Posted by: kyledine | August 4, 2013

Travelling to China with Food Allergies

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Xiamen, China. Our home for three weeks.

When my wife and I decided that we would go to China, the main focus soon turned to making a plan to eat safely there for three weeks. We knew it would not be easy for either of us.

She has celiac disease and was primarily concerned with soy sauce as we heard it was used in so many dishes. I am allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, eggs, fish, shellfish and mustard – not an easy list to manage at home, let alone in China.

Along with purchasing some health insurance, our pre-trip planning included buying a full suitcase full of safe food, and printing Allergy Translation Cards that featured all of our allergies in Simplified Chinese. We had low expectations of finding many safe options at restaurants, so were prepared to eat out of our suitcase for three weeks as a worst case scenario.

Our suitcase full of food

Our suitcase full of food

We packed 5 sandwiches each for our flights. We travelled through Helsinki and Hong Kong before reaching our final destination of Xiamen, China. As a rule, I never ever eat airline food. They typically do not label ingredients on their food, and I am not looking for any excitement at 20,000 feet! My wife ordered gluten-free meals and enjoyed the special sandwiches and treats on-board. I enjoyed a free glass of wine or two :)

Arriving in China was surreal. We have never felt so foreign, which was a intimidating, yet exciting feeling! On our very first day we discovered a Wal-Mart in our city and had our first Chinese shopping experience. We did not know what many of the items were as they did not have English on their labels. Even the pictures were of things we’ve never seen before. We went through the grocery section and bought milk, a bag of rice and some imported pasta sauce for the gluten/egg free pasta we brought from home. We then bought a hot plate for about $20 which was worth every penny…or yuan.

We picked up on little hints that our options would be limited...such as this full aisle of peanut oil in Wal-Mart

We picked up on little hints that our options would be limited…such as this full aisle of peanut oil in Wal-Mart

As we walked around the city, we peered into restaurants and their picture based menu boards out front. In most cases I could not identify one thing that I could eat, except a plain bowl of rice or grilled meat (however I was too worried about cross contamination to order this). I should note that we were on an island, thus there was an abundance of seafood which is one of my allergens. The rest of China may be different culinary experience. However, we learned early on that we would not be doing much dining out.

Typical picture board menu outside of a restaurant

Typical picture board menu outside of a restaurant

Dining in Our Hotel Room
Our typical day included all 3 meals at home.
Breakfast - Corn Flakes (from home) with milk. Bread and jam
Lunch - Rice with gluten free soy sauce (from home)
Dinner - Pasta, Risotto, Chili, or Soup
Not much of a variety, but it kept us full and safe. We would watch episodes of Breaking Bad on my iPad for dinnertime entertainment. Is it obvious that we did not come to China for the cuisine?
Cooking away on our hot plate in our hotel room.

Cooking away on our hot plate in our hotel room.

Dining Out at Restaurants
We ate out at restaurants on four occasions. Twice at the same place, which was a nice little spot tucked away in a busy marketplace. We noticed it had an English menu out front – which was pretty rare in our city. It had pizza on the menu as well as some salads that seemed okay for my wife. We pointed to the items we wanted on the menu and then handed over our Allergy Translation Cards. They read them and understood our restrictions and told us it would be okay. I ordered a Mexican pizza which was delicious. We came back to this place two weeks later and ordered the exact same meal.
My Allergy Translation Card

My Allergy Translation Card

We found a Texas Bar & Grill on our island that seemed too good to be true. They were even playing country music! The owner was American and helped ensure that our meals would be safe. My wife ordered nachos and I had fajitas. What a great taste of home!
The other restaurant was….Poppa John’s Pizza! It almost seemed like a mirage, especially since we were on a small separate island called Gulangyu. The pizza I ordered was tasty and safe.

Fajitas in China!

Fajitas in China!

Fast Food
The typical “fast food” consisted of road side carts frying up meats on a grill. This looked promising at first, however all of these grills cooked seafood too, most commonly squid on a stick. We avoided these all together and instead went to McDonalds on a couple of occasions. They did not speak English at McDonalds, so they always gave us a picture menu to point at the foods we wanted. I always stuck to a hamburger with fries, but the challenge was conveying that it could not have mustard. They did not understand the word mustard, but they knew ketchup. So I would point and say “yes ketchup”, followed by “no yellow”. It worked every time except the one lunch where I just received a plain patty on a bun. No problem, can’t be picky!
Fast Food Cart

Fast Food Cart

Culture is More than Food
We were lucky that we got to see China, however we realized that we missed a large part of their culture by avoiding many dining out opportunities. However, we made up for it by visiting many local cultural attractions such as galleries, museums and temples. We rode the bus all over the place to really see what local life was like. It’s fun to discover all of the other amazing things that make a culture unique beyond food. We are so thankful that we got the opportunity to see all of the amazing cultural aspects of China and hope to visit again someday.
I did have one close call while in China, but thankfully had no reaction. I will save that story for another day.
Seeing Shanghai was a highlight of our trip.

