Top News from Top Sources

The guide for being a vegetarian in China

garlic broccoli

This article was written by Victoria Hughes, who already “survived” three years in China as a vegetarian. You can find here at TEFLicious, where she mostly writes about teaching English abroad.

Keep reading to find out how to explain to waiters that pork is not a vegetable, the many vegetarians options you can find in Chinese restaurants, how to cook vegetarian food at home in China, specific info on vegan food and a list of useful sentences in Mandarin (with the related English translation).

Like the rare and elusive snow leopard, only a privileged few have seen a vegetarian in the wild in China. In three years of living there I met only one. Vegetarianism is still uncommon, which can make life difficult if you don’t eat meat.

Meat is still something of a status food in China, a country where famine is a living memory rather than ancient history. Banquet-type meals and upmarket eateries will always have more meat dishes and more meat in each dish. Cozy family restaurants and cheap hole-in-the-wall places are the best place to look for vegetarian food, but even then it will be difficult to make people understand that no, you really don’t want to eat meat.

legumes in china

Explaining to waiters that pork is not a vegetable

The word for vegetarian in Chinese is 素食 (Sù shí) or素食者 (Sù shí zhě), but not everyone will understand exactly what this means. Much simpler and clearer is to explain what you don’t eat, i.e. 我不吃肉 (Wǒ bù chī ròu) – ‘I don’t eat meat.’

This is where complications begin. In some parts of China 肉 (ròu) can also mean pork. “I don’t eat pork” is a much more familiar concept to Chinese people because of the number of Muslims in China, so they will cheerfully nod and agree that you don’t eat pork and then go and cook you a nice chicken dish. If in doubt you can be clearer by saying 我不吃牛肉 (Wǒ bù chī niú ròu) ‘I don’t eat beef,’ 我不吃猪肉 (Wǒ bù chī zhū ròu) ‘I don’t eat pork,’ or 我不吃鸡肉 (Wǒ bù chī jī ròu) ‘I don’t eat chicken.’

As in many cultures, fish isn’t considered meat in China. You’ll have to handle this one separately with 我不吃鱼 (Wǒ bù chī yú) ‘I don’t eat fish’ or 我不吃海鲜 (Wǒ bù chī hǎi xiān) ‘I don’t eat seafood.’ Listen for the waiter asking you about 鸡蛋 (jī dàn), ‘egg’. Some places may assume you don’t eat eggs or dairy either, so if you want egg then be sure to mention 我吃鸡蛋 (Wǒ chī jī dàn), ‘I eat egg.’

After all this, you may still not get exactly what you want. Meat is so central to eating in China that it’s common for even a vegetable dish to have a sprinkling of pork on top for flavour or a few shrimp thrown into steamed vegetables. If you see a vegetable version of a dish, like vegetable dumplings, that usually means that the main ingredient is vegetables rather than that it’s completely vegetarian.

And I’ve been informed by waitresses – when my vegetable fried rice came out with bits of ham in it – that ham is not meat.

While Chinese people are generally friendly and eager to help, they want to give you something delicious and they don’t really believe that it can be tasty without at least a little bit of meat.

In the same vein, if you can’t eat food cooked in animal fat or prepared in the same area as meat, don’t go to China. This one is unfortunately impossible to overcome, as the vast majority of things are cooked in animal fat – the Chinese don’t believe in wasting anything. Even cakes in China are sometimes made with lard. One possible way to ensure there’s absolutely no meat is to say 我不能吃肉。 我有过敏。(Wǒ bù néng chī ròu. Wǒ yǒu guò mǐn.) ‘I can’t eat meat. I have an allergy.’

Even then I wouldn’t bet on what you get not having meat in it, and in addition you’ve probably given the kitchen staff a lot of hassle and annoyance and they won’t want you back. If you really can’t eat any animal products then cooking at home is your safest bet.

If you’re not certain of your pronunciation and tones (and I’m still not, even after three years!) the best thing to do is to print off the phrases at the bottom of the page and show them to your waiter or waitress when you order.

restaurant at night

Vegetarian options in restaurants

Having thoroughly depressed you and made you resolve never to set foot in China, let’s look at some upsides. Since eating is almost always a communal thing in China, everything is dumped in the middle of the table and then everyone helps themselves. This actually makes it easier for vegetarians because instead of hoping for a vegetarian option specifically designed for you, you can just not eat the dishes that have meat in them.

Another upside is that restaurants in China quite often have picture menus – no need to try to decipher Chinese characters! Instead all you have to do is work out what the picture is supposed to be.

