This Q &A is intended to supplement info already on this site.
General Q & A about Gluten-Free Life in China
Can I be 100% GF in China if I never eat out?
I think it is possible to be 100% GF in China if you cook all your own food, though you might be prepared for a few gluten accidents as you learn to read labels. Chinese companies do not have such stringent guidelines for the thoroughness of food labeling, so that may affect you as well.
How can I follow the gluten-free diet without being anti-social?
The question of eating with others is one of the harder ones facing a gluten-free person in China. You have a variety of options, some of which are more socially acceptable than others. Options include:
1) invite others to your home where you can control what foods are served.
2) explain your diet to your host ahead of time.
3) socialize over drinks at a coffee shop rather than a restaurant
4) request rice and steamed veggies (I read about this; haven’t tried it myself.)
4) limit how often you eat out and be prepared for a little gluten.
How do I explain the GF diet in Chinese in a tactful way?
If you have Celiac disease, I would suggest calling it an allergy (or “similar to an allergy” if you want to be more accurate.) Sometimes, I say in Chinese “I have an allergy to wheat. Actually, it is not an allergy, but almost like that. “If I eat soy sauce, it makes my stomach very uncomfortable.”
Though I am used to explaining the diet in English, I’ve not had much success in getting a Chinese friend to truly understand my condition and needs (though I’ve explained it multiple times.) Several have noted that restaurants here aren’t used to dealing with food sensitivities; there is little awareness of this type of problem.
Where is the best place in China to go GF?
South China is known for its rice-based diet, north China for wheat noodles and bread. If you want to eat more like the locals, south China will be an easier option, but it is possible to be gluten-free if you live in the north—it just will require saying “no” to more regional foods. Big cities will have more ingredients available than rural locations.
My gluten-free diet isn’t working. What do I do?
Start a food journal—what you are eating? Ask questions about each food—which items are obviously safe and which ones might have small amounts of gluten. Try eating only 100% safe foods for a while and see if that helps. (Remember, stomach issues are somewhat common with foreigners in China, so it is possible that your problems stem from another source.)
Where can I do more reading about GF in China?
I would suggest you also read about dairy products in China, as these often make both Chinese and foreigners ill, whether or not they need to be gluten-free.
Gluten-free foods available in China Q & A
What safe grains are available in China?
Some grains you can find here are rice, sticky rice, brown rice, buckwheat, sorghum, and black “forbidden” rice. You may have to make a special trip to a specific store to get them, though.
Many Chinese eat porridge for breakfast. This is usually made from millet or rice. Some areas have “8 Treasures Porridge” which contains several grains and beans. Most formulations should be gluten-free.
Some noodles are made of rice or mung bean. There are also entrees like nian gao and tang yuan (soup balls) that are made of sticky rice flour and should be gluten free.
What is Chinese barley and is it gluten-free?
When I first learned about 薏米， I looked it up in the dictionary— Chinese barley. Could this be a gluten-grain that didn’t follow the pattern and use the “麦” character in its name? Further research indicated that while this grain is sometimes called Chinese barley, it is actually a gluten-free grain sometimes called Job’s tears.
What about cooking wines, vinegar, herbs, seasonings (not pre-ground)?
I have not scrutinized my vinegars and wines for gluten here. My understanding is that even in the States, many Celiac groups consider vinegar gluten-free. Some seasonings are available; bring your own if you are concerned about minute particles of gluten.
Are there ingredient labels in English?
Occasionally, though usually only on expensive, imported items. Your diet will be extremely limited if you don’t have a way to deal with Chinese ingredient labels.
Are there any sources for GF baking mixes or hard-to-find ingredients?
Some import stores sell GF baking mixes. These will be more expensive than in the US. I’m told such products cost about $8 in my city and are only available at one store that is quite distant from my home. Some people learn to order things off Taobao, including western-style rice pasta.
What should I bring with me? Are GF care packages an option?
Ingredients to bring include GF soy sauce, Italian seasoning, taco seasoning, ground cinnamon, and other spices you use regularly. Vanilla, cocoa, chocolate chips can be hard to get here; you might bring baking soda and baking powder, unless you know they are available in your city.
Care packages are very expensive and mail can take months to arrive. You will probably do better to make other plans for your gluten-free products.
Gluten-Free Eating Out in China Q &A
China means rice, right? Isn’t gluten-free easy there?
China also means soy sauce, which is almost never gluten-free. Also, there is virtually no awareness of gluten/wheat sensitivity.
Chinese restaurants have to cater to the needs of vegetarian clients, so doesn’t that mean they could help a gluten-free person as well?
You might do some online reading about vegetarians here, as it gives an idea about how kitchen’s really handle these things. (Many restaurants still include some meat and animal by-products even when asked not to, limiting options for strict vegetarians to a few Buddhist-oriented places.)
What about a GF restaurant card?
There are dining cards out there for Celiacs to use. Some have been translated into Chinese. I brought a copy of one with me, but I haven’t used it. There are several problems with it:
1) it says that I don’t understand Chinese,
2) it says that I can’t eat millet (wrong translation for one of the other grains I think.)
3) it isn’t specific to China. It does not list soy sauce, MSG or chicken-broth powder as sources of gluten, though these are standard in most dishes.
I don’t think this card would help me much in getting a gluten-free meal. You might make your own card (I’d suggest bullet-points); if you don’t speak Chinese, you could use translate.google.cn. Personally, I’d recommend you have someone translate for you orally (note also the information about Chinese culture in the question on special dietary requests.)
How does Chinese culture view special dietary requests?
The book Encountering the Chinese by Hu, Grove and Zhuang is a good introduction to Chinese culture. They make several statements that I think shed light on the difficulty of having special dietary requests followed:
“In the collectivist culture of China, a person is not expected to emphasize personal needs as a reason for acting (pg. 23)” and “Chinese culture does not prepare its members to expect individuals to boldly state and pursue their their uniquely personal needs and desires (page 114, both quotes from the 2010 edition.)”
What Chinese dishes don’t have soy sauce?
Some dishes that are more likely to be gluten-free, in part because they don’t call for soy sauce:
stir-fried egg and tomato and stir-fried potato shreds; Rice is gluten-free. Hot pot and curried chicken and vegetables both skip the soy sauce, but might have a small amount of gluten in the other ingredients.
What other dining options do I have?
There are some western restaurants in China as well as other types of ethnic food that might have gluten-free options for you (i.e. Korean.) However, you will probably have similar issues with restaurant staff.