Is it possible to survive with a peanut allergy in China? How can I travel with a peanut allergy in China? Should I even bother…?
Having a peanut allergy, or any allergy for that matter, definitely sucks. Worse still when you have to travel with an allergy - and even worse when you’re travelling to a country full of the things you’re allergic to!
Well, I hate to break it to you, but Chinese cooking contains a fair amount of peanuts in comparison to a lot of western foods.
So should you even bother travelling to China?
Chinese food is awesome, and even as a peanut allergy sufferer you can enjoy lots of it. But, you will need to be careful about what you’re eating.
Peanut Allergy China: Understanding Chinese Food
Above all else, it is important to understand Chinese food and Chinese people. There are many different varieties of Chinese food- often named after the region. Just like in the West we may say “Let’s have Italian” or “Let’s go for Japanese tonight”, in China, you will find yourself saying “Let’s have Yunnan food tonight”. Each region of China has its own special type of cuisine, each unique and awesome in its own way.
Like spicy? Sichuan is your place.
Love meat on a big sword? Go for Xinjiang!
Love hotpot? Chongqing is famous for the spicy one.
This differentiation is important for allergy sufferers since different locations use different ingredients. If you’re are avoiding a peanut allergy in China, you should ideally stay away from southern food. Guangxi, Yunnan… These places are hardcore peanut lovers in their dishes (no matter where in China you’re dining).
If you’re eating in these locations you should be particularly careful since in the south, peanut oil is one of the cheapest oils. It is used in many restaurants. You should be wary of street BBQ and ask every time you eat somewhere. In the north, peanuts are more expensive. If you eat in a fancy restaurant they may use peanut oil since it is seen as a better oil.
Peanut Allergy in China - What the locals think
When asking (see “key phrases” below) you should also be aware that Chinese people don't understand why you are asking. Having a peanut allergy in China is not common. In fact, many people find it strange as it is generally unheard of. If you ask them directly whether or not the dish has peanuts, or if they use peanut oil or not, they will most likely say yes. They will presume you want to have peanuts or peanut oil so will either lie (if they don’t use peanut oil) and tell you that they do, or they’ll add peanuts to a dish that otherwise doesn’t have peanuts. So, you need to make it clear that you do not want peanuts - and why.
After explaining you have an allergy, you should also explain what effects the allergy has, i.e. “If I eat peanuts, I will die. Please go and ask your chef”. Often, they will not understand the importance and severity of having an allergy and will answer without actually knowing, or they will presume that having a few peanuts is okay.
Peanut Allergy China: Key Tips
- Always ASK
- Have a set of phrases printed out to carry with you everywhere (see below for sentences).
- Have your medication with you at all times
- Stay away from southern Chinese food if possible
- Go back to the same place regularly if you know it is ok - but still ask every time. Things change often!
- Bring a Chinese speaker with you if you are unsure
- Eat in western food places if you are ever unsure
Peanut Allergy China: Dishes to Watch Out For
- Kung Pao Chicken - always has peanuts
- Fried peanut dish
- Kung Pao Shrimp
- 5 spice peanuts
- Stir-fried chicken, stir-fried vegetables
Peanut Allergy China: Key Phrases
Having an allergy was actually one of the reasons why I began learning Chinese. It's definitely an investment that paid off!
Here are some phrases to get you started.
Wǒ duì huāshēng guòmǐn
I’m allergic to peanuts/I have a peanut allergy.
Rúguǒ wǒ chī huāshēng wǒ huì sǐ, suǒyǐ qǐng bùyòng huāshēng!
If I eat peanuts I will die, so please don’t use peanuts!
Wǒ bùyào huāshēng
I don’t want peanuts.
Wǒ bùyào huāshēngyóu
I don’t want peanut oil.
Zhège cài yǒu huāshēng ma?
Does this dish have peanuts?
Nǐmen zhèlǐ yòng huāshēngyóu ma?
Do you use peanut oil here?
Having lived in China for over 2 years, I eat peanuts pretty regularly - despite having a severe allergy. No matter how decent my Chinese is and how careful I am, it happens about once every month or two. This has multiple reasons; sometimes I’m too careless. Sometimes they don’t really ask the chef. Sometimes it’s cross-contamination. Sometimes the oil they use is mixed oil.
The important thing is that you know and understand your own peanut allergy, and you are always prepared in case you do accidentally eat peanuts. If cross-contamination causes a big issue for you, I would suggest finding a couple of restaurants that you know are safe and sticking to them - or just doing some of your own home-cooking.
Don’t listen to people if they say having a peanut allergy in China is impossible - it’s not. You just have more to think about…
Most importantly… Have fun enjoying the awesome food of China. And be safe!