How to be gluten-free in China

Finishing up the Masters in Acupuncture and Oriental medicine degree this month, my colleagues and I got to watch doctors at the hospitals use tongue and pulse and western methods of diagnosis (labs and imaging) to treat patients using a combination of drugs and Chinese herbs.  Many of these doctors saw over 20 patients in one hour.  The education we received in Chengdu and Shanghai was invaluable.  But by the time we started shadowing the gastroenterologist, many of us had already suffered from bouts of the runs several times over.  Chinese cuisine heavily relies on wheat-based soy sauce.  Celiac’s disease and gluten intolerance are still very new concepts in both Western medical practitioners and TCM (traditional Chinese Medicine) practitioners.  Hmm…maybe one reason why there was a line out the door at the gastroenterologist’s office.

How do you stay gluten-free in China?  Pray.  Pray that you don’t get anything with a ton of MSG or soy sauce and that there’s a clean bathroom nearby.  Let’s just say, it’s really difficult for those who suffer from gluten intolerance or Celiac’s disease to eat out.  However, there are lots of options and different ways to play it safe.

Eat lots (and LOTS) of rice.  Rice is undoubtedly the staple grain.  It’s in everything, from drinks, to main dishes, to desserts.  You can get some type of rice dish with a main course at any restaurant.  One of the best meals to order is congee, a rice porridge that is usually accompanied with meat or vegetables.  It is easy to digest, and it’s filling.  The word for congee is 粥 (zhu).  You can usually see this character on storefronts of those that specialize in different types.  Rice dishes will end in 飯 (fan).

Avoid noodles, street snacks, and brown stuff.  Most noodle shops serve both wheat noodles and rice noodles.  But you have to be careful of some places who sell “rice noodles” that consist of about 5% wheat.  Noodle dishes will end with the character 麵 or 麵粉.  Rice noodle dishes will end with the characters 米粉.  Many noodle dishes are soups which you’ll know if you see the word 湯.  Street foods have many breaded snacks and buns.  Often, the grilled meat has been marinated with soy sauce.  Otherwise, the fresh fruit juices, the roasted yams and chestnuts, the candied hawthorne are all clear…and delicious.

Must-know phrases and words

  • 不要味精 “bu yao wei jing”–I don’t want MSG
  • 我不吃肉 “wo bu chi rou”–I don’t eat meat
  • 不要將油 “bu yao jiang you”–I don’t want soy sauce
  • 豬肉 “zhu rou”–pork
  • 牛肉 “niu rou”–beef
  • 雞肉 “ji rou”–chicken
  • 鴨 “ya”–duck
  • 魚 “yu”–fish
  • 蝦 “xia”–shrimp
  • 蛋 “dan”–egg
  • 菜 “cai”–vegetable
  • 湯麵 “tang mian”–soup noodle
  • 湯粉 “tang fen”–soup (thin) noodles
  • 河粉 “he fen”–thick noodles
  • 茄子 “qie zi”–eggplant
  • 番茄 “fan qie”–tomato
  • 瓜 “gua”–squash
  • 炒 “chao”–stir-fried
  • 粥 “zhu”–congee

Good luck!

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