Hello! Welcome to Beyond Soy!
I just got back from a few weeks in China. Ashley wasn’t there, so I used it as an interesting experiment: While I can eat without concern for soy, I wondered if it was possible to eat soy-free in China. I expected it would be challenging (definitely more challenging than a place like Canada) because of the language barrier and because Asian foods tend to utilize more soy products.
I tried to follow our usual food exploration plan when traveling. I checked ingredients in the grocery store, looked for ingredients on menus, and tried to identify some common foods that were dependably soy-free. So how did it go?
The first thing to check was the grocery store. I stopped into several grocery stores and convenience stores throughout China. When traveling, these are great places to get a sense for the ingredients of local foods. But, I immediately ran into a problem: all of the ingredient labels were only in Chinese! Since I can’t read Chinese, I was unable to determine the ingredients of anything. I used Google Translate on my phone, but it wasn’t very useful in this situation as its photo mode was never able to pick out the word “soy” on any packaging. Looking up the Chinese character for soy and then searching the back of packaging for that character wasn’t really effective either. It probably could work, but was way too time consuming to be effective and I wasn’t 100% sure I was looking for the correct character. So the grocery store trick that Ashley and I usually use when traveling was completely ineffective. Even with the ingredients listed, I still had no idea if a particular food contained soy.
Not to be deterred, I moved on to check for allergen menus or allergen information at restaurants. I didn’t have high hopes for this sort of information and, as expected, there was little or no ingredient information to be had. I frequently couldn’t tell exactly what I was eating, to say nothing of what the ingredients were. Restaurant menus were mainly picture menus, possibly with a bit of English text, and they contained very limited information. Additionally, asking about ingredients wasn’t really an option in a lot of places because our servers didn’t speak English. If you have to point at a picture to order food, it can be extremely challenging (not to mention intimidating) to ask about a particular ingredient. How do you explain “soy” when you can’t even ask for the check at the end of a meal?
So I couldn’t really tell if soy was present in food from the grocery store or at restaurants, but I had two more planned activities to investigate soy in China: watching people prepare street food and finding fresh food. I had an opportunity to observe street food being prepared several times. It was fascinating to watch! The food preparation was incredibly deliberate and it was obvious that great care was taken in making each dish. This was really encouraging! To me, this dedication indicated that the ingredients are likely less processed or pre-packed because such care and energy was given to meal preparation. While it was definitely possible to buy super cheap food at convenience stores (think: the equivalent of gas station hot dogs), most of the food I saw was prepared with such care and intentionality that I was encouraged about the food-making process as a whole within China.
As I observed the care with which food was cooked, I also noticed that all of the ingredients used were fresh. I might not have known what the ingredients were, but this freshness eliminates some of the concern for soy because I didn’t need to be concerned with soy added as a processing ingredient. Instead, I could focus on whether the food itself was soy. Even if the food was freshly made from fresh ingredients, it was hard to determine what contained soy. For example, I had tofu noodle soup at one meal. I only knew it was tofu because our guide was explaining each dish. On my own, I wouldn’t have been able to identify the noodles as tofu noodles. Additionally, I noticed that sauces were used in many dishes. I couldn’t tell what the ingredients of the sauces were, so I couldn’t tell if they contained soy or not.
I didn’t check for soy at American fast food restaurants in China. We saw plenty of Pizza Huts, KFCs, McDonalds, and Subways. Their food looked very similar to the food in the US, and I expect it contained soy, just like it does in the US.
My experience in China indicated that soy is likely very prevalent in China, but it is hard to say for certain. Soy sauce was definitely everywhere, and tofu was easy to find, but they were not included in every dish. Instead, the uncertainty around ingredients (especially sauces) and the difficultly in understanding even what a dish was (to say nothing of its ingredients) made it challenging to eat soy-free. However, this doesn’t mean that you need to write-off the Great Wall or the Forbidden City! While I wouldn’t recommend an extended vacation, it is possible to visit China and stay soy-free. Stay tuned for our next post, where we’ll detail some tips, tricks, and ideas to staying soy-free during a trip to China!