A Little Foodie Story … How a Vegetarian Survived China

My stomach was grumbling after hours spent roaming the palaces and gardens China’s ancient Forbidden City. Hungry, we nearly missed the hole in the wall dumpling shop because of the steam fogging up the glass, almost obscuring the overflowing diners wedged around the shop’s tiny tables. It was a standing-room only establishment and my friends and I took a closer look before opting for a tried and true restaurant-picking method – find the locals and eat there.

Smiling dumpling vendor at a tiny shop in Beijing, China.Wooden dumpling containers they use to steam the delicious Chinese dumplings! Steaming vegetable dumplings on the streets of Beijing, China.

It didn’t take long for them to eagerly clear us a spot at the red pock-marked and laminated table tops. They ushered us onto three low stools and within 30 seconds we were staring down at our first round of piping hot dumplings nestled inside a wooden steaming tray.

A mere five vegetable dumplings between the three of us didn’t last long, so we ordered up round two – one with meaty surprises for my friends and a vegetable set dumpling for me.

Steaming, piping hot dumplings fresh from a street food vendor in Beijing, China.

Steaming, piping hot dumplings fresh from a street food vendor in Beijing, China.

As we shoved these moist mounds of joy into our mouths, I couldn’t help but think, “Where have these fat round dumplings been all of my life? How have I not had this concoction of vegetable greens, onions, and seasoning exploding over my taste buds until this very moment?”

That was a good day. My best foodie day in China, actually. Sadly, it didn’t go altogether too well from there.

There’s only one other country in the world where I was as hungry and frustrated as China, and that was Bosnia back in 2009 when I lived off of spinach and cheese bureks and my twice-daily shiny green apple from the supermarket.

China was a whole different story though, and it pushed my vegetarian principles to the limit. I consider myself a flexitarian – I actively try to stay meat-free all over the world, but I won’t make a scene in any situation, nor will I starve for the cause.

The best foodie days were spent in China’s capital, Beijing, my first stop in China. Perhaps it’s because of the recent Olympic Games, but Beijing lulled me into complacency. The street food vendors nodded in understanding as I stammered out wo chir sù, the equivalent to “I am vegetarian”, before every meal.

The food court eats at the Yuyuan Garden in Shanghai, China

The food court eats at the Yuyuan Garden in Shanghai, China

And they served me vegetarian delights like those drool-worthy dumplings.

Or sometimes a vat of egg dumpling soup. Confusingly creamy considering there are no dairy products involved, this soup has bits and pieces of chewy dumplings alongside chunks of cooked egg. Or there’s the egg and tomato soup in a light broth with tasty chucks of veggies boiled into the soup for good measure.

Delicious dumpling and egg soup.Yummy egg drop soup in China.

Chinese fried rice was a pleasant surprise because it’s far fluffier than the Thai fried rice I eat on a daily basis. Our steaming pile of rice always emerged from the kitchen moist and light…we ordered it at every meal (and only once did the vegetarian rice come out with chunks of shrimp cooked into the mix).

Fluffy and moist Chinese fried rice in Beijing, China.

Fluffy and moist Chinese fried rice in Beijing, China.

Once we moved onto Yangshuo though, and the smaller cities, my stammered vegetarian proclamation only yielded blinks and confused stares.

Out came the iPhone and my free World Nomads Mandarin app with the Chinese characters written on the screen. A brief light of understanding as they repeated the phrase, often nodded, and then came out with my “vegetarian” eats.

This exceedingly sweet and helpful woman even assured me, in English, that my dumpling soup was “yes, yes, vegetables.”

Sweet dumpling vendor in  Zhujiajiao, China.Pork-a-licious

Until I bit in, chewed…wait a minute, I know this is China, but what is that unfamiliar flavor? A new spice? Upon closer study of the dumpling already making steady progress toward my stomach I fought a wince as I noticed a minced brown substance mixed in with the greens.

I raised my eyes to my best friend sitting across from me – she confirmed, “Yeah, pretty sure there’s pork in this.”

