Being a vegetarian is already hard but if you’re in China, it’s even harder. The problem is that most Chinese people don’t truly understand the concept of vegetarianism or veganism so finding meals made purely for vegans is a real challenge. And since meat is considered a symbol of prosperity in China, you might find meat and other animal-derived products like eggs being used for garnishing even in vegetable dishes.
The good news is that it’s absolutely possible to find vegan food in China with a bit of hard work and patience. In this comprehensive food guide, you’ll learn how to survive in China being a vegan or vegetarian and feast on drool-worthy Chinese vegetarian delights instead of starving yourself to death.
Communicate What You Want
Many Chinese dishes can be tailored to suit your preferences by leaving out the meat from the recipe but you need to be able to clearly communicate what you want and don’t want in your meals. However, the language barrier is a major constraint for vegetarian tourists traveling to China.
So to make your life easier, you need to learn how to tell that you’re a vegan/vegetarian and what you eat and don’t eat in the Chinese language. To express that you’re a vegetarian, simply say “Wǒ shì sùshí zh” and the locals will understand you perfectly. Similarly, you can tell others that you eat vegetables by saying “Wǒ chī shūcài”. As a vegan, saying “Wǒ bù chī rǔ zhìpǐn” will let others know that you don’t eat dairy products.
Vegan And Vegetarian Restaurants In China
The majority of vegetarians in China follow Buddhist style vegetarian food, locally called “chī zhāi” which is served in a host of local restaurants typically located close to temples. Moreover, an array of vegetarian and vegan restaurants are being established in major cities like Beijing to cater to the global demand of people following this lifestyle. Restaurants such as Suhe, The Veggie Table and King’s Joy are a popular option amongst vegetarians in Beijing. Likewise, many other vegan and vegetarian restaurants can easily be found in districts of Shanghai, Xi’an, and Wuhan, etc. by simply searching for vegetarian and vegan restaurants in the area over the internet. Note that these restaurants may be a bit expensive but you’ll be saved from the hassle of finding street food according to your preferences.
Chinese Vegan And Vegetarian Dishes
Although most of the population of China is not vegetarian, plenty of vegetables and plant-derived ingredients are used in Chinese cuisine. Here are the top vegetarian dishes you should try out. You can even have some of them delivery to your doorsteps from reliable services such as ActivEats if reading about them makes you hungry while you’re not in China.
Ma La Xiang Guo – Spicy Numbing Stir Fry Pot
This modern Chinese dish doesn’t have a vast history associated with it but one thing is sure, spicy numbing stir fry pot is definitely one of the finest dishes you’ll find in the restaurants in China. The best thing about this dish is that you can choose your ingredients that go into the pot. So being a vegetarian, you can pick items like tofu, sweet potato noodles and all the veggies that you fancy. You can also choose the spice level of your dish, but we recommend going for mild for starters. The chosen ingredients are then fried together with fresh chilies and spices and presented to you in a huge bowl.
Di San Xian – The Three Treasures Of The Earth
A classic feast for vegetarians in the northern half of the country, Di San Xian is a stir-fried combination of the three treasures that can be found in every Chinese market and household, namely eggplant, potato, and sweet pepper. These three vegetables are first fried individually and then stir-fried with ginger, garlic and a bit of sugar to result in a scrumptious, sugar-coated treat.
Hong Shao Riben Dofu –Japanese Braised Tofu
Tofu is a classic vegetarian delicacy in China and braised Japanese Tofu is one of the most seasoned dishes in the region. The braised tofu consists of a perfect balance between a variety of textures – it’s firm from the outside yet soft and creamy on the inside so you’ll need to put your chopstick skills to use. Although the original recipe contains oyster sauce, you can ask the waiter to skip it or use a vegetarian variant instead.
Pai Huang Gua – Smashed Cucumber Salad
A Range of cold dishes and Chinese salads, called Liangcai in Mandarian, are found almost everywhere in China and the most popular one out of them is perhaps the smashed cucumber salad. It’s made by smashing crunchy cucumbers using a pestle so that it’s flavors are fully brought out, chopping them in bite-size pieces and seasoning them with chili, garlic, vinegar, and oil.
Malatang – Hot And Spicy Soup
Originally from Sichuan, this hot and spicy soup is a common street food you’ll find all over China. Just like the Spicy Stir-fry Pot above, Malatang gives you the freedom of fully customizing your meal by picking out your own ingredient, seasoning and spice level. The selected ingredients are then separately cooked to perfection after which they’re combined together in broth in individualized hot-pots for single serving.
Youpo Chemian – Biang Biang Noodles
Biang Biang noodles are a popular dish in the Shaanxi region of China. In fact, they’re considered to be one of the eight strange wonders of Shaanxi. The noodles are made from fresh dough that had been thoroughly rolled up and stretched before being cut into thick, wide strips. After being boiled, the noodles are flavored with garlic and vinegar and other seasonings. In the serving bowl, crushed red chilis are placed over the noodles which are then sizzled with hot oil to bring out the spicy flavor before your meal is brought to you. Some variations also include meat in the recipe so make sure to order the one for vegetarians.
Another thing you can do is to order the sides from any restaurant as they mostly contain sautéed vegetables, rice or noodles. However, make sure that the sides are not prepared in meat stock or fish oil to be on the safe side.
With that being said, we hope that this guide will yield helpful if you plan to travel (or live) in China as a vegan/ vegetarian. As you’ve seen above, there’s a variety of vegetarian specific food you can find in China and no matter what part of the country you’re in, you can always find fresh veggies, fruits, and nuts within your reach. So pack your bags and get going.