Chinese cuisine offers some most delicious vegetarian and vegan meals. You just need to know where to find them.
If you are getting ready for going to China, you have probably already heard horror stories about chicken feet, pig intestines or meat balls wrapped in innocent looking tofu.
Bad news is, the Chinese love meat and they put it in almost all of their meals. Good news is, the Chinese love vegetables too. It might be hard at the beginning to actually find some but once you learn the basics, you can go 100% vegetarian without missing out on great food.
I consider myself to be a "flexi-pescatarian" (my term for a vegetarian very occasionally eating fish and seafood). For the first few months, Chinese cuisine made me eat significantly more fish and pushed my boundaries to the very limit. I would not touch food cooked with meat back in Europe but during the first few weeks in China, practically all my meals were cooked with meat.
Ethical treatment of animals is not a reason to give up on meat in China, yet.
The more I learnt about Chinese food, the more I was able to re-establish my flexi-pescatarian diet. Now, I eat slightly more seafood than I would back at home but, on the other hand, I have almost cut off eating dairy products.
Most of my students at school are genuinely shocked when I tell them I do not eat meat. Some of them nod in understanding "Ah, you don't want to get fat!" or even presume it must be because of a meat smell. Ethical treatment of animals is not a reason to give up on meat in China, yet.
No matter if you are a liberal pescatarian or a hard-core vegan, finding delicious food suiting your diet might be easier than you thought. All the information below is based on my six-month stay in China, mainly in southern Guangdong province.
What to eat
The great advantage for vegetarians in China is the dining style itself. A large group of people order several dishes and shares them. Never be shy to mention you do not eat meat. Not even if you are invited by Chinese hosts.
From my experience, although they will not understand why someone would not eat meat, they will do anything they can to feed you up. Once, I shared a completely pescatarian dinner with about ten Chinese people purely because I said I would not eat anything else than fish, tofu and vegetables. And so they did not order anything else.
Traditionally, the person initiating the dinner also chooses most of the dishes. It makes the situation much easier for you. Even if you are left on your own without someone speaking Chinese, do not panic. Expensive and cheap restaurants alike often feature pictures in their menus so you can just point at meal of your choice.
There is about the same amount of dishes as diners so while my friends are eating meat, I usually manage to smuggle two or three vegetarian dishes in.
My personal favourites for the big shared dinners are:
- cucumber salad with sesame, garlic and chilli dressing,
- cold shredded potatoes with chillies or
- "wood ear" black mushrooms with sesame oil and garlic.
Other all-time Chinese classic are steamed leafy vegetables (often bok choy but they have many more varieties) or stir-fried green beans. In almost any restaurant you will find at least one tofu dish which is, according to me, much tastier than its blander Japanese variety.
Another vegetarian-friendly option is hotpot. It is a broth boiled in a big pot on a hob integrated in the table. You choose individual ingredients and cook them by yourself. The soup is then shared by everyone around the table although more trendy places offer individual pots for each person.
Classic family hot pot usually contains meat but do not let that put you off. There are usually several kinds of broth (including mushroom or a tomato one) and plenty of vegetarian ingredients such as tofu, Chinese cabbage, different kinds of noodles, shiitake mushrooms, "wood ear" mushrooms, sweetcorn, broccoli and seaweed so you can make a purely vegetarian (and vegan) combo.
On top of that, some hot pot restaurants offer sauce and relish bars. My favourite is soy sauce, green onion, coriander leaves and grounded peanut sauce. Delicious!
Chinese cuisine is a term as broad as China is big so there are some random vegetarian (or semi-vegetarian) meals you might encounter either on the street or in little eateries:
- crispy flat bread fried with spring onions
- crispy wrap with tofu and chilli sauce
- veggie stir-fry with vegetables of your choice
- plain roasted sweet potatoes
- roasted chestnuts
- vegetable dumplings (Chinese dumplings are vegetarian quite rarely so if you find some, order them because you might not get the opportunity again.)