In true a comedic style more fitting to a sitcom than my life, the cook popped up over my shoulder, shot me the warmest, friendliest, and most sincere smile when she enunciated clearly in a sunshiny voice:

“Oh yes! It has vegetables. And pork!”

So I smiled right back at the cook, picked up my spoon, and enjoyed the noodles and broth, gently picking around the porky bits.

Oh China, how you tried me time and time again.

The China Facts, What Vegetarians Need to Know

  • Drill your the pronunciation of “I eat only vegetables” before you land in China. Many Chinese really and truly won’t understand you if you get the tones wrong. This video shows how to say “I am vegetarian” and is amazingly detailed and repetitive so that you can practice!
  • Get a handy app that does the hard work for you! I wish I had the Vegetarian in China app when I traveled the country; it’s thorough, lists restaurants and also has phrases listed with really large lettering of the Chinese characters so you can actually show your screen to food vendors and clearly communicate your needs. The app creator reached out after I left and wrote this post and I was sad I hadn’t found the app sooner. It’s will surely be my companion on my next trip to China.
  • Write it down in Chinese characters. If you don’t get a smartphone app, then write it down. Even with perfect pronunciation, sometimes there’s a disconnect and it’s far easier to show them the Chinese characters. Write down the phrase “I am vegetarian” but that’s just the start. You also need “I do not eat meat, fish, chicken or pork” on there too. Some people will no fully understand the concept “vegetarianism.” This should get you started at a restaurant: 我吃素
  • You could consider using the term for “Jain vegetarianism in Mandarin – but this is a way stricter religious diet and may just make it all the more confusing.
  • Check out the Veggie Bus for a list of Chinese vegetarian dishes, and Happy Cow is a world-wide standby for a list of vegetarian restaurants in the cities you’re visiting.
  • Bring granola bars, buy nuts and fruit at the market, and keep a stock of snacks on hand so you can keep your calm as you find veggie eats!

Concluding Thoughts for China-Bound Vegetarians

Be flexible. If you’re vegan, sincerely I say “good luck,” your best bet will be heading to the markets for carrots and other easy vegetable snacks. Vegetarians, keep an open mind, be prepared, stay calm, pay for your food even if it comes out wrong, and consider patiently ordering again.

And remember, a smile always, always goes a long way in frustrating situations. :)

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46 Responses to A Little Foodie Story … How a Vegetarian Survived China

  1. Jade July 16, 2011 at 3:35 am #

    Good for you for being strict! I used to be a much stricter vegetarian….then I became a flexitarian…. and now…well…. Im trying to be better!

    • Anonymous July 16, 2011 at 3:49 am #

      I say go with the flow! No judgment over here…if you a bit lapsed! I tend
      to be a bit more flexible if I know there are no other alternatives or it’d
      just be rude! :-)

  2. johnkelly May 27, 2011 at 1:39 pm #

    great post ShannonOD ! thanks i did enjoy in studying your post. 

  3. Jack and Jill May 17, 2011 at 3:19 am #

     Kudos for strict vegetarians in challenging countries such as China and Central Asia where language barrier prevents you from asking exactly what you need. We once met a raw food, vegan on the road – and listening to her quest to find things to eat while she was traveling was just… wow.

    • Anonymous May 17, 2011 at 6:26 am #

      Agreed! And although I love a good adventure and the hunt for something
      specific (adds a fun element to each travel day) I think there comes a point
      at which you loose some of the experience if you’re too strict! :) Raw
      food vegan would be pretty intense!

  4. Pik May 15, 2011 at 7:50 pm #

    just to prove that *at planetarian level* vegetarianism is either cultural of the place where you live or is a luxe for privileged, no doubt about this on my side.   However nice article.

