Vegetarian or Vegan in China?
Perhaps the food-related question I get asked most is “What’s it like for vegetarians and vegans in China?” The same question came up again recently, so I put this together. Hope it’s useful.
For the sake of typing convenience I’m going to conflate ‘vegetarians and vegan’ into just ‘vegetarian’, except where it’s really necessary to differentiate.
First a declaration of non-interest. I am very carnivorous. I eat almost anything, but I have known many vegetarians who have passed through, some staying only a few weeks, others staying for years.
Being vegetarian in China is a complicated issue. In some ways, China is probably one of the best countries in which to be vegetarian. In other ways, it is one of the worst.
I spent some time in Gorbachev-era Russia and saw the empty supermarkets and markets. I saw people line up for hours to buy a bit of dry bread. So, when I first came to China, I kind of expected the same. Instead, the first market I visited astounded me. The place was piled high with food, including around 30 different types of tofu, countless varieties of steamed buns and flat breads and scores of different vegetables, both fresh and preserved, most of which I didn’t recognise. And so cheap I could hardly convert into any western currency.
If able to self-cater then China is heaven for vegetarians. For short term visitors dependent on restaurants or street food or for people who just can’t cook, the story is very different..
Despite the perception of a Buddhist tradition in China (which is actually not that strong), very few Chinese (including Buddhists) are vegetarian and many just do not understand the concept. Explaining in a restaurant that you don’t eat meat is no guarantee that you won’t be served meat.
Meat is seen in China as a status symbol. If you are rich, you eat more meat. And everyone knows all foreigners are rich, so of course they eat meat! Meat eating is very much on the rise as China gets more rich – even to the extent of worrying many economists, health workers, food scientists etc. who fear the demand is pushing up prices and is environmentally dangerous. But that’s another issue. Obesity is becoming more and more of a problem.
Banquet meals as served in large hotels and banquet dedicated restaurants will typically have a lot more meat dishes than a smaller family restaurant. Also, the amount of meat in any dish will be greater in the banquet style places
Traditional Chinese cooking is very vegetable orientated. I still see my neighbours come home from the market every morning with their catch of greenery. However, where meat isn’t the central component of dinner, it is used almost as a condiment or seasoning. Your stir fried tofu dish may come with a scattering of ground pork on top, for example. This will not usually be mentioned on the menu.
Simple stir fried vegetables are often cooked in lard (pig fat) to ‘improve’ the flavour.
Another problem is that the Chinese word for meat (肉), when used on its own, refers to pork. Other meats are specified, eg beef is 牛肉, literally cattle meat. What this means is that when you say you don’t eat meat, they often think you mean you don’t eat pork (something they do understand from the Chinese Muslim community), so they rush off to the kitchen and cook you up some stir fried chicken or beef or worse! I’ve actually heard a waitress saying to someone that chicken isn’t meat. Also, few Chinese wait staff or cooks seem to know that ham is pig meat. I have had another waitress argue ferociously with me that the unasked for ham in a dish of egg fried rice wasn’t meat.
(Note: hover your mouse pointer over the Chinese characters to see an enlargement and the Pinyin pronunciation)
Also, Chinese restaurant dishes are often given really flowery, poetic names which tell you nothing of the contents. Chinese speakers often have to ask, too. One dish on my local restaurant menu reads “Maternal Grandmother’s Fluttering Fragrance.” It is, of course, spicy pork ribs!
Away from the tourist places, where you probably don’t want to be eating anyway, very few restaurants will have translations of any sort. Even the best places’ translations will be indecipherable. I have been in restaurants where they have supplied an “English menu”, but if I didn’t know Chinese would have been unable to order anything. They were gibberish.
To go back to Buddhism and Taoism, it is a mistake to assume that genuine followers of either (or more usually a mix of the two) are necessarily vegetarian. Many Chinese Buddhists are not. In fact, the Dalai Lama states in his autobiography that he is not vegetarian. It would be very difficult, he says, to survive in Tibet on a vegetarian diet.
There are vegetarian restaurants in many places (although the ones in Liuzhou never seem to last more than six months. I’m not sure if there are any now). In the larger cities such as Beijing and Shanghai they are more easily found.
Curiously, many of these restaurants make a point of emulating meat dishes. The menu reads like any meat serving restaurant, but the “meat” is made from vegetable substitutes (often wheat gluten or konjac based).
A typical such menu is here (PDF File). Note: This restaurant is no longer in business, but the menu is illustrative of the kind of dishes on offer in such restaurants.
