Last year, I spent about 3 months in Shanghai on an exchange programme, and then another month back-packing across Beijing, Guangzhou, Shenzen, Hong Kong etc…
There is no denying the fact that China is a culinary paradise! But, the Chinese love their meat, and almost every dish would have some meat – limiting the options for a vegetarian like me.
Being a food lover, there was no way I was going back without trying out some local food.
I learned how to survive as a vegetarian in China, yet sample the local cuisine, and more importantly, not go hungry!
Explaining the term ‘vegetarian’
If you are living or traveling as a vegetarian in China, there are two important things that you should be aware of:
- The term ‘vegetarian’ itself has a different meaning in China than what you would expect in certain other parts of the world or in India for example
- Even dishes which may not say ‘meat’ on the face may be cooked in chicken broth or contain minced meat or have fish sauce in them.
So, here are some ways by which I got my way around and loved it!
- Say more than just ‘vegetarian’ (Sù) – At the cost of going over-board, describe what exactly can you eat, and what you cannot.
Remember that tones are important while saying these words. The underlined words can be found in our talking dictionary for pronunciation reference.
Finding vegetarian restaurants
Although a rare sight, there are some vegetarian restaurants in almost all major cities in China.
- Buddhist Temples: China has a large Buddhist population. Almost all Buddhist temples have vegetarian restaurants inside them. These restaurants also contribute to the funds for running the temples. You’d find a variety of vegetarian delicacies and some very creative and interesting meat substitutes using tofu (for the much needed protein). Some of my favorites were the Jade Buddha Temple in Shaghai and The Chi Lin Nunnery in Hong Kong
- Happy cow website: (http://www.happycow.net/asia/china/) This website is a savior for vegetarians. I suggest you bookmark it . Happy cow helps in searching for vegetarian and vegan restaurants and stores
Ordering vegetarian in normal restaurants
If you are traveling or living in China, then restricting yourself to vegetarian restaurants may be limiting – specially if you have friends who aren’t vegetarians.
There are some common vegetarian dishes that were available in most of the restaurants I had food in. Some of the vegetarian Chinese dishes are absolutely delicious! Most places that I tried (be it fancy restaurants or road side eateries), the staff is usually friendly enough to pay attention to your request provided you are clear enough and polite
- Ask for an English menu wherever possible, although some of the street eateries will not have these
- Some of the dishes that are usually vegetarian:
- Rice – You would usually find vegetarian fried rice (chǎo fàn shūcài) or a plain bowl of rice (mǐfàn) everywhere. Fried rice would usually have egg though
- Bok choy (Báicài; literally “white vegetable”; also spelled Pak choi, Bok choi, and Pak choy) is a Chinese cabbage like vegetavle with succulent, white stems with dark green leaves. Báicài xiānggū is a classic Chinese dish with Bok Choy and mushrooms
- Mushroom (Mógu) gravies and mushroom soups – some of the wild mushroom dishes are delicious and highly recommended!
- Vegetable side dishes – Chinese culture is a lot about sharing food. There are a lot of side dishes which will be made up of purely vegetables. So order a couple of side dishes and you’d have a hearty meal! Some of the eggplant (qiézi) dishes are quite nice!
- Noodles (Miàntiáo) – make sure you say Miàntiáo bu ròu (Noodles no meat)
- Breads and buns (Miànbāo and Bāozi) – as a last resort only!
- Make sure you double check before you order and before you start eating: Does it have meat in it? = Yǒu ròu ma?
- You could also ask them to make a version without meat: Kěyǐ zuò méiyǒu ròu de ma? = You can do without meat?
- At times, the staff may not be completely sure of what is going into the food. So, when your food arrives make sure you double check and if you find meat just make a polite request to change the dish
- Tea – although not a filler, the variety of tea you’d get in and around China is amazing! They are healthy, delicious and certainly vegetarian Try the flower tea and the ones with Goji berries!
If you have the means then I’d highly recommend taking inspiration from the local cuisine and trying out vegetarian versions in your own kitchen!
The kind of ingredients you’d find in China is amazing! Get your hands on some local produce like Bok choy, spinach, tofu, garlic, schezwan peppercorns (numbingly spicy!) and add in some local flavors (sesame oil, soy sauce, rice wine vinegar) – you will relish these healthy & delectable dishes and I guarantee you’d be cooking them long after you’re back (well, I do!)
The last thing I’d say is – don’t let your personal food preference become a barrier in your experience or your interaction with the locals! Have an easy going attitude and be tolerant of their food choices – just learn to get your way around to have your preferences met!
Experiencing China and Chinese food is worth every cent – do not miss out on it!