    • Anonymous May 16, 2011 at 4:29 am #

      You’re very right, vegetarianism is quite cultural – and yes, viewed as
      a privilege in many of the places I’ve visited, which is why consistently
      point that out in my posts. Respect and under understanding toward all
      different cultures and life choices goes a long way – I respect the meat
      eating cultures and strive to help others understand that, *at a planetary*
      vegetarian makes sense for some people :)

  5. Robert McKay May 14, 2011 at 10:03 pm #

    I’ve read quite a few conflicting opinions about being vegetarian or
    vegan in China. I guess that just means tons of research before I go
    there. I’m not that scared, but I do know I’ll be bringing a vegan
    passport with me to make sure I’m understood.

  6. Robert McKay May 14, 2011 at 10:02 pm #

    I’ve read quite a few conflicting opinions about being vegetarian or vegan in China. I guess that just means tons of research before I go there. I’m not that scared, but I do know I’ll be bringing a vegan passport with me to make sure I’m understood.

    • Anonymous May 15, 2011 at 7:55 am #

       I think that it’s tough if you just go without any research, but if you’re prepared it should be much easier to communicate what you need. I found being understood really hard all over China, but having the characters written down, and some popular dishes, and you should be good to go :)  Good luck!

      • Anonymous May 16, 2011 at 1:53 pm #

        Thanks! It’s probably going to be a while. We’re sticking around the US for at least a year after our travels start at the end of this month.

  7. Vi @ Travel Tips May 14, 2011 at 4:59 pm #

    Vegetarian soup with pork? Nice :D

  8. Unbravegirl May 13, 2011 at 4:25 pm #

    Hey Shannon,
    Sorry I missed you while you were in China! But glad to hear you were got some good food (even if there wasn’t much out there. Those dumplings look amazing, by the way! I must try them). A few of my coworkers are vegetarian & they get by pretty well around here even though we’re not in the most cosmopolitan area. Most of the family-style restaurants have lots of different vegetable options on the menu. Another option I would suggest for vegetarians in China is to try Jian Bing — a crepe sandwich often eaten for breakfast but you can get it pretty much all day from various shops & street stalls. It’s filling & delicious & you can get it without meat.

    • Anonymous May 15, 2011 at 7:54 am #

       It would have been great to cross paths, but alas, it will happen again no doubt, the world is an awfully small place :)  Thanks for weighing in on some veggie tips! Now I have a reason to come back to China though, to try out these veggie recs! 

  9. Rebecca May 12, 2011 at 11:44 am #

    Not a vego, but drooling now!

    • Anonymous May 15, 2011 at 7:49 am #

       Mission accomplished then Rebecca! Drool-worthy is the goal :)

  10. Naomi May 11, 2011 at 1:55 pm #

    I feel you on this one. Being vegetarian in Korea isn’t as difficult as in China (or so I imagine), but it’s still pretty hilarious – ham is practically considered a vegetable and is always there lurking in something you were told had no meat in it. But, as always, a smile goes a long way :) To this date, Taiwan has been one of the most veggie friendly countries I’ve ever been in!!

    • Anonymous May 15, 2011 at 7:37 am #

       Hah! Yikes, and ham is a tough one to handle as a vegetarian…I find myself lax it it’s chicken or fish (I’ll pick it out) but lurking ham would make me said :)  Noted about Taiwan, I was only there for a layover, but veggie-friendly countries def rank higher on my list!

  11. Jason May 11, 2011 at 6:44 am #

    Made me super hungry just reading this, and the photo’s made it even worse. I loved the food in China, and it is certainly a country I wouldn’t go hungry in. No doubt being a vegetarian can be a little frustrating at times, and getting served up the wrong food at times is common as a traveler.

    I remember a day in Iran when I ordered a Coke with no ice. It was takin a while to come out, so I asked the lady where my order was. About a minute later she came out with a plate of ‘Chicken and Rice’…..lol….

