China but it is do-able with the help of a guide and some snacks from home. It was very easy to be dairy-free, as they in general, don’t really eat much dairy. Eggs, on the other hand, are used constantly in food to add protein. So if you are both gluten and egg free, this will be a very difficult place to visit. Prior to visiting China, I could eat eggs, and after eating about 4 eggs a day there, I have now developed an egg sensitivity.
China is a fascinating and unique country, so definitely worth visiting. Just be very well prepared for the challenge ahead. Safe travels!