After Japan, China is the second hardest place to eat gluten free that I have ever travelled to. The general diet includes loads of soy sauce, dumplings, noodles, and fried foods. Communicating needs can be challenging and reading food labels is virtually impossible. Every meal and accessing snacks or quick food is difficult. That shouldn’t stop you from seeing this incredible country though, China is diverse and vibrant with incredible history. Hiking along the Great Wall is a memory that will be burned into my mind for the rest of my life. With careful planning, a guide, language cards, I was able to spend two weeks travelling throughout the country, from the major sights to backpacking through some more remote areas of China. In that time I got ‘glutened’ twice, which I was luckily able to recover from in a few days. It’s a challenge but do-able.
Here are some tips on how to stay gluten free in China:
I reviewed several language cards throughout my travels in China, and the best one is the celiactravel.com one here: http://www.celiactravel.com/cards/mandarin/
It’s a bonus that they are free. I showed my Mandarin speaking guide my various cards and she commented that this one was easy to read and clearly emphasizes what you cannot eat or you will get very ill. In China, not everyone is fully literate as they have a complex writing system. For this reason, long language cards could be an issue, especially out of major cities.
Hire a Guide
I highly recommend having a guide in China, with or without food allergies. China has incredible history but very little signage in English, so having a guide make a trip here so much more interesting. As well, having a bilingual guided who understand your food issues will be very helpful here. In restaurants, they can help make recommendations of what to order, then helping communicate with staff.
I used G Adventures for the Active China trip. It was very well organized and we got to see a great variety of places. Our guide was amazing at organizing meals that I could eat without worry.
Be Careful in Resturants
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. 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.
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 s risk of gluten contamination because you typically use the same chop sticks 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.
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 some bars or snack mix though.
China is a fascinating and unique country, and definitely worth visiting. It can be challenging to travel gluten free but ended up not being as hard as I thought with the help of a guide and some snacks.