Dining in China is a fantastic experience for the palate, with a myriad of new flavors, textures, and aromas to enjoy.
However, it can be a horrifying experience for travelers with allergies. If you don’t speak Chinese, cannot understand the menu, and have no one to ask, what can you do? Trying your luck is terribly risky; on the other hand, limiting yourself to, say, hotel restaurants with English-speaking staff is both boring and inauthentic.
We’ve compiled a list of useful tips and tricks for enjoying Chinese cuisine, without the stress of dietary restrictions gnawing at your plate:
1) Keep a multi-lingual allergy card handy. Companies like SelectWisely can easily customize a card with your allergy and dietary restrictions for $7.50 – $9.50 (between ~50 and ~64 RMB) per card. Be sure to specify simplified Mandarin characters when traveling to Mainland China, and traditional characters if you visit Hong Kong or Taiwan.
2) Pack your Benadryl. Be sure to have your medicines and epi-pens on hand when dining out. In addition to the language barrier, there may be some cultural misunderstandings in smaller areas. For example, nut allergies aren’t common in China, so there may be less awareness in smaller cities and towns about how severe reactions can be.
3) Know your local China healthcare information. Your tour operator can provide you with contacts and policies for the nearest hospital, doctor, or other healthcare provider to where you are traveling in China. Keep this information handy, should an emergency arise.
4) Study Chinese cuisines. Chinese cuisines are quite different from American Chinese food, so do a little research on culinary traditions for areas of China that you will visit. Get a sense for what ingredients and flavors are prominent, and brainstorm which dishes would best suit your restrictions. When traveling, you’ll have a better sense of what foods are safe choices.
5) Stock up on your favorite foods (just in case). Coming prepared with your favorite snack foods will ease the stress of a restaurant successfully accommodating your needs. If you begin your China trip in Hong Kong, Shanghai, or Beijing, you can purchase many popular Western food products from local Western-style grocers. Ask your tour operator for suggestions, and for starters, consult HK Magazine (Hong Kong) and CityWeekend (Shanghai, Beijing).
6) Ask your tour operator to organize special meals in advance. Any good tour operator in China will be able to accommodate your needs and requests with restaurants. Let them know what you prefer to eat, which foods you must avoid, and any additional information they should know.
While the above tips may give you the impression that those with allergies have quite the struggle in China, don’t fret! Finding dishes in China that meet your dietary needs is truly easier than you might think. A young British China economist living in Beijing who is allergic to eggs, seafood and nuts had this to say about dining in the Middle Kingdom:
“Before coming to China, I assumed that Chinese food would be largely off-limits, as I believed that all ingredients were mixed together. In fact, it has been quite easy for me to avoid these foods.
Fish and seafood usually merit their own dishes, and are not mixed in with other foods – the one exception being small shrimp sometimes turning up in zhou [congee].
The worst has been nuts because of their prevalence in many Chinese dishes. However, I was relieved to find that fewer cooks use peanut oil because of the higher price. Most prefer soybean-based oils.
Chinese dishes are generally quite straightforward, and with an allergy card and/or guide to help, you shouldn’t have much problem navigating your meals.”
What Chinese dish do they suggest? Mapo doufu – a Sichuan-style mixture of tofu, spicy chili and bean oil, and minced meat.