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Getting gluten free food in China

Just got back from 2+ weeks on a culinary tour in China starting in Beijing, and ending in Shanghai. What attracted me to this trip was that I would be guided by a woman chef who is aware of celiac needs, and I knew I would be nearly guaranteed safe food. The sad part of course is that I couldn’t eat a lot of regional specialties like noodles and dumplings.

I brought copies of the Mandarin restaurant cards—-the alternative hand-written translation seemed to work best. I could tell from waiters’ faces that they understood that this was serious situation and almost always got something special prepared for me. I travelled with my own bottle of wheat free tamari and refilled a small purse-size plastic bottle when needed (used a double zip-lock bag to prevent leaks when I checked my luggage.)

Watch out for standard chinese gluten-containing ingredients

A few warnings about food in China: most chefs constantly use msg and chicken base with hydrolyzed wheat added. They are trained in the cooking schools to do this because flavorings during the cultural revolution were mostly eliminated. Also it is VERY hard to get food made without soy sauce added. Your best bet is eating in more expensive western style hotels. There are also now lots of western fast food places in the big cities—-not my thing but they McD and KFC are all over the place. AND they have CLEAN western style bathrooms!!!

A chinese-speaking guide is essential

China is daunting without a good guide. My salvation was having an amazing English speaking guide who I spoke with about my food options before each meal. Many times he and I would approach the kitchen staff with my restaurant card, and throughout each meal he would tell me which dishes on the table were safe for me to eat.

Celiac veggies beware!

It would have been much harder if I hadn’t been a meat eater on this trip. I was able to get lots of stir-fries with meats, chicken, fish and veg. I stayed away from anything that looked like it had soy sauce in it. Some kind of rice was served at almost every meal which I needed to fill me up.

Take gluten free backups

Since I was with a group I couldn’t control all the food options so I brought extra safe foods from home. Vacuum packets of tuna in single sizes. Rice crackers, mini-cheeses,safe snack bars, almonds and protein powder were my salvation some days. Tourist hotels have big buffets so I tried to eat a big breakfast of eggs and meats everyday since I never knew what would be safe at the next meal.

Please don’t miss exploring China out of fear of being glutened. (I did have one bad gluten experience when I ate something deep fried—it was coated in cornstarch but I think the oil had previously cooked something else wheat based. I got fooled…) Yes, it will be hard and you’ll have limited choices…but the rewards of a fantastic cultural experience will be well worth your efforts!

Kindly sent in by Carie Harris Haimovitch, Mill Valley, California

If you can help your fellow coeliacs by telling us how to get gluten free food in your country, or one you have travelled in, please let us know. :-)

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