Traveling with food allergies in China

Culture | by Miller Wey
Posted: November 1st, 2011 | Updated: December 3rd, 2012 | Comments
Miller Wey is a pro when it comes to traveling with a litany of limiting allergies, and over the years he has become particularly adroit at eating well while simultaneously staying alive. Here he shares with us the ways that he's managed to continue to live life, enjoy food and stay gastronomically safe in China. >>> When I came to China as a student in 2005, my dining prospects seemed dim. Everyone I spoke to warned me that they used peanut oil, the Kryptonite at the top of my long list of food allergies, everywhere in China. The Internet had plenty of sources putting forward the same idea. I was expecting to undertake a diet of McDonald's and white rice. Fortunately for me, the usage of peanut oil is grossly overstated. When I asked around in Beijing, I found they didn't even use peanut oil—it was too expensive. Traveling throughout other parts of China, I got largely the same answer. Sometimes however, things don't always work out so well. After thoroughly discussing my allergy to peanut oil with the owners of a small Yunnan restaurant in Shanghai, I dug into a dish with chicken and chilies to find (after eating most of the dish) that it rested on a bed of peanuts. Luckily, it only resulted in a trip back to my apartment to pick up some antihistamine pills instead of a trip to the hospital. While my time in China hasn't been without food allergy incident, it hasn't been as daunting as I once imagined. By being careful and communicating your allergies or intolerance, you'll enjoy your trip to China or time living here despite the inconveniences. But be sure to talk to your doctor before heading out, and learn more about yourself and what you can do to prevent complications during your vacation or stay overseas.

Jiā yóu!

Oil (yóu, 油) plays a big part in Chinese cooking—even recipes for steamed dishes often call for oil. As I found out traveling around China as a student, different places generally use different oils in their cooking. In my own experience, much of the country uses lard, soy or vegetable oil, while parts of southern China (Guangxi and Guangdong provinces as well as Hong Kong) often use peanut oil. The prevalence of Cantonese cuisine in America, a disproportionate number of Cantonese Americans and simply never needing to ask about ingredients may well account for the assumption of peanut oil's prevalence in China. If you are allergic to peanut oil, always make sure to ask the wait staff, and be persistent. While I've generally found staff to be accommodating, I always follow up until I'm sure they've asked in the kitchen. If your peanut allergy is severe, you may actually want to avoid eating anywhere using an oil you're allergic to unless you can convince them to use separate, clean utensils and woks, as the possibility of cross-contamination is very high.

Additionally, there is the risk of mixed oil. Though the ingredients will be listed on the bottle if bought in a store,  oil is often put in a different, unlabeled container and you may not be able to tell. Be aware as well that ingredients used as seasonings, like sesame oil, could be a danger. In some cases, a danger much less well-labeled. An oil that contains chilies may be labeled chili oil but have a peanut oil base, and the chef may not even be aware of this.

Dairy allergies in China

With the exception of some Chinese minorities who rely on milk as part of their traditional diet, many Chinese adults are lactose intolerant. This is largely due to the lack of milk in the average Chinese diet (though in recent years Hong Kong-style bakeries and restaurants are more likely to use ingredients like cheese and condensed milk, and several popular Yunnan dishes make use of goat cheese. Minority cuisines, particularly from nomadic groups (like the Tibetans and Mongolians), also incorporate dairy ingredients. Dairy-allergy-friendly go-to soy milk (dòujiāng, 豆浆)  is plentiful and available in streetside stands, convenience stores and numerous restaurants. Although very uncommon, sometimes soy milk is mixed with cow milk, becoming dòunǎi (豆奶).

Celiac disease in China

wheat allergy china Gluten is like a gastronomic ninja, showing up when you least expect it. While rice is the staple diet in much of China, wheat grown in the north still sneaks into many dishes, so eating gluten-free in China can be tricky. Soy sauce and oyster sauce, two very common ingredients in Chinese cooking, both contain gluten. Many other sauces often contain at least one of these two. Chicken stock granules and Shanxi vinegar contain gluten as well. (But Beijing or Shanghai, it can be difficult to find celiac-friendly snacks, so consider bringing some along with you if you don't plan on spending time browsing expensive, foreigner-aimed supermarkets.

Dine with care

Chinese food is generally served "family style" with everyone sharing from each dish. If asked, Chinese restaurants will generally have spoons (sháozi, 勺子) you can use to serve items from the "safe" food while letting your friends share their germ-covered chopsticks over the kung pao chicken. If you stay in any one place for a longer period of time, it's not a bad idea to find one or more places you know are safe and stick to eating there. While traveling in Yangshuo, I found I needed to stick to the Western restaurants (not a difficult feat on West Street) to avoid peanut oil.

Be prepared

Though we all hope for the best, it's a good idea to be prepared for the worst. If you're on the seven hour bus ride from China to Laos and discover the potato chips your seatmate has shared with you are covered in shrimp powder, would you know what to do? Talk to your doctor about any measures you can take just in case. For some, this may mean an epinephrine injector (e.g., EpiPen), while for others it may just mean taking an antihistamine like Diphenhydramine (e.g., Benadryl). Make sure to buy these medications before leaving for your trip to China as it is difficult to impossible to find them after you've arrived. Make sure any traveling companions are aware of your condition and can help you watch out for allergens and help you cope in case of accidental ingestion.

Talk the talk

Knowing how to talk about your allergy is important and one of the best ways to prevent disaster. In my own experience, restaurants have been happy to follow up with requests and questions, but be thorough—food allergies don't receive the same amount of sensitivity as in the West, and while a cook may not put peanut oil in your food, he may not think twice about using a chili oil made with peanut oil to season it. While the best idea is to get help from someone fluent in Mandarin, there are services available that can print iPhone app, or, if you feel confident in your Mandarin (or your printer), you can try out the following: • 我对 (X) 过敏 I am allergic to (X) Wǒ duì (X) guòmǐn • 我对 (X) 严重过敏 I am seriously allergic to (X) Wǒ duì (X) yánzhòng guòmǐn • 食物中是否包含 (X)? Does this include (X)? Shíwù zhōng shìfǒu bāohán (X)? • 请不要添加 (X). Please don't add (X) Qǐng bùyào tiānjiā (X) • 豆类 beans dòulèi • 玉米 corn yùmǐ • 乳制品 dairy products rǔzhìpǐn • 鸡蛋 (chicken) egg jīdàn • 鱼 fish • 麸质 gluten fūzhì • 坚果 nuts jiānguǒ • 蛋黄酱 mayonaise dànhuáng jiàng • 牛奶 (cow) milk niúnǎi • 花生 peanuts huāshēng • 芝麻 sesame zhīma • 贝壳类 shellfish bèikélèi • 虾 shrimp xiā • 豆腐 tofu dòufu • 麦类 wheat màilèi • 鸡粉 chicken stock granules jī fěn • 椰子油 coconut oil yēzi yóu • 猪油 lard zhū yóu • 蚝油 oyster sauce háo yóu • 花生油 peanut oil huāshēng yóu • 芝麻油 sesame oil zhīma yóu • 山西醋 Shaanxi vinegar Shānxī cù • 豆油 soy oil dòu yóu • 酱油 soy sauce jiàng yóu
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