Hello! Welcome to Beyond Soy!
It was so interesting to explore the presence of soy in Chinese cuisine! Last week we provided a run-down of the soy situation in China. Today, we will focus on how to eat soy-free in China based on what I’ve learned.
Preparation is key for a soy-free trip to China, but this preparation looks a little different than the preparation that we usually talk about. Usually, Ashley and I prepare to eat soy-free by researching a specific meal to find a soy-free option. For example, we look through a restaurant menu to find a soy-free option before going there to eat. Eating soy-free in China requires a different sort of preparation: you should look up recipes. Instead of finding specific restaurants, it is much more important to figure out which commonly available foods will be soy-free. Getting a sense for the types of Chinese foods that tend to be soy-free will be the most beneficial because restaurant menus are extremely difficult to find online (if they are published at all), and it is difficult to determine the exact ingredients of their menu items. In my experience, we found a restaurant by looking at their picture menu. Instead of looking up their specific menu ahead of time online, which we probably couldn’t read anyway, having a sense for typical Chinese recipes will allow you to pick some menu items that are always soy-free. For example: by researching recipes ahead of time, you can learn that bok choy is most frequently steamed and hardly ever cooked with sauce. Then you can feel comfortable ordering bok choy in any restaurant in China, even if you don’t know the actual ingredients of that particular dish in that restaurant.
Of course, once the food arrives, you need to quickly assess if it is in fact soy-free (e.g., check for sauces or breading). As is true in Western cultures, try to avoid sauces. Sauces are everywhere; this will be the most challenging part of eating soy-free in China. Be very cautious when ordering noodle dishes since they frequently come with sauce. I found that freshly cooked vegetables were some of the best near-guaranteed soy-free dishes. The vegetables were delicious and were almost always sauce-free. Remember, even if you’ve ordered it, you don’t have to eat it when it comes. If you don’t feel comfortable eating something that you’ve ordered because you think it might contain soy, then don’t eat it! It’s always okay to not eat something to avoid soy, and since food in China is quite cheap, it isn’t expensive to leave a dish on the table to stay soy-free.
Preparation is also useful to find pre-packaged food that is soy-free. Identifying some soy-free food that you can find in a convenience stores removes some of the stress of needing to find soy-free options everywhere you go. Since it can be difficult to determine what foods will be available in stores, you may want to visit a convenience store shortly after your arrival. Take pictures of many different items, then go back to the hotel to spend some time researching these products online until you can find a few soy-free options. Once you have your soy-free short list, you can grab those specific products during the rest of your trip without needing to do additional research.
Finally, look for freshly cooked food. I loved watching people cook food in front of me because I could see what types of ingredients were used. One of the most informative experiences I had was walking through a market where I was able to watch numerous food vendors making their wares. I learned that there is a sauce in a Chinese hamburger and I saw that the roasted meat didn’t have a sauce on it. This was incredibly useful information and I felt like I could order soy-free food at the market because I could see it being made.
Avoiding soy doesn’t mean avoiding China! With the right preparation and a diligent look at menus, you can enjoy Chinese culture and cuisine in a soy-free way. It won’t necessarily be easy, but it is possible to visit China and avoid soy. As with any travel, take your time to determine that your food is soy-free before eating, bring plenty of backup snacks, and enjoy!