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There will be a three week international physics conference (taks in English) in Beijing that I might want to attend. Unfortately I'm a picky eater, being a vegetarian with a nut, peanut and raw soy allergy. I do not speak any Chinese, therefore I expect to be unable to communicate this to the personnel in restaurants or the cafeteria.

The speakers attending are from various countries, therefore I would expect that the locals help the guests choosing meals. But having them translate the menu into English is one thing, asking them to ask the personnel for allergens every single day might become old rather quickly. I'll get in touch with them about this.

Outside of the conference the attendees might go for food in a group as well, but I don't think that an English-speaking local would be available at all times. If one has no special dietary needs, just taking something from a bar or buffet is fine, but I would really like to know what I eat.

Is it realistic to do this; perhaps with a note made by a Chinese colleague stating my dietary needs like “please give me some vegetarian dish as long as it does not contain …”? I just do not want to be that guy who is taxing on everyone's patience because I put myself into a situation relying on other people to help me out.

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    I would have a pocket-size notice made and laminated that can be shown to the restaurant staff, and perhaps bring some spares too. – Weather Vane Mar 5 at 18:21
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    I went to Beijing with a piece of paper that said, in English and Chinese "do not eat shrimp" because that's my allergy. I think "do not eat meat, do not eat fish" etc would work for you. Then show it to people as need be. – Kate Gregory Mar 5 at 18:32
  • I will also suggest that your piece of paper should include the words "food allergy" (食物过敏) to indicate this is not a health, religion, or taste preference, as the restaurant may decide they may ignore you if they think you are not able to detect use of said ingredients. – Heng-Cheong Leong Mar 18 at 6:58
  • @Heng-CheongLeong: The sheet that my colleague created for me starts with “您好,我对以下食物过敏”, so it seems that this is covered. Thanks for the tip regarding ignoring the things, I can see how that would happen. – Martin Ueding Mar 18 at 13:08
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Tricky but doable.

China has a huge variety of food and I've traveled with vegetarians in China without much trouble. While all types of meat (and I mean ALL) are popular China, there are plenty of vegetarian foods as well.

Allergies are more difficult since the offending parts are harder to detect and the consequences of a misfire are more severe.

Some things to consider

  1. Most eating out occasions in China are "lazy Susan" shared meals type of affairs. Someone who speaks Mandarin or Cantonese orders more food than you can possibly eat for the whole table. You dig into the stuff that you want, and pass on the rest.
  2. If no one speaks Chinese and none of the wait stuff English, there is typically a menu with pictures so you can point at stuff.
  3. If you are comfortable inspecting foods visually, than you should be good to go. For most dishes it's pretty easy to see if they are vegetarian or not.
  4. It's perfectly ok to ask "what is this?". Most Chinese are very helpful and get a kick out of introducing Chinese foods to Westerners. This can be a lot of fun for both parties.
  5. Allergens are more difficult. Nuts are not all that common and fairly easy to spot. Raw soy is a real problem though, because it's in a lot of common Chinese foods and condiments. Consider carrying a sign saying "no raw soy", but even then, this is tricky since many restaurants may honestly don't know what exactly that means.
  6. Read up on common foods in China that are "safe" for you and make sure you know how to order them. Have printed signs or phone screens to help. An easy example would be plain white rice, which is not as common as one would think.
  7. It's perfectly fine to bring your own food or drink to a restaurant. It's okay to bring a bag of "known safe" white rice to a restaurant and dig in, if nothing on the menu or that shows up on the table suits your needs.

I think with a few simple precautions this is manageable without too much trouble. The only exception would be if you have a severe raw soy allergy. This would require more comprehensive preparation.

  • Turned out that I only had two incidences with a mild reaction to soy. One time I did not ask what the ice cream was made from, the other time I just tried steamed soy. There were no other problems, it went super smooth. The card really helped a lot! – Martin Ueding Jul 30 at 20:28
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I have heard that vegetarian eating can be difficult in China. I read somewhere, long ago, that the best thing is to say you are Buddhist. Indeed, https://www.insiderjourneys.co.uk/blog/holidaying-in-china-for-vegetarians seems to back up that idea as well as providing other tips that sound worthwhile. However, its guide to what you can say doesn't include the phrase in Chinese characters - therefore you might struggle to make yourself understood unless you get the pronunciation and especially the tones correct.

As for your nut allergies, sorry, but I can't help you there.

  • A colleague who eats vegan also told me about the Buddhist diet. Apparently it is not only vegetarian but already vegan? – Martin Ueding Mar 5 at 22:03
  • @MartinUeding Yes and strict Buddhist diet also contains no garlic, onions, chili peppers, or leeks. – xuq01 Mar 18 at 18:55
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Vegetarian is tricky in China, but doable. A small selection of restaurants cater to Buddhists who do not eat meat (and are, in fact, vegan).

The real headache is your peanut allergy, though. It is very common for Chinese restaurants to cook with peanut oil, so if your tolerance is low enough, then tough luck. But fortunately, there are also restaurants which use rapeseed, soybean or corn oil (those are the most common cooking oils in China). Of course, it doesn't hurt to ask (it would greatly help if you go with someone who could explain it to the waiters), but expect a lot of the restaurants to use peanut oil.

Also, I'm not sure what "raw soy allergy" means: do people actually eat raw soybeans? (They contain lectins and I thought they can't be eaten raw anyways.) If that means you're allergic to soy sauce, then even tougher luck...

There are some salad restaurants in Beijing, though. I'd be pretty sure you'd be fine with those...

  • Apparently peanut oil does not cause allergic reactions because there are no proteins left in the oil. So that seems to be safe. Regarding soy I am rather unsure, I never have problems with tofu and soy sauce. But drinking soy milk gave a reaction. So I think it is not that bad after all. – Martin Ueding Mar 18 at 10:00
  • @MartinUeding I think you'd be fine then. Check out some of the Buddhist restaurants (you'd need to dig a bit); some of them make amazing vegetarian food. – xuq01 Mar 18 at 18:52
  • Also it's weird that you're fine with tofu but not soy milk. Soy milk is certainly boiled, and tofu is more or less just soy milk with the water filtered out. – xuq01 Mar 18 at 18:54
  • My doctor was also a bit confused about this, the allergens in soy are rather heat stable. But perhaps it was just a contamination with almond milk (I am allergic to almonds), as the manufacturer makes oat, almond, rice, soy and rice+soy milk drinks. – Martin Ueding Mar 19 at 21:05
  • I see. A lot of people are actually allergic to impurities in something when they say they're allergic to something, so maybe that's it. – xuq01 Mar 19 at 22:35

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