How to Survive in China With a Food Allergy

How to Survive in China With a Food Allergy
Dec 05, 2019 By Hayden Gehr ,

China’s world-famous food is certainly one of the country’s main selling points for travelers and expats alike. However, for foreigners with special dietary needs, the language barrier and a surplus of unfamiliar dishes make eating out in China a rather intimidating prospect. Fortunately, with a little research and knowledge of select Mandarin phrases, visitors with any type of food allergy will be able to experience the country’s scrumptious cuisine with few worries. This guide shows you what to expect when navigating China with gluten, lactose, nut, or shellfish allergies.

We can all agree – no-one does food quite like China. Its beloved dishes and eating habits are born out of thousands of years of history, and have coalesced to create a distinct, varied, and vibrant food culture. Unfortunately, however, awareness of many dietary restrictions common in the Western world leaves something to be desired. While there are exceptions, the prevalence of different ingredients in these two distinct global spheres means that the most widespread allergies are also different. Additionally, cross-contamination of allergens at cheap to mid-priced restaurants in China should be expected, and restaurant staff often lack the training necessary to accommodate customers with very acute dietary needs.

Nonetheless, if you have a serious food allergy and are planning to spend time in China, don’t let this news deter you. While you may not eat like a revered member of the imperial palace, your daily dinner won’t consist of diet coke and a plain rice bowl from 7/11 either. Take a look below to see how you can get by in China with your particular food allergy.

Navigating China with a gluten allergy

There is a belief that gluten intolerance is an exclusively Caucasian condition, and while there is evidence that suggests otherwise, the fact remains that diagnoses of Celiac Disease and gluten sensitivity are still borderline unheard of in China and Asia as a whole. Consequently, staff at practically all restaurants, aside from those located in luxury hotels or those that cater specifically to foreigners, will likely have no idea what gluten is. To make matters worse, a staple of traditional Chinese food is soy sauce, something that anyone with gluten intolerance will know is off limits.

However, managing a gluten allergy in China is far from impossible. As someone who has lived in China for two years with Celiac Disease, I can say with confidence that most restaurants will have multiple items on the menu that you can eat and will assist in helping remove gluten from menu items if you communicate clearly.

What to avoid:
Sadly, you won’t be trying the much-loved jiǎozi (饺子), or dumplings, that China is so well known for as their casings are made with wheat flour. Wheat noodles are another major Chinese dish that you’ll have to miss out on. The character for miàn (面) indicates that the noodles (or other foods) are made from wheat, so if you encounter that character on a menu, avoid it like the plague. However, China luckily has plenty of other types of noodles, including rice and even potato.

As a gluten sensitive person in China you’ll need to be especially cautious when it comes to stir-fried vegetable and meat plates. Pretty much every one of these dishes is going to contain soy sauce. Fortunately, you can always ask the staff to simply not add soy sauce, and in my experience most restaurants can comply with this request. However, even if soy sauce is removed, the veggies and meat will still be cooked in a wok that has been full of soy sauce all day, so for those who react to cross-contamination, I recommend staying away from these dishes entirely.

Gluten in Chinese cuisine can also appear in unsuspecting places. Hot pot, the signature dish in Sichuan province, might look like an innocent enough pot of broth, but it’s not always gluten free. Soy sauce is not as frequently used in Sichuan cuisine, but its substitute dòubànjiàng (豆瓣酱), or chili bean paste, contains wheat flour. If you want to eat hot pot, therefore, make sure that the broth is devoid of both soy sauce and chili bean paste.

Another popular Sichuanese dish that gluten infiltrates is mápó dòufu (麻婆豆腐), in the form of tiánmiànjiàng (甜面酱), or sweet flour sauce. Like dòubànjiàng, this sauce contains wheat flour and can be found in the majority of meals at Sichuan restaurants. Lastly, some brands of oyster sauce, which can be found in many stir-fried vegetable dishes of Cantonese cuisine, contain wheat.

Handy words: 酱油 – jiàng yóu (soy sauce), 面粉 – miàn fěn (wheat), 米线 – mǐ xiàn (rice noodles), 豆瓣酱 – dòu bàn jiàng (chili bean paste), 甜面酱 – tián miàn jiàng (sweet flour paste),  麸质 – fū zhì (gluten), 过敏 – guò mǐn (allergy)

Phrases to know:
我对酱油/面粉过敏 -  Wǒ duì jiàng yóu / miàn fěn guò mǐn (I’m allergic to soy sauce / wheat flour.)
这个菜有没有酱油/面粉?- Zhè gè cài yǒu méi yǒu jiàng yóu / miàn fěn? (Does this dish have soy sauce or wheat flour in it?)
不放酱油 /面粉– Bú fàng jiàng yóu / miàn fěn (Don’t add soy sauce / wheat flour.)
我的过敏很严重 - Wǒ de guò mǐn hěn yán zhòng (My allergy is serious.)

