(Note: chapters 3 + 4 will not have pictures for reasons I will explain in Chapter 5.)
The card then continued with an exhaustive list: no soy sauce, no oyster sauce, no wheat, barley, rye, no flours, no dough, no breads, no sauces, no noodles, nothing battered and fried, no processed meats, and nothing that has been cooked or fried on the same equipment as any of the before items. The card really could have even been longer; it failed to mention my allergic reactions: intestinal swelling, abdominal pain, bloating, nausea, cramping, consitpation, diahrehha, and gas. “I hope you like dan chao fan,” Fuji laughed as the young woman behind the counter handed me my plate heaped high with egg fried rice. “It may be about the only thing that won’t get you sick in China.” I rolled my eyes at him.
One week later.
Dusk and a light rain had arrived. Rain jacket zipped, I walked on the sidewalk parallel to Wudong Lu, the road that sits adjacent to Tohee. My stomach was in knots (most likely from ingesting trace amounts of gluten the day before), but I knew I should eat. Street vendors huddled under large beach umbrellas that collected the rising smoke from their portable stovetops and clouded the sidewalk with a vapor that ran through my nostrils and pulled at my stomach. One whiff was enough to possess my appetite. Jackpot. I approached a vendor selling something that looked similar to a shish kabob. Stacked in trays facing the street were chicken, pork, beef, fish, squid, corn, mushrooms, and foods I did not recognize. My mouth watered. I grabbed a yellow plastic basket and began to put skewers in it, choosing chicken, beef, potatoes, and a few unknowns. The woman collecting money took my basket and after brushing my skewers with (what I believed to be) butter handed the basket to her husband who took the kabobs and began cooking them over a charcoal grill. He stood over my food with a watchful eye, waving a bamboo fan that sent fresh oxygen to the smoldering coals and swirled flavorful smoke around the kabobs. “Wait!”The woman looked up; she did not know English, but my imperative tone got her attention. Just to be safe, I wanted to show her my allergy card before I paid. She looked confused as I unfolded it and handed it over. Her eyes flipped left to right as they made their way through the laminated page. A few seconds later she blinked, looked up, returned my card, shook her head, and shooed me off. My stomach gave a growl of dismay.
This was one of several failed attempts to stray from dan chao fan. Fuji was right. And more and more I realized my China was divided into an ever-widening dichotomy of restaurants: those that sold dan chao fan (egg fried rice) and those that didn’t. Wheat and wheat derivatives were everywhere and lurking in the most innocent of dishes. I studied the ingredient lists on prepackaged foods, grilled waiters about their menu items, but ingredient lists were vague (e.x. “bean paste,” what’s that made of?”) and restaurants were not confident about the contents of the foods with which they cooked. A stray from dan chao fan most always meant the unmistakable symptoms of a gluten attack. The reaction is not severe enough kill me, but can easily knock me off my feet for half a day. Alas, egg fried rice became my bread and butter, my only solace. It was the dish that I could order confidently without fear of any significant cross contamination and was a dish that restaurants everywhere made with the same ingredients (rice, eggs, oil, garlic, and salt). No surprises. No gluten. But no matter how much I enjoyed the flavor, I knew that it would soon become unbearable. And unbearable it became.