We’ve put together a guide to help you navigate China as a vegetarian and enable you to try as much as possible of the diverse cuisine, armed with key phrases and a list of delicious dishes to sample.
As China gains a greater understanding of varied dietary requirements, many of the restaurants and café’s cater to contemporary pallets while being sensitive to the needs of individuals. However, it’s still very important to be absolutely clear about your wishes when ordering. There is not yet a universally accepted definition of what it is to be ‘vegetarian in China’.
Spicy Sichuan Tofu by rovyyy via Pixabay
Visiting China as a vegetarian can be difficult but it’s certainly not impossible. Many cultures in China also practice strict dietary requirements and an estimated 50 million vegetarians live in the Middle Kingdom today. Most Buddhists don’t eat meat so dining at a temple is a surefire way to find a vegetarian meal.
With an ever-diversifying population, the number of vegetarians in the Middle Kingdom keeps on growing and equally so do the number of vegetarian and vegan eateries. China’s larger cities have their finger on the pulse with dining options aplenty and the countryside cuisines are often centered on freshly grown local ingredients.
Although we don’t expect you to learn Chinese before your trip, there are a few key phrases that will make it that much easier to make sure your dietary restrictions are met:
Eat vegetables / vegetarian
吃素 – chī sù
I am a vegetarian
我是素食者 – wǒ shì sù shí zhě
I don’t eat meat
我不吃肉 – wǒ bù chī ròu
This dish with no meat
这道菜不要放肉 = zhè dào cài bù yào fàng ròu
Cold Seaweed Dish by Silentpilot via Pixabay
In the west we often think of tofu as a meat replacement, a tasteless block added to substitute texture rather than flavor. In China, tofu couldn’t be more distinct from this perspective.
First, there are so many types to try; fried, steamed, fish flavored, dense, light, silky, sponge-like, skin and even stinky. The list goes on and each style has it’s own unique flavor, texture and associated dishes.
The Sichuan favorite mapo tofu uses light and silky tofu and can be found in many local restaurants. The rich spicy sauce is often made with ground meat though, so when ordering it is important to check.
Spicy Tofu Pudding by LWYang via Flickr
麻婆豆腐 – má pó dòu fu
Shredded Tofu Salad
豆腐丝 – dòu fu sī
Stinky Tofu (not for the faint-hearted)
臭豆腐 – chòu dòu fu
China is also full of fresh new flavors from bitter melon to mangosteen.
Simply taking a stroll through a local fruit and vegetable market will open your eyes to the multitude of tastes. Follow it up with a flick through a menu (most local restaurants will have photos of their dishes) and you’re sure to recognize some delectable delicacies.
Bitter Melon by Simon Law via Flickr
Eggplant, Potato and Sweet pepper
地三鲜 – dì sān xiān
Cabbage fried with Chilli
手撕圆白菜 – shǒu sī yuán bái cài
Crushed Cucumber with Garlic
拍黄瓜- pāi huáng guā
Lotus Root by Edsel Little via Flickr
A wide array of classic Chinese dishes can be modified to be completely vegetarian. Staple foods range across the nation but tend to alternate between hearty and filling noodles in the colder Northern parts and light and versatile rice in the South.
Despite these widely used staples, Chinese cuisine is incredibly varied, all the while rarely resembling what we call ‘Chinese food’ in the West. Nonetheless, there are some national favorites that regardless of your location you can be sure to find in local restaurants.
Vegetable Fried Rice via Max Pixel
Jiaozi dumplings can be found all over China and are often made and consumed in great quantity during national holidays. Many places will have their specialty fillings but all will have vegetarian options. The dumpling skin is crafted with just flour and water so they can also be suitable for vegans.
Dumplings by Ruocaled via Flickr
Egg & zucchini dumplings
西葫芦鸡蛋饺子 – xī hú lu jī dàn jiǎo zi
Egg and Tomato Noodles
西红柿鸡蛋面 – xī hóng shì jī dàn miàn
Vegetable Fried Rice
素炒饭 – sù chǎo fàn
From new flavors to contemporary classics, China has a lot to offer the vegetarian. In some ways, the basic Chinese dishes of stir-fried vegetables and a side of rice are even more suited to vegetarians than most Western staples. There is no need to worry about visiting China as a vegetarian. Armed with this information you’re sure to come out with a belly full of delicious food that also fits in with your diet.
Travel with WildChina and we’ll take all the pressure off you to find a vegetarian option for all your meals. We can cater to any dietary requirements and call restaurants ahead of time to check the ingredients they are using. Our guides can order for you if you’re not confident speaking Chinese and they can also recommend the best vegetarian restaurants in each destination. You won’t even have to break a sweat (unless you’re eating spicy tofu!).
Interested in exploring the culinary heart of China and learn the secrets behind dishes such as mapo tofu? Join us on our Gastronomic Tour of China with Fuchsia Dunlop.