My stomach was growling 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 overflow of 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 where locals eat and eat there. Even as a vegetarian traveling in China, I had hoped that I could eat like the locals so long as I had the write way to communicate my dietary restrictions.
My Best Vegetarian Day in China
It didn’t take long for the eager owners to clear tiny a spot at the pockmarked laminate tabletop. They ushered us onto three low stools, wedged into the corner among other smiling locals, 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 round two—one with meaty surprises for my friends and another set of vegetable dumplings 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?”
Challenges for Vegetarians in China
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 trying to eat vegetarian in 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 am a flexitarian—I actively try to stay meat-free all over the world, but I won’t make a scene that dishonors the local culture, nor will I starve for the cause. I’ve been vegetarian since the early 90s, so it’s something I believe in for many reasons. But I am also a traveler and I seek stories and understanding of other cultures, and I always lead my travels with curiosity and respect. Respect, as a guiding travel principle, is why I mention my flexitarian standing—I do not want to eat animals, but I also recognize that I am priveledged to make that choice. Never was this guiding travel put more to the test than in China.
I had my best foodie days in China’s capital, Beijing, my first stop in China. I suspect that having hosted the Olympic Games made Beijing much more sensitive to international dietary considerations, but no matter the reason, it lulled me into complacency. Street food vendors in Beijing nodded in understanding as I stammered out wo chir sù, the equivalent to “I am vegetarian”, before every meal.
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 (and nothing like American fried rice). 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 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.
This is VERY common in China. Locals don’t even consider small bits of meat as, well, meat. It’s flavoring—these small bits of meat act more like a spice. This is why vegetarians really need to have their wits about them when traveling in China.
What Vegetarians Need to Know
Drill Your Vegetarian Phrases
Drill your the pronunciation of “I eat only vegetables” before you land in China. Many Chinese truly won’t understand you if you get the tones wrong. If you’ve never learned a tonal language before, it will take solid practice before you can reliably produce the same phrase over and over. This video shows how to say “I am vegetarian” and is amazingly detailed and repetitive so that you can practice!
Write Down Key Vegetarian Phrases in Chinese Characters
Even if you download a smartphone app, write down all of the key phrases. 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 not fully understand the concept of “vegetarianism.” This should get you started at a restaurant: 我吃素
But if you’re staying at a nice accommodation, charm the locals into creating what I call a vegetarian food map. It’s a list of phrases in one column and their english translations in the other. Then you add in vegetables and common dishes to the list and you can point and create sentences such as—”do you offer” + “vegetable dumplings”, or “does this dish contain” + “meat/fish/pork/chicken.” Know that in many places around the world, chicken and fish are considered vegetarian by locals, so you’ll need to clarify soup bases, dumpling ingredients, and more.
Order Reliably Vegetarian Dishes
- Spicy Sichuan Bean Curd: 麻辣豆腐
- Stir-fried eggplant, sweet peppers, and potato: 地三鲜
- Braised bok choy and mushrooms: 香菇青菜
- Fried shredded green pepper and potato: 青椒土豆丝
- Fried broccoli: 白灼西兰花
- Fried egg and tomato: 西红柿炒蛋
- Scallion pancakes: 葱油饼
- Fried spinach with garlic: 蒜泥菠菜
Need more dish ideas to sample on your China travels? This table of vegetarian dishes is thorough and will give you a lot of new ideas of foods you can seek while you’re traveling various regions.
Download a Vegetarian Food App
There used to be a vegetarian food app for China specifically, but it’s no longer available. The next best is the Happy Cow website and app. Happy Cow is a globally crowd-sourced database of vegetarian and vegan restaurants around the world. It breaks down which restaurants are pure vegetarian, and which are veg-friendly. I’ve used this all over the world to help ease the language barriers that crop up once you’re out there exploring the world.
Find Buddhist Eateries
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. That said, I have pulled this out when I was just positive that I wasn’t getting my point across.
Pack Your Own Snacks
Markets are some of the most fun places to wander when you’re traveling. They are filled with locals, and filled with fresh fruits and vegetables. Although you need to be careful about washing fresh fruit and vegetables in disinfected water, you can buy carrots and apples and other snacks to keep hunger at bay. One of the first things I do is also buy nuts and dried fruit from the markets—enough to get me through bus rides and long sightseeing days. I also keep some emergency granola bars from home. Having your own snacks on hand will help you keep calm as you find veggie eats!
No matter where you plan to travel in China, you can eat vegetarian if you’re prepared. Arm yourself with the right knowledge before you land and be flexible. If you’re vegan: Good luck. Your best bet will be heading to the markets for those carrots and other easy vegetable snacks, and you will likely want to star a good number of vegan-friendly places recommended by happy cow. Vegetarians can wing it a bit more, using Happy Cow for planned meals but using the phrases and tips to follow your whims, sidle up to the table with locals at a hole-in-wall dumpling shop, and enjoy Chinese culture and food.
And remember to keep an open mind, be prepared, stay calm, pay for your food even if it comes out wrong, and consider patiently ordering again.
Lastly, a smile always, always goes a long way in frustrating situations. :)