Navigating China with a dairy allergy

Traversing China on a lactose-free diet is significantly easier than doing so with a gluten allergy; a 2017 report found that about 85 percent of Chinese above 10 years of age were lactose intolerant. But wait, what about the crowds of youths sipping lattes at Starbucks or the long lines outside a Coco bubble teashop? Sure enough, as more international drinks and foods reach China, the country is beginning to test the limits of its lactose aversion. Fret not, though, as the dishes offered at your average Chinese restaurant are still almost all completely free of dairy.

What to avoid:
Naturally, your main enemy is going to be Western fast food chains such as McDonald’s and Pizza Hut. Pastry chain Holiland and other bakeries are danger zones as well. Unfortunately, you generally won’t be able to find as many lactose-free alternatives to dairy-containing foods and drinks in China as you would in the West. Soy milk is the exception to this, with sweetened varieties available at all supermarkets and convenience stores. Almond, cashew, oat and other non-dairy milks, along with margarine, are, however, nowhere to be found outside of the odd specialist grocery store in first-tier cities.

Essentially, if you’re willing to purge your diet of nearly all Western influence, you can eat like an emperor as a lactose intolerant person in China. Classic dishes such as Beijing roasted duck, beef noodles, hot pot, and stinky tofu are all 100 percent dairy free, as are all basic stir-fried plates. Even jiǎozi are safe, as recipes only call for wheat flour and no milk. However, you’ll want to be careful around bāozi (包子), or steamed stuffed buns. Many recipes for bāozi include milk in addition to wheat flour, so always check with the seller first. The same goes for the tasty red bean buns, as milk is often added to these to create a richer taste and thicker texture. If you want to err on the side of caution, inquire about the ingredients before eating any type of Chinese bun.

Words to know:
牛奶 – níu nǎi (milk), 乳品 – rǔ pǐn (dairy products), 乳糖 – rǔ táng (lactose), 黄油 – huáng yóu (butter)

Phrases to know:
我对乳糖不耐受 - Wǒ duì rǔ táng bú nài shòu (I am lactose intolerant.)
这个菜有没有什么乳品?- Zhè gè cài yǒu méi yǒu shénme rǔ pǐn? (Does this dish have any dairy products in it?)
不放牛奶/黄油 – Bú fàng níu nǎi / huáng yóu (Don’t add milk / butter.)

Navigating China with a nut allergy

You’re less likely to encounter someone with a peanut/nut allergy in China than in a Western country. It’s speculated that this is because Chinese people typically boil or fry their nuts rather than dry-roasting them, with the lower temperatures making the nuts less allergenic. As a result, you may find that fewer people are aware that nut allergies can be life-threatening. Communicating the severity of your condition to the restaurant staff is therefore vital, especially for those whose allergy is anaphylactic.

Nuts are by no means an integral component of traditional Chinese food, but they (mostly peanuts) are often sprinkled on top of certain dishes. The presence of nuts in Chinese food is often inconsistent, with some dishes being nut-free at some restaurants and not at others. If you’re very allergic, always bear in mind that cross-contamination is possible in restaurants that serves nuts in any dishes.

What to avoid:
Hot pot and málàtàng (麻辣烫) sometimes come with peanuts mixed into the broth. When ordering either of these, you first need to establish that the broth can be prepared without peanuts. Two famous holiday foods – zòngzi (粽子) and mooncakes can both contain peanuts. Again, you’ll have to check the ingredients or ask the staff if you’re at a restaurant. Almost all varieties of jiaozi and baozi are nut free, although there are special peanut bāozi which must be avoided.

Sesame paste, which is present in many noodle and salad dishes, can also be dangerous for those with nut allergies as it is likely to contain traces of peanut. This paste is especially prominent in Sichuan cuisine, as is Sichuan pepper, which is also unsafe. Even though Sichuan pepper is nut-free, it has a numbing effect, which could render you unable to discern whether or not your dish contains nuts. Finally, some flavors of soy milk in China contain nuts so make sure you thoroughly check the ingredients.

Peanut oil is used for cooking in many Chinese restaurants, but most people with peanut allergies do not react to consuming it. In fact, as long as the peanut oil is “highly refined,” it is not considered an allergen. The types of peanut oil that are bad news for those with allergies are “gourmet oils” (cold-pressed or expelled peanut oil). It’s safe to say that the peanut oil used in Chinese eateries probably isn’t “gourmet”, but it’s still impossible to guarantee that you won’t react.

