A Veggie In… China
Meat makes its way into almost every dish in China, even those that appear vegetarian. But if you try your best to get your message across, avoid certain dishes, and keep an eye out for rogue meat lurking where it shouldn’t be, you should manage to find a meal that suits you.
The sad truth is that, even when you’re being careful, meat may find its way onto your plate while in China. Vegetarianism is not common here, and even if you clarify that the meal only contains vegetarian ingredients like tofu or vegetables, you may still find that the sauce was made with meat.
Here are some tips and information to help make sure you get your veggie meal:
Navigating Chinese Menus
Even in the most touristy parts of the largest cities, menus will likely be in Chinese only. The good news is there will likely be pictures of the food. The bad news is, even if the meal looks vegetarian, it may still contain some meat. If you’re in doubt about what you’re ordering, ask if it is “sùshí shípîn” (“vegetarian food”), or say “wo bù chi ròu“(“I don’t eat meat”). However, Chinese pronunciation can be tricky, and I often found these phrases to be met with a blank stare. It may be better to get someone who speaks Chinese to write down these phrases for you to show at restaurants (hostel staff usually speak English and will be happy to help you out with this).
If you have a smartphone, the app Waygo can be invaluable. It scans Chinese symbols and translates them to English almost instantly (though it can’t be used on stylised script or hndwriting). Or, you can do as I did in some humorous exchanges, and point to a meal that looks veggie, followed by pointing to various pictures of meat and shaking my head while pulling a “yucky” face.
Some Common Vegetarian Meals
Tofu and eggplant are common staples of vegetarian meals in China. Eggplant is usually served in a soy based sauce, accompanied by potato, onion, and/or bell peppers. Tofu is often prepared in a spicy sauce, though be warned, on more than one occasion I ordered tofu that came with a few sneaky bits of meat underneath (seriously, not even tofu, well known as “that thing vegetarians eat” isn’t safe from a meat invasion in China).
Vegetables and rice is also a common dish, as are vegetables and noodles. The vegetables in these dishes vary, but often include squash, carrots, spinach, cabbage, peppers, onions, and tomatoes. Fried rice is sometimes available, which is fried in egg. Potatoes are often served as either a side dish or as a meal in itself. One common dish is shredded potato fried with green pepper, though this, like many dishes in China, is a bit too oily for me!
Dumplings are one of my favourite Chinese dishes, but unfortunately almost all the dumplings I could find in China contained meat! If you do come across meat free dumplings, they will likely contain egg. Beijing was the only place I went where I could find completely vegetarian restaurants, and eat my fill of a variety of dumplings!
A lot of Buddhist monasteries offer tasty and all-vegetarian food. My favourite was Wenshu Monastery, in Chengdu, which provides a daily lunch buffet. A massive range of vegetables, noodles, salads, and tofu, and all-you-can-eat for ¥30. Bargain.
City streets, as well as trails in national parks, are often lined with stalls selling street food. These can make delicious snacks, and you can see exactly what you’re getting. Common veggie options are corn on the cob, sweet potato, pancakes, and tofu.
I never came across a self catering hostel in China. The closest we came to cooking for ourselves was instant noodles, which are sold on trains and at almost every shop. They almost certainly contain meat stock, however, so I didn’t add the flavour packet, instead I kept soy sauce in my rucksack for these occasions.
Dairy is almost unheard of in China (God, how I missed cheese…). Eggs are commonly added to meals, usually hardboiled or fried and plonked on top, rather than mixed through. If I was ordering from a picture menu, I’d point to the egg and shake my head to indicate not to include it, or I’d just give it to Adam (he has his uses sometimes).
Got any more veggie tips for travel in China? Be sure to share them in the comments!