Vegan/Veggie Dining in China, by Joel
As you might have guessed, local cuisine in China is not the friendliest to those on a plant-based diet. Beef, poultry, pork and seafood are seemingly everywhere and in everything, and often constitute the base for broths and even the oils used in preparing many vegetable dishes. While expressing a preference for vegetarian (much less vegan) food will certainly raise eyebrows and invite a few laughs, sticking to one’s ethical or health-conscious guns is entirely doable, if armed with the relevant information.
The major cities and some minor ones (where only five million people reside) typically boast at least a couple of vegetarian restaurants. Many offer seitan or tofu “meat” dishes, with freshly-picked mushrooms figuring prominently, especially in Beijing and in northern Chinese cuisine generally. The thick binder menus with glossy photos of each dish are instructive, but keep an eye on the prices, as they vary wildly.
It’s common practice in China for the server to hover while you make your selections. While ostensibly to help you decide, you can’t help but get the feeling they’re nudging you towards the hundred and thirty yuan ($22) truffle mushrooms. So start browsing from the back, where you’ll find the cheap and filling noodle soups for under $2. Then pick a faux meat – the less exotic looking, the better – and a vegetable dish, and you’ve got a reasonably affordable gourmet meal for two. Vegans take note that some restaurants will use egg as a binding agent in their faux meats, so ask if the dish you’re eying contains any “dan”.
All-you-can-eat veggie buffets are more common to western and southern China. While quality tends to correlate with price, the difference between the bitter, unidentifiable root vegetable mush at the Buddhist potluck buffet in Dali and the twenty-dish spread at the place around the corner is vast, and justifies the extra two bucks – particularly when the total comes to only three. As with any buffet, get there early when the food is at its freshest. The cheap-o buffet on the main shopping strip in Chengdu will nuke your plate in their microwave if you ask. Cleaning your plate is encouraged, if not required, at all the buffets we visited, sometimes at risk of forfeiting a modest additional deposit…waste not, want not!
In smaller cities and towns lacking a dedicated veggie restaurant, seek out the food streets where you’ll find the locals dining at hole-in-the-wall restaurants stacked side by side. Most will have assorted meat hanging out front, some advertising their freshness with live chickens, rabbits, and chinchillas in cages; turtles, eels and shrimp in buckets. A few will have veggies displayed or in a nearby fridge, which is helpful for pointing out the ones you want cooked up. You’ll also typically find tofu at these establishments.
In this less-than-optimal situation, communicating your dietary needs is essential. Despite memorizing the relevant phrases (“wo chi su” – literally, “I eat vegetables”; and “women sushi” - meaning “we are vegetarian”), few restaurants will be familiar with what that entails. We have found it more helpful to explain what we’re after using Google Translate, emphasizing what we don’t eat for clarity, and requesting the verboten ingredients be omitted in the preparation of our food. Honest proprietors will tell you straight up if they can’t or won’t cook without their usual arsenal of meat flavorings, in which case just move on to the next place and flash your special dietary request in Mandarin text on your phone. Within two or three tries, you’ll find someone who will be happy to have your business.
In the reconstructed old towns geared towards domestic tourists, the local food street might be nonexistent or miles away in the new town, too distant to be a realistic option. In Yunnan Province, Lijiang’s Old Town provides covered food courts with dozens of vendors arranged around a central seating area. While overpriced, you can cobble together a meal of bread, fried rice, corn on the cob and spiced tofu. That said, this setup is the only one so far where we’ve struck out, accidentally ordering bread that encased bits of yak meat filling and tofu that smelled strongly of the same. Because the stalls pump out these delicacies in volume to the carnivorous tourist hoards, they can’t trifle with made to order. The same goes for street side stands that offer veggie kabobs, served smothered in the same fishy, meaty sauce as the octopus sizzling next to it. If you’re out of options, your best bet is to seek out a stand selling just corn, spiced tofu, bread, baked yams, or other veggie fare as their only offering.
But before leaving your hotel room, take a look on HappyCow.net, a website that catalogs user reviews of vegan, veggie and veg-friendly restaurants all over the world. Their $3 app is worth the investment, as we use it practically every day to find what, if any, restaurants in town cater to our needs. The “distance from current location” and mapping features are handy, but the pin is often dropped in the wrong place, so be sure to cross-reference the address in a different app. It also doesn't hurt to have your hotel or hostel to call ahead to get an exact location and confirm they’re open.
So rejoice intrepid vegan/vegetarian travelers, for China is more accommodating to your diet than you might have thought! You just need to know where to look and how to ask. For tips on self-catering meals on the go, take a peek at our Travel Hacks list.
words by Joel
photos by Amy & Joel