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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.”
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. :)