Words to know:
坚果 – jiān guǒ (nut), 花生 – huā shēng (peanut), 杏仁 – xìng rén (almond), 核桃 – hé tao (walnut), 花生油 – huā shēng yóu (peanut oil)

Phrases to know:
我对坚果/花生过敏 - Wǒ duì jiān guǒ / huā shēng guò mǐn (I am allergic to nuts / peanuts.)
这个菜有没有坚果?- Zhè ge cài yǒu méi yǒu jiān guǒ? (Does this dish have any nuts in it?)
不放坚果/花生 – Bú fàng jiān guǒ / huā shēng (Don’t add nuts / peanuts.)
如果我吃花生, 我会死了 – Rú guǒ wǒ chī huā shēng, wǒ huì sǐ le (If I eat peanuts, I will die.)

Navigating China with a shellfish allergy

In Asia, children are more likely to be allergic to shellfish than anything else, and shellfish allergies are by no means a foreign phenomenon for the Chinese population. Of course, anyone with a shellfish allergy knows to steer clear of anything involving shrimp, crab, lobster and the like. Unfortunately, shellfish allergies aren’t that simple in China, as certain shellfish-based pastes and sauces can be tossed into dishes that, at first glance, appear to have no relation to seafood. Once you know which dishes and which areas of the country these shellfish agents are hiding in, however, eating out in China will be much more manageable.

What to avoid:
Shrimp is a common ingredient in both fried rice and noodle dishes. Keep in mind that sometimes the shrimp pieces will be too small to notice in a menu picture and possibly even when the dish arrives. You’ll need to be able to identify the character for shrimp (check below) on menus.

If you’re a person with a shellfish allergy, Guangdong Province probably won’t be your favorite place in China. Dried shrimp is a classic condiment that works its way into an assortment of local foods. These crunchy shrimp bites can be present in zōngzi, rice noodle rolls, and soups, as well as the dark-brown XO sauce that is served with all sorts of dishes. Shrimp paste is another condiment that is highly prevalent in Cantonese food, and while it is usually added to seafood, it can also be used to spice up fried vegetables. And it doesn’t stop there; oyster sauce is not quite as omnipresent as soy sauce across China, but it’s a preferred sauce for flavoring steamed vegetables and stir-fry dishes in Cantonese cuisine.

If all that sounds discouraging, here’s some good news: yúxiāng (鱼香) is a Chinese seasoning typically used in meat dishes in Sichuan Province. Although the name means “fragrant fish,” its translation is misleading. Yúxiāng is 100 percent seafood free. At least that’s one ingredient you won’t have to ask about when dining in China!

Words to know:
贝类 – bèi lèi (shellfish), 虾肉 – xiā ròu (shrimp), 蟹肉 – xiè ròu (crab), 蚝油 – háo yóu (oyster sauce), X O  – X O jiàng (XO Sauce), 虾米 – xiā mǐ (dried shrimp), 虾酱 – xiā jiàng (shrimp paste), 蟹酱 – xiè jiàng (crab paste)

Phrases to know:
我对贝类过敏 -  wǒ duì bèi lèi guò mǐn (I’m allergic to shellfish.)
这个菜有没有贝类/虾肉?- zhè gè cài yǒu méi yǒu bèi lèi / xiā ròu? (Does this dish have shellfish / shrimp in it?)
不放贝类 /虾肉/蟹肉/蚝油/虾米/虾酱 – Bú fàng bèi lèi / xiā ròu / xiè ròu / háo yóu / xiā mǐ / xiā jiàng (Don’t add shellfish / shrimp / crab / oyster sauce / dried shrimp / shrimp paste.)

China makes for a potentially dangerous minefield for those with food allergies, but arm yourself with the right knowledge and tools and you’re sure to have a safe and satisfying culinary journey like no other.

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Keywords: China with a food allergy


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Knowing yourself is to safeguard your well being. It applies everywhere

Oct 03, 2020 16:10 Report Abuse



Knowing the type of allergies, one can prevent taking certain food that can cause issue.

Sep 18, 2020 10:42 Report Abuse



Good thing I don’t have any allergies

Apr 17, 2020 20:25 Report Abuse



Nice write up

Dec 14, 2019 03:00 Report Abuse



i would suggest that you avoid China if you have any of the above allergies, especially if your possible reaction to your particular allergen is extreme/life threatening. while the staff at a restaurant will smile and nod when you explain your problem and concern or answer your questions, it is more than likely that they will completely ignore anything you say as they are only concerned with your money, not your health or even possible return custom. They will probably claim they 'did not understand you' to avoid blame for any reactions you may experience. In addition, should you experience an allergic reaction, don't count on local hospitals or health-care professionals from reacting appropriately. I know this from first hand experience from a colleague, who was a vegetarian, asked questions about a menu and was assured that there was no meat, only to find the food was cooked in pork fat.

Dec 09, 2019 00:40 Report Abuse