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A Vegetarians guide to China

| Words by Zoe Crane |

Finding Vegetarian food in china can be hard, but well worth the effort

As a vegetarian, the hardest place I’ve travelled is probably Brazil, where I lived on nothing but cheese sandwiches for almost a month. Second to that was Shanghai on my last holiday in China. It’s not that there aren’t great vegetarian options; it’s just that they are hard to find, and to recognise. For fear of accidently ordering some delicacy that consisted of unspeakable animal parts, I spent my first week in Shanghai eating at Starbucks every day. How was I missing out!

Banquet in ChongqingBanquet in Chongqing

Why is it so hard?

If I order a tofu curry in Australia, it will be a vegetarian dish. In China it is just as likely to contain meat, or meat stock. Vegetarians in China are an endangered species but this is not unique to China. Once when dining at a fine Italian restaurant in Sydney I asked if they could recommend something vegetarian to which the waiter responded “do you eat ham?” Oh dear.

Say what?

In China, you can say: "Wo chi sù" which literally translates to "I eat vegetarian", or better still have someone write it down for you. This generally means Buddhist vegetarian, which means you also won't get any garlic or onions so the food can sometimes be a bit bland. You can try "I don't eat meat or seafood" which is “Wo bù chi ròu huò hai xian”, but you may still get oyster or fish sauce. Buddhist vegetarian dishes often contain imitation meats made from soya, or gluten, and are often described as the real thing, for example the menu might offer Beef Noodles, but it is actually imitation beef.

In Shanghai, I was eventually taken to a fabulous restaurant by a local who ordered for me, and had some of the best vegetarian Chinese food I’ve ever tried. It’s all about who you know.

Vegetarian Food tours in Shanghai

If you don’t know a local in Shanghai, you can just hire one on a Shanghai city tour. These are small and personal and your guide will take you to some of their favourite spots, choosing the yummiest vegetarian cuisine around.

Trust the temples

Another safe option is to eat at the Buddhist Temples, some of which run a small restaurant serving all vegetarian cuisine. The quality can vary but it’s a great option if you are out and about, and are not sure what food you can count on not to contain meat.

vegetarian steamed dumplingsvegetarian steamed dumplings

Being Buddhist

As many Buddhists are vegetarian, those places with Tibetan, and therefore Buddhist influences can have more options for vegetarians. While in many countries the major cities are your best bet, some of China’s most stunning regional centres have great vegetarian food, like Cheng Du and Yunnan province.

Eat this

For fans of spinach, a great veggie dish to try is morning glory (kong xin cai). Don’t let it’s moniker of “Swamp Cabbage” put you off, better known as Water Spinach this simple dish is tasty quickly stir fried with a bit of garlic. Another delicious vegetarian dish is fried egg & tomato (xi hong shi chao dan). Really more like scrambled eggs this is surprisingly delicious. My personal favourite is spicy tofu (ma la do fu) from the sizzling Sichuan region. This dish is sometimes served mixed with minced meat, so just be sure to order it without.

Garlic chives (jiu cai) are a great filling used in steam buns (bao zi) which are usually vegetarian. Red bean paste (dou sha) is another good vegetarian bun option, but it's sweetened, not savoury as you might expect beans to be. Buns will set you back about 30 cents each.

morning glorymorning glory

On the streets

Spring onion pancakes (Cong You Bing) are a delicious vegetarian street food for around 30 cents each. They are more like an Indian paratha or Malaysian Roti Canai than a pancake as we know it. Sometimes they're sold alongside 'You Tiao' (deep fried breadsticks) which you can wrap the pancake around, best with a chilli sauce spread.

Soy milk (dou nai) is a very common drink in China both hot and cold and great way for vegetarians to top up their protein. It's often sold alongside the spring onion pancakes and they go really well together. Sweet tofu (dou hua) is another street snack - the tofu is served in a sweet ginger soup - either hot or cold, sometimes with toppings added such as red beans, lotus seeds or peanuts for about 50 cents.

spring onion pancakesspring onion pancakes

Eat here

Obviously the best way to be sure your meal is meat free is to eat at a dedicated vegetarian restaurant. In general, the staff will speak very little English, even in the big cities. Menus do tend to have some English on them though. I’ve used Happy Cow  to find some of the best vegetarian restaurants when travelling in China, and in fact anywhere in the world.

Beijing

Baihe – Located in a stunning garden in Beijing, this vegetarian restaurant is a favourite of Akila from The Road Forks. Akila says “While every dish we tried was wonderful, we particularly recommend the vegetarian Peking duck, a mock meat dish that was basted in an orange sauce and cooked to a beautiful crisp.  It was served on a plate sliced to resemble traditional Peking duck.”

Caoyuan Hutong Jia 23, Bei Xiaojie, Dongzhimen Nei, Dongcheng

Pure Lotus – Run by Buddhist monks, this upscale vegetarian restaurant has two locations, each a peaceful haven in busy Beijing. Turning classic dishes into divine vegetarian versions, it can be hard to decide what to order, but the staff speak English, so ask for a suggestion. It’s pricier than most vegetarian restaurants in China, but well worth the extra cost.

Tongguang Bldg, 12 Nongzhanguan Nanlu, Chaoyang District and 3/F, Holiday Inn Lido, Jiangtai Lu, Chaoyang District

Shanghai

Vegetarian Lifestyle – Also known as Jujube Tree, this seems to be one of the most popular vegetarian restaurants in Shanghai, due it’s delicious mock-meat dishes, great prices and cleanliness. Ingredients are mostly organic in this light and tasty cuisine. Choose from three locations, all with English menus and friendly staff. As a bonus it is also a non-smoking restaurant, which can be hard to find in China. Try the sweet and sour vegetarian pork.

258 Fengxian Rd, Jing'an, and 848 Huangjin Cheng Dao, near Shuicheng Nan and 77 Songshan Rd, Luwan

Jen Dow – As a vegetarian I am used to having only a couple of things to choose from on a menu. When I go to a vegetarian restaurant it can be a little bamboozling deciding from a whole menu. Jen Dow goes even further with a buffet of hundreds of vegetarian dishes, both Western and Asian. Each is labelled in both English and Chinese and advises which dishes include dairy, eggs or alcohol. Spread over four floors, with the buffet on the third, there is also a vegetarian café if the buffet is just too much.

2787 Longhua Rd, Shanghai

Kush – Specialising in burgers, wraps and salads, this minimalist vegetarian café uses mostly organic ingredients. Try the orzo salad, the tasty spicy tofu burger or one of the excellent wraps. 98 Yanping Lu

Cheng Du

Vegetarian Lifestyle – There is a branch of Shanghai’s most popular vegetarian restaurant (see above) in Kunming.

4F, 27 Qing Long Jie Qing Yang Qu, Chengdu

Kunming

Yuquanzhai – This Kunming favourite offers a good variety of Buddhist mock-meat style dishes, with a  small noodle restaurant attached to side serving local specialties.

22 Yuantong Street, Kunming

Lijiang

Blue Page – If you want a break from the mock-meat, this lovely café serves vegetarian style western food like burgers and even apple crumble.

No. 69, Mishi Lane, Xinyi Street, Lijiang old town

Our tours of China are designed to not include most lunches and dinners so that you get an opportunity to eat in some great local restaurants. Our local guides have the low down on the best places to eat, and will recommend where you should eat and can make a reservation for you. They will also help explain you are vegetarian!