Some of the most common dishes:

Tomato Scrambled Eggs – 番茄炒鸡蛋 – fānqié chǎo jīdàn

Even if you don’t see this one on the menu you can still ask for it. It’s so simple that it’s one of the first things that anyone learns how to cook, and it’s almost certain that the chef will have tomatoes and eggs in the kitchen.

Garlic Broccoli – 蒜蓉西兰花 – suàn róng xī lánhuā

This dish has a savoury, slightly sour taste and is perfect if you love garlic like I do.

Dry Fried Green Beans – 干煸四季豆 – gān biān sì jì dòu

This is a spicy dish from Sichuan province made with green beans, red chillies and the super hot Sichuan peppercorns.

shredded potato

Shredded Potato – 土豆丝 – tǔ dòu sī

This dish is finely shredded potato and green pepper in a slightly vinegary sauce, usually with red chillies to garnish.

Mapo Tofu – 麻婆豆腐 – má pó dòu fu

This Sichuanese tofu dish usually comes with a small amount of ground up pork, but you can ask for it to be left out. Be careful, it’s spicy!

Red Fried Eggplant – 红炒茄子 – hóng chǎo qié zi

This is a soft, tender, slightly sweet dish flavoured with soy sauce and chilli-bean paste. Again it’s common for a little ground pork to be added.

If all the fried rice dishes have meat in them then you can just ask for 米饭 (mǐ fàn), a small bowl of plain white rice, to accompany your meal. The Chinese way to eat it is to put some of the other food on top of your rice and let the sauce soak in to flavour it.

Don’t be afraid to look at what other tables are eating and see if any of it takes your fancy. No one will think you’re rude for pointing at what other people are eating and asking for it.

hot pot

Other options

Hot pot – 麻辣火锅 – (má là huǒ guō)

This is a great solution for vegetarians. Hot pot restaurants have a heated pot in the centre of the table, and you order broth to put in it. Vegetable broth and tomato broth are usually options, although it’s possible they’re flavoured with meat stock. You order raw ingredients from the menu – noodles, tofu, vegetables – and then cook them yourself at the table in the broth. This means you can be sure that what you’re eating hasn’t been cooked with meat. Hai Di Lao (海底捞火锅) is a popular chain of hot pot restaurants in China.

street food

Street-side barbecues

They are common in the warmer months, especially in the south. Like at hot pot you choose the raw ingredients, and then they’re cooked for you on the grill. Corn on the cob and skewers of different vegetables are common, as well as grilled tofu. Naturally they’re cooked on the same barbecue as the meat but not usually touching, and you can watch them cook it in front of you.

Purely vegetarian restaurants

Entirely vegetarian restaurants are actually not that hard to find in China, especially in reasonably-sized cities. Most of them, however, serve imitation meat. Tofu, soy and wheat gluten are used to imitate the texture and flavour of meat. Fake chicken, pork, ham, beef, fish, shrimp, and even lobster are all available!

Many people are impressed by how closely it resembles the real thing, and if you miss eating meat then you will probably love getting a guilt-free taste of it again (or something close to it). If you don’t like meat, though, there’s not much point in tracking one of these restaurants down.

Buddhist food

Although Buddhism, or aspects of it, are fairly common in China, most Chinese Buddhists still eat meat. Meat eating is so common in China and Tibet that even the Dalai Lama eats meat. This goes some way to showing you how poorly understood vegetarianism still is in China.

Having said that, it’s still worth visiting Buddhist temples in China. Some serve vegetarian food themselves, and some have restaurants nearby that are entirely vegetarian. The food will usually be simple and cheap (or free with voluntary donations accepted) but fresh and delicious. Try out the Chi Lin Nunnery in Hong Kong, Lingyin Temple in Hangzhou, or Xu Xiang Zhai Restaurant near the Lama Temple in Beijing.

The Buddhist diet is more restricted than the vegetarian one so you probably won’t want to eat there all the time, but it’s a rare luxury in China to eat somewhere safe without worrying about what’s in any of the dishes.

chinese market

Cooking at home

If you have a kitchen and can cook then China will present no problems whatsoever. There are markets everywhere filled with fresh food. It’s easy to buy dozens of different kinds of tofu or noodles ready to boil and eat, and rice is cheap and plentiful. Lots of good sources of protein like nuts and beans are sold dry by weight. If you buy dry beans remember to soak them overnight and boil them thoroughly, especially kidney beans which can be poisonous if not cooked properly.