I have seen several suggestions on the internet on how do deal with the problems of getting vegetarian food in China (and the near impossibility of getting vegan food). As ever, I am highly sceptical that many of them work. One reason is linguistic; the other cultural.
The most common suggestion is to learn the phrase 我吃素 which, they tell you, is probably the simplest way to say “I am vegetarian”. The first problem with this suggestion is that it doesn’t mean that, at all. It simply means “I eat vegetables.” Well, hey! I eat raw and cooked animals but I also eat vegetables. It is useless as a suggestion. Even if it weren’t, you would really have to get the pronunciation right and Chinese being a tonal language makes this difficult. The second thing is that even if you get it spot on, there is no guarantee that the waitress won’t say (in Chinese) “Oh I see. So you eat vegetables. I will bring you some very delicious vegetables with a bit of chicken to make them a bit more tasty! And scatter some dried shrimp over your fried rice. It tastes much better that way,” leaving you utterly bewildered by this barrage of incomprehensible and, to you, useless Chinese.
Many visitors have learned that people either just don’t understand (or don’t want to understand) visitors’ Chinese, or they get the three words you have painfully learned, then assume you understand everything and lay into a full length lecture on the folly of your failure to be sensible and eat the bounty of the animal kingdom nose to tail, while you sit there dying of malnutrition.
So, I’m trying here to avoid giving ‘useful’ phrases. As often as not, they just confuse things further. (Even speaking the language or travelling with native speakers to guide and translate doesn’t usually help. You still run into the refusal or inability to comprehend vegetarianism. Then there is the problem with the 10,000 dialects.) I recommend the pointing system.
Another tip I have heard, but never tried (I don’t need to; I eat everything) is to not say what you don’t want to eat; but to point out (perhaps literally) what you do want to eat. It is not considered offensive in most small Chinese restaurants to wander into the kitchen, open fridges and cupboards etc and indicate what you want. Don’t do this at peak hours, 12:00 to 13:30 here, but variable. Also, examining other diners’ meals (more or less discretely) and pointing to them if they take your fancy often works.
This is probably the easiest to deal with. Hit the street early enough (most Chinese people get up early) and you will find little stalls everywhere selling all sorts of stuff. Perhaps the most popular breakfast is dough sticks (油条), deep-fried dough sticks served with warm, sweetened soya milk (甜豆奶).
Other breakfast items include the many steamed buns. Some contain meat, sometimes signalled by the meat character (肉), but not always. Then there are the pancake type preparations. They are cooked in front of your eyes and you can see what they are putting in them. Usually egg, scallions, coriander/cilantro etc. Again no guarantee what the cooking oil is, but probably vegetable.
There are also the noodle places. Many of these set the ingredients out in front of you and you point at what you want to be included. Problem here is they will probably serve the noodles in a soup made from chicken or beef/pork stock.
Many hotels (esp. tourist hotels) do buffet style breakfasts. These can be a good time to fill up for the day. You can see the food before you commit yourself. The amount of food I see people eat at these breakfasts is amazing. I’m sure they don’t normally eat such a big breakfast at home.
Boiled eggs, fried noodles (fried in what?), buns, breads, cakes, rice porridge. I forget. It’s been a while. Some even do cornflakes. Coffee will nearly always be instant, often pre-sugared and with whitener already added
If you are of a sensitive disposition in the morning like me (especially after a particularly liquidly refreshing evening), I suggest avoiding hotel breakfast completely. There is nothing many Chinese people, especially the more elderly, like to do more than go for breakfast and have a good shout. The breakfast rooms are cacophonous.
Which brings me to Yum Cha or Morning Tea.
Originally from the Cantonese speaking parts of China, but now available pretty much all over, Yum Cha (simplified Chinese: 饮茶; traditional Chinese: 飲茶) is what is generally referred to as Dim Sum in western countries, although strictly speaking dim sum (simp: 点心; trad: 點心) is the food served at a yum cha meal rather than the event itself.
Dim sum literally translates as ‘little hearts’ and consists of mainly small items such as filled buns, rice noodle rolls, cakes etc. In traditional places these items are wheeled round the restaurant on trolleys and you take your pick of what passes by.
Some of these ‘little hearts’ are vegetarian; most are not. It isn’t easy to tell just by looking however. Many a surprise may be lurking inside an innocent looking bun. Two of the three buns below are vegetarian. One certainly isn’t. But which?
The answer is: the front one. The two at the back contain sweet bean paste (left) and sesame and peanut (right) – the one in front is a pork bun.
Tread carefully and put in your earplugs.
