By Brendan Moyle 31/01/2019

Long ago I made my first trip to China. China was a different place then. Hotels were sort of modernising, but weren’t quite there.

In Beijing we used to be put up in the delightfully awful Friendship Hotel. Pipes were affixed to wall interiors, odd noises were common, and concrete was everywhere. I think the mattresses might have been made from it. The mattresses were always solid and hard. I used to ask for rooms with 2 single beds so I could locate the marginally softer one. Now things are much more civilised. Hotels are well made, mattresses are softer, and you no longer feel part of some historic Cold War relic. It’s not the same.

The other challenge was food. I like Chinese food. I’ve always been adept with chopsticks. This could be an issue with restaurant staff afraid I’d embarrass myself trying to use 2 sticks. They’d lurk behind me as we settled, and when I looked distracted, would dive in, remove the chopsticks and replace them with a knife and fork. One of the first phrases I had to learn in Mandarin was to ask for the chopsticks (kuàizi) back and that I did not want a knife and fork.

And spices and chilies never bothered me. Being a vegetarian though was an issue. Especially over 10 years ago when there was less diversity in restaurants. I mean there was KFC then but its not like that was an option either. Fortunately the Chinese did have a number of amazing ways to cook and prepare soy. Not just tofu blocks, but in all kinds of ways. Shredded like pastas. Thin sheets like wraps. And then those sauces. Wonderful stuff with soy-sauce as an ingredient.

Trouble Ahead

Except it turns out, I’m one of a minority of people who are allergic soy. It’s more common in children and most grow out of it. At first, my allergy wasn’t noticeable. But the more I consumed, the worse it got. I developed painful skin rashes. At first I suspected chemicals in the water. Or air pollution. But no, it was soy. And apparently eating tons of it in China kept escalating my immune response to it. Now I’m very sensitive to even minute quantities.

It turns out, probably the worst country to work in if you’re a vegetarian with a soy-allergy is China. It’s pretty much unavoidable. Even if the dishes don’t include soy ingredients, it might be cooked in soybean-oil. (Even that generates an allergic reaction). Or there will be transfer from other dishes cooked or prepared in the same area.  I eat a lot of raw vegetables in China now- like E. coli doesn’t exist.

I am now pretty much resigned to getting a soy-allergic reaction in China now, and stock up big on anti-histamines.

It is everywhere

It’s also surprisingly difficult to avoid in NZ. Most breads have soy-flour added (for extra protein I presume). I now bake my own bread to avoid it. It’s included in a vast array of biscuits. Generic vegetable oil usually has it, and that’s included in so much food. Christmas means passing on chocolate as soy lecithin is used as an emulsifier.

This abundance of soy was again brought home when I had a recent sojourn in Hospital. IV antibiotics were dripping into my arms. And at times, the hospital would try to feed me. Which of course I was mostly grateful for. But I couldn’t eat the sandwiches at lunchtime- that’s based on commercial bread. They couldn’t feed me soups as that had soy in it. It was a struggle to find food that wasn’t a risk.


I know there are people with even worse allergies. So I’m glad that is not the case for me. What really makes this allergy a struggle is how ubiquitous soy is. And of course, China becomes a personal torment.

0 Responses to “The Soy of Travel”

  • That’s a shame about the soy allergy – not a thing I’ve heard of before. The Mayo Clinic website says, “Often, soy allergy starts in infancy with reaction to soy-based infant formula.”

    Here the ubiquitous thing would be chicken. It’s nasi (rice) or mee (noodles) with chicken, cooked endless different ways. Apparently there is a (rare) allergy to chicken too… Fortunately for my taste bud’s sakes there is fish (although you can worry about the source of the fish…) and a few vegetarian options.

  • Hi Grant. Indeed, it is rare. It is though a known allergen. Many packets of food sold in NZ, under the list of ingredients will helpfully bold-type it and mention it is present (along with the other culprits like dairy or peanuts). I suspect it’d have never amounted to much for me except for the exposure factor. Every time I ate it, the reaction ratcheted up to a new level. And I ate a *lot* in China.

    I did a barrage of tests against common allergens n NZ and the only one that blew up was soy. Glad you have options against chicken.