    • Anonymous May 15, 2011 at 7:32 am #

       Mission accomplished Jason! :) My job is not well done unless you leave the blog hungry. As for your “Coke and rice” story – that is hilarious! And at that moment it’s like, “well, what can you do besides eat?!” :)

  12. Hogga May 10, 2011 at 8:17 pm #

    I LOVED the food in China. Those pics are making my mouth water…

    • Anonymous May 15, 2011 at 7:19 am #

      It was delicious! And Chinese food is so varied – when it was vege food I definitely chowed down enthusiastically too  :)

  13. Colehaber.com May 9, 2011 at 7:07 pm #

    As a vegetarian this was not just informative, but made me SO hungry. What did you find the easiest countries to be vegetarian in?

    • Anonymous May 15, 2011 at 7:20 am #

      India is, by far, the easiest country for vegetarians because most of the country is also vegetarian and nearly all of the traditional dishes are inherently vegetarian. In the north of India you will encounter mutton and sometimes chicken, but veggies eat extremely well in India!  :) 

  14. Claire May 9, 2011 at 1:52 pm #

    I really need to stop reading these types of posts with all of its amazing pictures of food in the middle of the morning when I still have to teach 3 more class periods before I can eat!

    • Anonymous May 15, 2011 at 7:21 am #

       Yikes! Hope you made it through your last few classes before lunch; but then again, if you’re hungry…mission accomplished! ;-)

  15. Bluegreen Kirk May 9, 2011 at 1:31 pm #

    Nice post though I am not a vegetarian it gives me perspective on all the other thing that are available to eat. I really had a great experience finding new foods to enjoy during lent and will try some of the dishes you mentioned.

    • Anonymous May 15, 2011 at 7:22 am #

       Glad you enjoyed the foodie photos Kirk :) I find that Lent is a great time for converting meat-eating friends to my side…even if only occasionally! Once you give up meat you find a whole realm of other delicious protein sources :)

  16. Kptrease May 9, 2011 at 12:32 am #

    Add shrimp (

    xiā –

    虾) to the list of things to say you don’t eat. Even after rattling them off “wo bu yao rou, bu yao niurou, bu yao jurou, etc…” it wasn’t that uncommon to wind up with something thrown in, even in Beijing.

    Stick to the buddhist restaurants when you care, find a friendly speaker who understand what you’re looking for (and treat them to dinner!) and learn to just look the other way, in case that doesn’t work. We missed out on a lot, by not being able to eat everything, but my coworkers tried hard to order at least a few things each meal that I could eat (I put it to them as “more meat for you!”).

    • Anonymous May 15, 2011 at 7:25 am #

      Thanks for weighing in and giving suggestions – it was definitely tricky and I wish I had known before hand to look for the Buddhist restaurants! And as you said, sometimes just looking the other way (ie picking it out or working around it) is easiest for all involved :) restaurants! And as you said, sometimes just looking the other way (ie picking it out or working around it) is easiest for all involved :)

  17. Matt Gibson May 8, 2011 at 6:32 pm #

    I’m very surprised to hear this. I lived in Taiwan and ate vegetarian almost every day. Both China and Taiwan are very vegetarian-friendly because Buddhists are all vegetarian. If you eat in Buddhist restaurants, which are as popular in Taiwan and China as Buddhism itself, you cannot even order meat if you try. You should be able to find these restaurants in even the smallest communities.

    It would be useful to learn the Chinese characters for this (I don’t know them off hand). Or simply look for the restaurants that display a backwards swastika (a symbol for Buddhism).

    • Brett Domue May 10, 2011 at 10:55 pm #

      Thanks! This is not something I was aware of (and I’ve lived here now for two years!) Luckily, our apartment has a very nice kitchen, so when we have guests with limited palates, we do a lot of cooking at home. But still need to throw in some night markets.

      • Anonymous May 15, 2011 at 7:29 am #

        Lucky you for having a kitchen! Here in Thailand none of the expat apartments come kitted with kitchens so it’s always “street-food o’clock” ;-)

    • Anonymous May 15, 2011 at 7:28 am #

      Thanks for the tips Matt; I am just learning that the Buddhist restaurants would have been a good solution – the again, if you’re visiting China and not familiar with how to read characters it’s still pretty tricky! Familiarity with a place no doubt helps too – as soon as I found a good restaurant, it was time to move on!