Also, often available at yum cha and in small restaurants etc is congee or rice porridge (粥). This is eaten at all times of the day, but often for breakfast. It is a thinnish rice porridge, sometimes eaten as it is (白粥 – rice and water) but usually augmented by something savoury – usually meat based but sometimes pickled vegetables are all that is added. Another common addition is sweetcorn kernels (玉米粥). Sweet congees are more often vegetarian. One to look for is ‘eight treasure congee’ (八宝粥/八寶粥) . This is rice porridge with added ingredients such as peanuts, jujubes, lotus seeds, lily, Job’s tears, ginkgo etc. In my local porridge shop, the only vegetarian options are the sweet congees. Here is their menu:
Congee / Porridge:
Pig Offal congee
Preserved egg and lean pork congee
Lean pork and leaf mustard congee
Rice field eel congee
Mung bean congee
Eight treasure congee
Peanut, silver ear fungus, jujube and mung bean congee
Another possible breakfast option is noodles, predominantly rice noodles in the south and wheat in the north, although both can be found most places. Most small noodle places prepare these to order and have bowls of ingredients for you to point at. Beware, however, of them adding stock which will not be vegetarian. Dry noodle dishes are available, but not everywhere.
I think the best bet is to load up on some plain steamed bread from the supermarket or stalls such as this
then hit the streets and find the local snack people. They can keep you going on steamed or roast corn, roast red potatoes, pickles, roast chestnuts, peanuts, fruit etc etc.
The supermarkets sell yoghurt (酸奶) (usually very sweet and thin) and soy milk. Fresh cow’s milk (鲜牛奶) is more difficult to obtain outside of the large cities – few supermarkets carry it – try bakers’ shops. UHT milk is everywhere. Western style bread is also difficult to find away from major cities, although some places do French style baguettes which are passable if fresh.
Before I get onto lunch and dinner, here is a quick illustration of the problem for vegetarians in China.
A recent blog article on one of the travel sites (I forget which) listed “China’s five top vegetarian dishes”. Three contained meat. The article was withdrawn after scorn and derision was heaped on the writer.
Lunch and Dinner
China doesn’t really differentiate between lunch and dinner, in the sense that the same dishes could be served at either. Family home lunches often include leftovers from the previous evening’s dinner and dinner will have lunch’s leftovers. Also, I don’t remember ever coming across a restaurant in China which had separate lunch and dinner menus.
(In fact, last night’s dinner could equally well turn up for breakfast.)
Again, if you are self-catering there is no problem, other than being overwhelmed by choice. For those dependent on restaurants etc, again it becomes difficult, for the reasons given above.
I’ve been checking out the internet and the suggestions there.
One common suggestion is to try to find hot pot restaurants. These are basically self-catering in a restaurant setting. You order up the ingredients you want and cook them yourself in the boiling broth in the centre of the table. Common vegetarian ingredients include tofu in various forms (try frozen tofu for an interesting texture), mushrooms of all kinds (fresh and dried), noodles (often vermicelli or glass noodles), lotus root, potato, bean sprouts, broccoli, various marrows, pea leaves, coriander / cilantro, seaweed, taro, etc etc.
Sounds great, but there is a problem. They are going to bring you a big bowl of boiling stock to cook your goodies in. And it is 100% certain that the stock won’t be vegetarian. Most will be chicken based although the very popular Sichuan style spicy hotpot base traditionally uses both beef dripping and beef stock. I have a Chinese hot pot cookbook in front of me now. It has 34 different soup bases. Not one is vegetarian.
I had a conversation last night with a Chinese friend in which we discussed the best way to deal with this problem. We agreed that they aren’t usually going to go out of their way to make you a vegetable stock. They are far too busy. Even if you ask for vegetable soup, they are probably going to add chicken (probably in the form of stock cube or powder). So you ask for plain boiled water. They will understand that and bring you a glass of hot boiled water to drink.
Finally we settled on the clumsy phrase “要一锅开水代替汤底” which means “I want a pan of boiling water as a replacement for the soup base.” We are still highly sceptical that this would actually work. Someone in the kitchen will probably decide to perk it up with a bit of animal – and MSG.
And even if it did work, you would have to effectively make your own stock with the boiling water and some initial vegetation; otherwise you will just be eating boiled mushrooms – not quite the culinary experience you were after.
Perhaps a better idea is to find one of the many restaurants which hand you a ticket when you arrive, then you wander up and down a long line of cooking stations pointing and choosing the ingredients and food you want. They stamp your ticket and, in theory, when you get back to your table (don’t forget which number it is – these places can be huge) the food may well have already arrived. The ticket becomes your bill.
