Saturday, 20 April 2013

A Coeliac* in Hong Kong

Challenging. It was definitely challenging. You couldn’t go to Hong Kong as a shy and conservative Coeliac. You have to go in there hard with your translation card and winning smile at the ready. I’ve already noted how rare a disease gluten-intolerance is in Asia (see A Coeliac in Singapore) so I had braced myself for some interesting encounters and conversations.

The translation card

The little scrap of paper with the crucial explanatory text in English and Mandarin was more important to me than my mangy old passport. This was the golden ticket to dinner. It explained what I could and couldn’t eat. I researched a few before I found one that was straightforward and tactful. Someone online had made their own which was quite alarmist. Something along the lines of: ‘Please don’t hurt me. Please have a detoxification shower before preparing my food. Please don’t hurt me. And by the way, I can’t eat wheat.’

The reactions

My favourite reaction was a wonderful waitress in a tiny side street diner who read through my translation card, smiled broadly and nodded and then said to me in English, ‘A-ha! You’re one of those! I’ve heard about you’. My niece and I had the best rice noodles with pork, scrambled eggs (with toast for my niece) and a cup of lemon tea for the grand sum of AUS$4. I wanted tea with milk but after re-reading my translation card the waitress decided that no, she would not risk it – tea with lemon or plain hot water. Who was I to argue!

(As an aside, my niece would continue to proclaim joyfully and randomly throughout our trip: ‘$4!!!’ I even received a text recently, weeks after our holiday, reminding me that it was sooooo great to have breakfast, with coffee/tea, for just $4. Particularly as she had just paid AUS$12 for two coffees in Melbourne!)

The production number – bring out the dancing girls!

Every time I whipped out my translation card I carefully watched the face of the reader. There was inevitably a frown, a twitching of the mouth, a polite retreat, a conversation with someone more authoritative, some discreet finger pointing and more frowning and shaking heads. These beautiful folks seemed anxious about feeding me something that would consequently make me sick and so were super cautious. Rarely would I get turned away – more often than not the chef would be dragged out to have a chat and three people would be gathered round discussing what on earth I could eat. Hence the need to be confident and expressive – otherwise, I wouldn’t have eaten anything in Hong Kong. And it was so very worth the production number. There was always one little dish I could eat that brought satisfaction to all involved, particularly me.

Helpful folks

I really wanted my niece to try dumplings. (She really wanted to try them too!) There was no conceivable way I was going to find anything to eat in this heavenly floury place but I noticed some rice noodles on the menu and thought I might be able to wrangle a soup. Well, this was the only place that really couldn’t seem to accommodate me, but not for lack of trying. Again, a plethora of people were dragged in to nut out some options. No, nothing. I was completely happy with that, no problem, please don’t bother, it’s all ok – my niece is happy. Not content with that, the waitress wandered over to a regular who was with a Western looking fellow and pointed at me, slightly distraught. He smiled and said hello to me across the crowded café and shouted gently ‘what seems to be the problem?’. No problem at all I said. I’m gluten intolerant, I thought I might get some rice noodle soup but no luck. He laughed good naturedly, ‘Lady, you are in the wrong place to eat!’. All good. The waitress continued to eye me sadly and shake her head now and then so I made a super effort to smile and laugh and not salivate impolitely and desperately over my niece’s heaped steaming plate of dumplings. I always carry a nut bar for such occasions.
Worth another visit? Hell, yes!

Hong Kong was a tricky but delicious place to eat. I scoffed lobster at Jumbo, had the most exquisite meal of my life at Amber (see Two girls and a two star Michelin restaurant), and still sigh fondly about that memorable $4 pork and noodle dish. I shunned all Western outlets (except for a brief fling with a Hard Rock Cafe in Macau) and tried as many local options as possible. It’s a little like Russian roulette with potential cross-contamination issues, but hell yes, I’d play again!


If you're after some suggestions (ie. restaurant names/ addresses) please feel free to email me at 

*What is Coeliac disease?

In people with coeliac disease the immune system reacts abnormally to gluten (a protein found in wheat, rye, barley and oats), causing small bowel damage. The tiny, finger-like projections which line the bowel (villi) become inflamed and flattened. This is referred to as villous atrophy. The surface area of the bowel available for nutrient absorption is markedly reduced which can lead to various gastrointestinal and malabsorptive symptoms.

This extract has been sourced directly from the Coeliac Australia website (




  1. Thank you for this post. So very interesting and scary. I have not travelled to Asia since being diagnosed. Not sure if I ever will, the food scares me a bit. But thanks for the great post.

  2. :-) It's not so bad! I would encourage it! There's a few groups like this one ( who can offer great advice. If you're organised and pre-book a couple of things, you should be just fine.

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