China: the land of dumplings and dim sum. I’m going to be frank here and say that I’ve never actually eaten Chinese food out. And yes I do live in Melbourne where there is a huge Chinese community. I’m going to be even more honest and say that I’ve never actually even tried to. I’ve watched people eat it, but never dabbled in it. Up until recently, Asian food was simply a no-go zone for me because nuts seem to be too prevalent. Whether that was logical or not, it was the case. Only recently have I begun to dabble in Japanese food, and that being said: I’m still only just dipping those chopsticks into the udon noodle soup.
Because really, Asian food kind of just scared me. It was all so foreign. If you look at other cuisines, they tend not to feel so different. Let’s look at Mexican for example. It is full of foreign words like ‘enchilada’ or ‘frijoles’. I (the expert!) have had to help many friends navigate through a Mexican menu which to them is gibberish, but to me (somehow over the years) has become second nature. But, when you break it down, it’s just e.g. a chicken wrap in some form or another. And beans. And tomato. All familiar items. Similarly, Spanish paella is really just rice, like risotto, with vegetables or meat. Again, things we are all well-accustomed to.
Asian food, particularly Chinese food, is much more intriguing and different. I still don’t quite know what dim sum is. I know what a dumpling looks like, but I really have no concept of what it would taste like (and I certainly don’t understand Melbournians obsession with dumplings!).
So. I was hoping (it was a long shot) that I would be able to try some Chinese food when in Hong Kong.
My brother’s highlight of our family holidays is always the food – as the only one without dietary requirements, he was excited to try Chinese food. This meant that every time he was ordering Chinese food, I would look at the menu to see if I could eat anything. But there were a few challenges.
Problem number 1: there seemed to be two extremes – cheap Chinese food and expensive Chinese food. There wasn’t much by way of a middle ground. The result – I didn’t really want to experiment with a new cuisine at a street vendor or similar, but I also didn’t want to pay exorbitant amounts when I had no idea what I was getting.
Problem number 2: seafood and pork. Neither of which I am able to eat. These were present in a large majority of the food in Hong Kong. I don’t know whether this would also be the case in the rest of China, but walking through the streets of Hong Kong, all we could smell was seafood. For those allergic to fish/seafood, do not be too concerned. My father, anaphylactic to, well, we aren’t quite sure what but something of the fish/seafood variety. Do not worry, you can definitely still find plenty of food options when travelling to Hong Kong. As mentioned here, there is lots of Western food around so as long as you can stand the smell of seafood, you’ll be able to manage. One thing to note for the really severe: in Hong Kong, there is a popular snack food eaten by those of all ages – Korean squid. It is (I think) dried and sliced into tiny strips, which people eat with their hands. They were all over Ocean Park, there were a few stalls selling it along the Avenue of the Stars, as well as a few around and about Hong Kong. The point is that it is eaten with the hands, and so if you are highly allergic (e.g. via touch or surroundings), be very careful in these areas. And don’t worry – you will smell it a mile away. After smelling it the first few times, my fam and I began to feel sick every time we smelt the intense unfamiliar Korean Squid. It is also (I think) available to be purchased pre-packaged.
Problem number 3: peanuts. I didn’t expect peanuts to be particularly prevalent in Chinese cooking (based on my very basic understanding of Chinese food in Australia), however, this was pretty incorrect. They use a lot of peanut oil and peanuts (whether sauce or otherwise) in their cooking. I discovered this when the fam and I visited One Dim Sum. This is a Michelin-star dim sum restaurant in Mong Kok. I read about it online, as it is one of the cheapest Michelin restaurants in the world. There was a long queue, but before jumping in line, we decided we should first check out whether I would be able to eat there at all. Luckily, a very nice young Chinese couple overhead us talking and offered to help. They had gone to an international school so they spoke brilliant English. They communicated with the staff member explaining my situation and the helpful staff member highlighted all the things that I could eat. It was about 50/50. The young couple passed on to me that the restaurant used peanut oil for all of their frying, which meant that anything deep fried (aka a large majority of the menu) contained peanuts. There were also some dishes which contained actual peanuts or peanut sauce. After the helpful couple and staff member had dedicated a good 10 minutes helping me, I decided it was much too risky, even though it was predominantly peanut oil (which is generally not what peanut Allergians are allergic to).
Problem number 4: Menus. The Chinese restaurants I looked at did have English on their menus, however, the English tended to be quite basic and often only described the main ingredient in a dish (e.g. chicken). My brother often ordered food, expecting one thing but receiving something completely different.
Problem number 5: the world is small. What this means is that my carefully planned Cantonese nut allergy translation sign wasn’t entirely effective when the waitress was from Nepal. This happened a few times. The best part was – strangely enough, when I handed my card to the non-Cantonese waiters or waitresses, they didn’t hand it back to me and respond with “Sorry I don’t speak Chinese”. Oh no. Rather, they looked at me with complete and total confusion, as if I had just asked them to read alien language, and with almost a bit of offence or horror, as if it was rude of me to expect that a person living in China would be able to speak Chinese. Obviously that’s just not a thing. I would definitely still recommend bringing a translation card, as it definitely still helped most of the time, but just be prepared. Luckily, where the waiter or waitress wasn’t able to speak Chinese, they always spoke English very well.
So there you have it folks. No Chinese food for this Allergian.
There’s always home cooked Asian, right?
Until next time…
The Allergian Abroad