You will still have the problem of guessing what is in pre-prepared things like dumplings and steamed buns (almost certainly meat – see breakfast above). But the chances of hitting on something acceptable is slightly higher than choosing from a undecipherable menu.
Many places have picture menus which may help. But remember that pictures of food often hide a multitude of things. The pictures are not usually over-stylised or fake, but you can’t, in particular, know what oils or stocks are being used or what is lurking beneath or within.
Egg and Tomato
I have to mention “egg and tomato” 西红柿炒鸡蛋 aka 番茄炒鸡蛋 .
This renowned dish has kept many a vegetarian alive while in China, although one vegetarian friend who was here for three years has sworn never to eat “egg and tomato” ever again.
It may not be on the menu, but there isn’t a cook in China who doesn’t know how to make it. It is the first dish all Chinese kids learn to cook. Basically, just scrambled eggs with tomato and maybe some spring onion/scallion. Dead simple. There are a zillion recipes and videos on the web. There is a soup version, too. Of course, it isn’t vegan though.
Some noodle places do vegetarian options. One big chain is the Japan/China franchise operation – Ajimen. They have a few vegetarian options. Menu has pictures and English.
China seldom does salads as they are known in the west. Many or most people have a strong aversion to eating anything raw, mainly for hygiene reasons (see below).
1) Smacked cucumber with garlic (蒜泥拍黄瓜), originally from Sichuan but popular everywhere.
Tiger salad (老虎采). There are two versions: one from north-west China up near the border with Siberia and another from the far west. Both are very good. The one pictured is the NW variety. Not so easy to find, but if you do, I heartily recommend it.
Most supermarkets do a variety of Chinese style ‘salads’ or prepared dishes which can make up a great lunch. You can see what you are buying (usually).
Be very wary of birthday cake! I don’t think the Chinese ever really got the baking concept. Their ‘bread’ is nearly all cake and their cakes nearly all fat. Pig fat. Yes. They make birthday cakes using lard. Not always but often!
Accept it now. You are not going to get a vegetarian meal on a plane or train anywhere in China. Some airlines (actually they are all the same airline – they all belong to the government. We are communist here.) have claimed to offer vegetarian meals if you book them five years in advance or something similar. I’ve never heard of anyone ever receiving one.
Do what the locals do (for different reasons). Stock up on snack foods. Peanuts, potato chips/crisps, chocolate, candies, cakes and cookies. Work out how much food you need for the duration of your journey, then buy twice that.
You will see lots of people eating instant pot noodles on trains. Each carriage has a boiling water supply. The pot noodles aren’t vegetarian either.
A round up of photos
So to summarise:
Being a vegetarian in China is easy and exciting and interesting if you are self-catering.
If you are self catering and buying vegetation, be very sure to wash it carefully before using. Then wash it again. China still uses “night soil” as fertiliser. To cut a long story short, it is untreated human excrement.
Not that restaurants are necessarily more hygienic. Vegetables are often washed in dirty water or in Chinese style toilets. Here is one of my local restaurant’s washing stations.
The problem is partly a language barrier issue – few restaurants have English menus or English speaking staff – but even Chinese speakers (native or otherwise) struggle.
Traditional Chinese cuisine and home cooking is still largely vegetable based, but not vegetarian. Animal fats are widely used for frying and animal products often added to pimp up the veg.
You won’t starve in China, but you have to be prepared to work at finding acceptable food. Some people take that on; others give up and leave; some give up and go back to carnivory for the duration.
Try to see the cooking being done. Sometimes possible – not always. Point out what you want – not what you don’t want. But be wary of animal fats being used and what is that strange looking ‘spice’ being added? Pork floss? Shredded dried shrimp?
I have deliberately avoided recommending specific dishes. What is available varies enormously from place to place. The few dishes or foods I have specified are those I think are available pretty much everywhere.
I have no experience of it, but I think being vegan in China would be very problematic unless you were self catering. It’s not that the food isn’t there. It most certainly is. Veganism is just not understood in China at all.
Finally, let me relate an anecdote. Several years ago, I was in a little-known town near the Guangxi – Yunnan border. I was invited to a full scale banquet. (My heart usually sinks when that happens – the food is usually second rate at best. People are only there to get as drunk as possible as quickly as possible.) But to decline the invitation would have been inexcusably rude, so along I went.
The food was divine. The hosts and guests were polite, sober and interesting. It was, without doubt, the best banquet I have had in near-on 20 years in China. And it was entirely vegetarian.
Or so they told me!