For people following a gluten-free diet, a holiday in China can be a migraine. So ubiquitous is the presence of gluten in the diet that even an analogy of a minefield simply fails to conjure up an accurate image. Up in the north (meaning provinces north of the Yangtze River), it’s particularly treacherous for the gluten sensitive. The primary staple up here is not rice but wheat. And then, even if you can skip the noodles, sidestep the dumplings and eschew the enormous variety of flatbreads and pancakes, you still have to contend with the soy sauce, hoisin sauce, oyster sauce and other such ingredients used as flavourings. Down in the south, things are a little easier with the major staples being rice-based – however, the foundational condiments are largely the same.
Until recently, I managed a small food tour company up in Beijing. We loved being flexible and trying to meet the needs of our guests. Vegetarian or pork-free? No problem. With China’s large populations of Buddhists and Muslims, the country is highly tuned to meeting their relevant dietary needs. Allergic to peanuts or seafood? Again, even these could be avoided without much difficulty or impact on enjoyment. But gluten-free? This was just one diet that couldn’t be worked around and a request to which I bluntly replied with a ‘sorry, but no can do’. On one of our standard tours, for example, which aimed to showcase some of the favourite everyday dishes of the north, our itinerary went like this: stop one, northern-style xiao long bao (steamed pork-filled dumplings); stop two, pan-fried dumplings; stop three, Lanzhou beef pulled noodles; stop four, rou jia mo (a flatbread stuffed with tender pork, beef or lamb); stop five, northern-style spring pancakes; and to finish, in a nod to the south, egg tarts.
This is how it can go for a gluten-free foodie exploring China. Not only will you find precious few gluten-free products in local supermarkets (unless you stop in at the international supermarkets catering to the expat crowds in major cities), but you’ll also likely face a lack of knowledge about gluten in general, even in restaurants.
While writing this article, I wanted to connect with a Chinese person who had issues with gluten, so I started canvassing my local friends there to see if they knew of anyone – and one after the other, they all said, no, they didn’t.
“Gluten is everywhere in the Chinese diet. If a Chinese person was allergic to gluten, how could they survive?” joked one person.
“Perhaps the Chinese don’t pay much attention to this disease,” said another. “Most people just think that their stomach is off, that it’s often just diarrhoea.” (A topic Chinese people are, for me, uncomfortably comfortable talking about.)
I asked a professional chef to recommend a few gluten-free dishes, and after he returned a list that included dishes cooked with soy sauce and even pancakes, I pressed on with a definition of gluten and examples of where it’s found. Anxious to be helpful and give me some suggestions, he asked, “Does cornstarch have gluten?”
Of course there are people in China who do know about gluten and its potential effects, but they are relatively few, and this is something that concerns food scientist Sanna Luoto.
“There isn’t enough awareness of gluten-induced disorders, not even among public healthcare practitioners,” she says. “People suffering from gluten-induced disorders don’t know that [a] gluten-free diet might ease their symptoms. Instead, they remain suffering from even a serious co-condition of coeliac disease.”
“There isn’t enough awareness of gluten-induced disorders, not even among public healthcare practitioners.”
To date, very little research has been conducted into coeliac disease or wheat allergies in the population, yet the research that has been done into coeliac disease in China suggests it is just as prevalent there as it is in the West – around 1 per cent, which equates to a potential 14.17 million sufferers in China alone – they’re just not being diagnosed.
Luoto’s own struggle with coeliac disease in China led her to found support group Gluten-free China.
“I moved to China in 2011 and, at that time, there was a huge lack of both gluten-free foods and awareness,” she said. “I have coeliac disease and so I need a strict gluten-free diet. I'm also a food scientist focused on gluten-free food technology. Consumers and professionals alike started to contact me to ask for help with gluten-free issues. I wanted to collect all the China-related gluten-free information in one convenient place. Then WeChat became popular, so now we have online support groups in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.”
So what’s Luoto’s advice for those travelling through China on a gluten-free diet?
“Unfortunately, it’s often best stick to plain rice, veggies, meat and fish. And if soy sauce is a concern, bring your own gluten-free soy sauce.”
On a positive note, Chinese staff are usually very keen to accommodate when possible and, as a lot of food is made to order, substitutions and omissions can usually be made on the fly. Carry a dietary warning card with you and don’t be shy about specifying your needs. Finally, given that woks are never washed between dishes, cross-contamination can also be an issue, so if you’re particularly sensitive, opt for steamed dishes over stir-fried.
“Gluten-free availability is still poor, but there are more options around,” says Sanna. “I’m glad to see that there are already experts and influencers at a local level working for awareness, gluten-free options and resources. It’s been really rewarding to be a pioneer in this.”
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