Seeing Shanghai was a highlight of our trip.

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Responses

  1. Hi there! I was just wondering if it was worth it and if you would do it again?

    • It was an incredible experience and I would do it again…however not anytime soon. It has really made me want an easier vacation where I can put my mind a bit more at ease around food!

      • Kyle, Thanks for posting your trip experience.
        Did you take that electric stove with you? We thought about getting one for travelling. How easy is it to manage taking while travelling?

      • We bought the stove there. They were easy to find too. We made sure to bring it back home with us to use on future trips.

  2. So I guess it’s more about sight seeing than food eating…have fun anyway!

  3. As someone with multiple food allergies (corn, dairy, peanut, oat, wheat, banana and eggs) I don’t know if I would have the courage to travel outside the country but I admire you for it. Glad you had a great trip.

  4. awesome and inspiring.. i have same allergies as you – i prob outgrew most of them but i just keep away – it’s my lifestyle for 40 yrs. glad you had a good time! :) Food is about the culture but so is history by compensating it makes up for that….

  5. Thanks for the update, Kyle. It sounds like you had a wonderful time and managed to eat safely and well, while exploring and enjoying the different culture.

  6. Wow, I am not sure I could have handled a trip like that Kyle! Sounds like so much more work just to make sure you are safe and full! However, your preparedness and attitude are excellent and a shining example to all. Thanks for sharing your adventures!

    Suz

  7. Thank you for this! It’s so inspiring that you managed it so well.

    My husband and I love to travel but since our little girl is allergic to sesame, tree nuts, mustard, dairy and eggs we have adopted a similar “suitcase full of food” and “cook all our own meals” method wherever we go… even if it’s just the next state over camping. It’s OK—traveling is about so much more than eating out! And it saves money too.

    We had tried to just buy things locally, but one time we were in Montreal for a week and could not find a single brand of bread that was sesame and dairy and egg and nut free, and our little girl was so upset to not have her Sunbutter and jam sandwiches … we improvised with safe rice cakes. Same thing happened in Denver, Colorado—even the Whole Foods had nothing safe. Plus with sesame and mustard allergy finding safe spices is a challenge.

    So now we always pack at LEAST Sunbutter, two loaves of safe bread, safe spices & safe pasta.

    • Hi Mikhaela, my daughter has similar allergies including wheat as well.
      Would appreciate if you can share about your experience around accommodation. We are thinking to travel within North America specially Disney world this year. Thanks

  8. Wow. Thank you. That gives me hope. My son has many allergies. It makes me nervous to travel to another country

  9. Kyle, my heart dropped when I read the headline! So glad you enjoyed the sites and stayed safe. I worked in China briefly, back in the day and back then…. without allergies, it was a challenge to eat safe foods (sanitation wise) and I had packed food with me since my Chinese co-workers were concerned.

    So, I am proud that you were really prepared and took things very seriously and are sharing with us!

    I miss international travel terribly and want to take my kids overseas, but to be honest, when I vacation these days, I really just want to rest and not manage food allergies at higher levels of stress to me.

    Hope you are enjoying some good times at home!

  10. Thank you Kyle for this inspirational story. Your story will help so many people living with food allergies that anything is possible with proper preparation and determination. Thank you for all you do. I can not wait to hear more about your wonderful adventures in China.

  11. Thank you so much for sharing your story! My son (3.5 years old) is allergic to peanuts and tree nuts, so international travel makes me a little nervous. It was great to learn how you carefully prepared for the trip, how you stuck to safe food, and made it a memorable vacation!

  12. What an inspiration you are to adults with multiple life-threatening food allergies! Thank you so much for sharing your experience!

  13. I am so glad I found your post about your trip to China. After waiting seven years (!), we are finally close to getting an adoption referral and will be traveling there within the next year and would love to take our 14 year old daughter (peanut & tree nut allergic) with us. Your experience gives me hope that we can figure out how to keep her safe.

    • Thanks for your note! Please let me know how your trip goes! I wish you all the best. Kyle

  14. Great info. We are a fan of your music and now your travel experience in China. My husband’s company was recently bought by a Chinese company and he will be going often. We hope to join him but have obvious concerns about my sons multiple allergies, especially peanuts and EE. I LOVE the suitcase full of food. Our hope is that the company will rent an apartment since so many employees will be going back and forth.


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