Remember to wash fruit and vegetables very thoroughly before you eat them. Salad and uncooked dishes are rare in Chinese cuisine because of the hygiene issues, so it’s best to cook everything before eating it. ‘Night soil’ (human excrement) is still used in some places in China as fertilizer. If that won’t encourage you to wash your vegetables then I don’t know what will.

Food on the go

Sleeper trains are a great way to get around China, but I’ve never seen a single vegetarian meal on the dining car menu. Before you get on the train make sure that you have enough food to last the journey, which is what most Chinese people do anyway.
There are lots of little stalls in Chinese cities that sell steamed buns, flat bread, those little sesame-seed biscuits, and various other snacks. Heated carts selling roast corn and baked sweet potatoes can be found on odd street corners. Snack shops like 7/Eleven sell peanuts, dried fruit, chips and chocolate.

It’s rare for domestic flights to have a full meal service, since usually the flight is too short. This also means that there’s no opportunity for you to select ‘Vegetarian Meal’ when you book. If you’re lucky you’ll get a bag of peanuts; if you’re unlucky you’ll get a ham sandwich. As with the train, take snacks.

If you do get on the plane and forget to take food with you, don’t worry! A few months ago I didn’t take a snack on a two-hour flight and my neighbours insisted on giving me five small mandarins, a bag of wasabi peanuts, and some dried star fruit. And that was after I’d protested that I wasn’t hungry. Chinese people will not let you starve!

fresh vegetables

Vegan food

Milk and yoghurt are available in supermarkets in China, but they’re not that common. Soya milk is actually just as easy to find as UHT and far easier than fresh milk. Cheese is unheard of except in big cities or specialist import shops. So being a vegan in China presents pretty much the same challenges as being vegetarian, apart from the necessity of avoiding egg.

Wheat noodles like 捞面 (lāo miàn) and 粗面 (cū miàn) are made with flour and water and so are vegan-friendly, but 碱面 (jiǎn miàn) wheat noodles are usually made with egg and to be avoided. If in doubt rice noodles 米粉 (mí fěn) are always vegan. Most bread-type products in China don’t include egg – look out for unleavened naan-like bread or the small sesame-flavored rolls. Avoid anything which looks like it’s been glazed on top as the glaze may have egg in it.

There’s no Chinese word for vegan, so once you’ve gone through the ‘I’m a vegetarian’ stuff listed in the first section you want to say 我不吃鸡蛋 (Wǒ bù chī jī dàn) ‘I don’t eat egg’ or 我不喜欢鸡蛋 (Wǒ bù xǐ huān jī dàn) ‘I don’t like egg’.

Useful Phrases

我是素食者: I’m a vegetarian.
我不吃肉: I don’t eat meat.
我不吃牛肉,猪肉,鸡肉: I don’t eat beef, pork or chicken.
我不吃鱼: I don’t eat fish.
我吃鱼: I eat fish.
我不吃海鲜: I don’t eat seafood.
我吃海鲜: I eat seafood.
我不能吃肉, 我有过敏: I don’t eat meat, I’m allergic.
我不吃鸡蛋: I don’t eat egg.
我吃鸡蛋: I eat egg.
我不喝牛奶: I don’t drink milk.
我不吃酸奶: I don’t eat yogurt.
番茄炒鸡蛋: Tomato scrambled egg
蒜蓉西兰花: Garlic broccoli
干煸四季豆: Dry fried green beans
土豆丝: Shredded potato
麻婆豆腐: Mapo tofu
红炒茄子: Red fried eggplant
麻辣火锅: Hot pot
米饭: Rice
炒面: Noodles
面包: Bread
水果: Fruit
蔬菜: Vegetables
坚果: Nuts
不要辣的: I don’t want it spicy.
要一点辣: I want it a little spicy.

Conclusion

Eating in China can be really intimidating for anyone who is even the slightest bit picky, as everything seems so unfamiliar and unidentifiable. My first month in China I lived on fruit and Snickers bars because they were the only things I recognised. But it’s worth sticking with it – China has some amazing dishes and offers the chance to eat things you could never find at home.
Chinese culture revolves around food and you will find that Chinese people are really eager to help you find something you like.

If you strike up a conversation on a train or bus then you will almost certainly have food practically forced on you. I really don’t think you can truly understand Chinese culture without eating in it. So take a deep breath, pick up those chopsticks, and get ready to try everything.

Victoria Hughes is an English teacher whose TEFL qualification has taken her to eight countries and counting. She writes about teaching, travel and what insane thing her students did today at TEFLicious.

This article, The guide for being a vegetarian in China, first appeared on Sapore di Cina.