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
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
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
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.
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
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!
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
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.