- bao zi (Fluffy buns with sweet, vegetable or meat filling. Always make sure before ordering one!)
- noodle soup (Just for more liberal vegetarians as the broth is always from meat.)
- marinated seaweed with garlic and chilli
- rice noodle salad
I definitely recommend trying barbecue - either in a restaurant or a street stall. It might be corn on the cob, tofu or my all-time favourite - aubergine cut lengthways, marinated with garlic spicy sauce and grilled until incredibly tender. Even if you are not aubergine-obsessed like me, you need to try this one!
Chinese for Vegetarians
Even after living in China for 6 months, every now and then, I find myself in a completely new place with a mysterious Chinese-only menu. Although I have learnt several Chinese characters, sometimes, I just cannot make sense out of it.
There is something intimidating about Chinese menus.
Fortunately, as a rule of thumb, you only need to learn three words.
Bù yào ròu.
Quite frankly, it means "don't want meat" and it is the easiest way to explain that you want a meat-free meal without any further knowledge of Chinese. Chinese people usually ask again to make sure, you repeat and then they make a suggestion of what they could prepare. Unless you are willing to learn more Chinese, just agree.
Chinese is a tonal language witch basically means that intonation of each syllable determines its sense. If you then try to pronounce "bù" in a different tone, people might not understand you. You want to get this right. All three words are pronounced in the fourth tone so you pronounce them quite sharply with a decreasing intonation.
Listen to the pronunciation from a dictionary or, even better, ask a Chinese person to listen and correct you. Chinese love when foreigners try to speak their language and they are ridiculously fussy about it. They really make sure your pronunciation is good enough.
Problem with "bù yào ròu" is that it literally gets you a meat-free meal. While you are sometimes offered a choice of great and nutritious veggie meals, another time you end up with plain noodles in a fatty meat broth. Consider learning more phrases:
Wǒ bù chī ròu. (我不吃肉) - I do not eat meat. (more elaborate version of "bù yào ròu")
Wǒ chī qīngcài, dòufu, jīdàn (我吃青菜豆腐鸡蛋) - I eat vegetables, tofu, eggs,... (use this phrase when you get a confused look of "So what do you eat then?")
bù yào là - no spice
bù yào jīdàn - no egg
Zhè shì shén me? (这是什么?) - What is this?
Zhè shì ròu ma? (这是肉吗?) - Is this meat?
As for reading, if this is your first encounter with Chinese characters, they will give you as much sense as Matrix. There is one character, however, which has helped me a lot.
肉 ròu - meat
It appeares in "鸡肉" (chicken), "牛肉" (beef), "猪肉" (pork) etc so you can quite reliably identify dishes containing meat. Be careful though, not all the names for meat products have "肉" in them. For example "香肠" - sausage.
Being a vegetarian in China definitely takes effort but it is not impossible. It is easier the longer you stay in one place and get to know the selection of food and restaurants. Of course, in ideal case, you have space and time to cook for yourself. You can adjust food to your diet and taste and avoid MSG and excessive oil.
For more general information on being a vegetarian abroad check this great post from Fluent in 3 months. Benny lists really useful tips you can use in any country. If you plan on staying in China for a while, it will be helpful to learn Chinese names for vegetarian meals. I recommend this Memrise online course. It will walk you through the basics of restaurant survival. If you are looking for a dictionary app, go for Pleco. So far, it has never disappointed me.
For those tackling the cooking side of the vegetarian experience, I am sure you will find tons of recipes on the Internet. I like Omnivore's Cookbook, although not made just for vegetarians, Maggie has some pretty delicious meat-free recipes using Chinese ingredients. Cookie and Kate is my top vegetarian recipe website. Although you might not get all the necessary ingredients for Kate's recipes in China, they might inspire you to create your own China-infused masterpiece.
Do you have experience with vegetarian eating in China? Is it different in other provinces and what is your favourite veggie meal? Share with us!