      Next time I will remember to look for the backwards swastika though – that will come in handy! Cheers and thanks for your suggestions!

  18. Nicole & Gary W. May 8, 2011 at 6:27 pm #

    Thank you so much for this post! We plan to visit China in the future, and I’ve been concerned about how to deal with my vegetarianism – lots of great advice, much appreciated!

    • Anonymous May 15, 2011 at 7:18 am #

      You’re welcome Nicole! It’s not easy to be vege in China, but it’s definitely doable if you go prepared :) Enjoy once you go, it’s an amazing country! 

  19. Steph May 8, 2011 at 12:42 pm #

    Chinese food is freaking amazing but I often find myself wondering how vegetarians might manage. (75% of the time I honestly have no clue what I’m eating around here. I agree serious vegans would be pretty screwed.

    • Anonymous May 15, 2011 at 3:42 am #

       Glad you agree – you spent a bit longer than than I – it was touch and go most days, but I agree – when it was good, it was *fantastic!*  :)

  20. Brett Domue May 8, 2011 at 2:53 pm #

    This has been a problem here in Taiwan as well. A lot of vegetarian dishes we have ordered have come with pork and/or shrimp. My mother is allergic to seafood and we’re really nervous of eating out when she comes to visit…

    • Anonymous May 15, 2011 at 7:31 am #

       I recommend maybe getting a card that has it written on it…I know you can print these out for peanut allergies, and it has it written in a dozen languages. A friend of mine travels with a peanut allergy card and uses it every single time and has had no issues. Just a thought! Hope it helps :)

  21. Audrey Scott May 8, 2011 at 2:48 pm #

    When we first arrived in China from Central Asia, we were so excited because there was something other than mutton on the menu. Although we are not vegetarian, we developed a food matra: “Mystery vegetables are better than mystery meat.” So, we would point to “I am vegetarian” in our book and have restaurants bring us some random dishes. For the most part, we did pretty well with that and ate a lot of tofu. But, as the concept of vegetarianism is not understood, we often received some mystery meat with our meals as well.

    • Anonymous May 15, 2011 at 7:58 am #

      I have used your mantra myself now (with verbal credit of course ;) and it is so true, my meat-eater friends with me in China were very open to eating my veggie dishes when things got dicey and we weren’t sure what was being served  :)  Thanks for weighing in Audrey! 

  22. adriana May 8, 2011 at 1:43 pm #

    Thanks for the blog.
    I am not vegan or vegetarian, but I try to avoid meat all the time and reduce the quantities of fish. But I am also no very strict and sometimes my mum forces me to eat a little bit of animal food. However, the meat we eat is always from my grandma’s animals and so that I am sure animals have not been treated badly or fed with bad things. Anyway, when I was in china it was hard…. but I remember my favorite vegetarian dishes: jiucai jiaozi (dumplings filled with some kind of green onions and eggs), spicy broccoli, the spicy green beans, mantou skewers, and the disanxian, that dish made of sautee eggplant, carrot and green peppers. Delicious. I miss that so much.

    • Anonymous May 15, 2011 at 7:15 am #

       Thanks for weighing in Adriana! I didn’t have much time in China and didn’t write down the names of many dishes, so I appreciate you adding those in the discussions here so vegetarians have options in China!  :)

  23. Peter Heck May 8, 2011 at 1:17 pm #

    A challenge for sure. I had a laugh about the lady who said “yes yes vegetables” and then afterward “and pork..” I can see her having a little snicker on her face. You list some great tips for vegetarians when going to China, thanks!

    • Anonymous May 15, 2011 at 7:13 am #

      Thanks Peter! I could only laugh about that woman as well – vegetarianism isn’t much understood, so it wasn’t malicious and better to grin and move on then cause a fuss is my motto! :)  

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