Last updated on January 2, 2023
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.
China is a large and diverse country with a rich culinary tradition, and it is generally possible for vegetarians to find a variety of vegetarian-friendly options while traveling there. However, there are a few challenges that vegetarians may face while visiting China. At the core, it comes down to:
- Language barriers: China has a complex written language, and many people in the country do not speak English. This can make it difficult for vegetarians to communicate their dietary needs, especially in areas where there is a language barrier.
- Limited vegetarian options: While it is generally possible to find vegetarian-friendly options in China, these options may be more limited in some areas, especially in smaller towns and villages. Vegetarians may need to be more proactive in seeking out vegetarian-friendly options, and may need to be prepared to adapt to local food customs.
- Differing cultural attitudes towards vegetarianism: In China, vegetarianism is not as common as it is in some Western countries, and some people may not be familiar with the concept. This can lead to misunderstandings or challenges in finding vegetarian-friendly options.
- Difficulty identifying vegetarian dishes: In many cases, vegetarian dishes in China are not clearly labeled as such, and it can be difficult for vegetarians to identify vegetarian-friendly options on menus or in restaurants. This can be especially challenging for vegetarians who are not familiar with the local cuisine.
My Experience as a Vegetarian in China
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 privileged 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.
Base Foods and Dishes for Your Vegetarian Food Map
- Tofu: Tofu, or bean curd, is a popular ingredient in many traditional Chinese dishes, and it is a staple of many vegetarian diets in China. Tofu is made from soybeans and is high in protein and other nutrients.
- Vegetable stir-fries: Vegetable stir-fries are a common and delicious vegetarian option in China. These dishes typically consist of a variety of vegetables stir-fried with oil, garlic, and ginger, and they can be flavored with a variety of sauces and seasonings.
- Noodles: Noodles are a staple of the Chinese diet, and there are many vegetarian noodle dishes to choose from. These dishes can be made with a variety of vegetables, tofu, and other vegetarian ingredients.
- Dumplings: Dumplings, or jiaozi, are a popular and delicious vegetarian option in China. These small, stuffed pockets of dough can be filled with a variety of vegetables, tofu, and other vegetarian ingredients, and they are often served steamed or pan-fried.
- Fried rice: Fried rice is a popular and tasty vegetarian option in China. This dish is made by stir-frying cooked rice with a variety of vegetables and other ingredients, and it can be flavored with a variety of sauces and seasonings.
Have your guesthouse write down some or all of these dishes with an explanation of how to prepare them vegetarian.
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, 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 stash emergency granola bars I carry 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. :)
Don’t forget to book travel insurance for your trip—a great policy provides coverage in case of medical emergencies, lost or stolen gear, adventure sports riders, and more. I’ve used IMG Global for more than a decade highly recommend it!
50 thoughts on “A Little Food… Vegetarian Survival Guide to China”
I am going to China next month to visit family. I stumbled upon this post while looking for food prohibited by Chinese custom. Even though the post has nothing to do with what I’m searching for, I still find it interesting. Even as a Mandarin speaking person, I find it hard to explain to small restaurants/ street vendors that I can’t eat certain meat (not too strict about it, some give me stomach cramps that’s all). Even if the dishes seem vegetarian, they may use animal oil. If you ever had red bean paste sweet deserts, they usually use lard to make the paste. There are vegetarian restaurant, but I only go if I’m eating alone. Usually bigger and more expensive restaurants understand the vegetarian concept, because they tend to serve family celebrations, and a lot of elders in the family are religious, their needs are the most important during the gathering.
I agree with the above messages talking about Taiwan, they really do have a lot of vegetarian choices. I think it has to do with their large religious population. A lot may not be Vegetarians, but they eat like one on certain days of the month.
While I thought Korean and Japanese dishes are less flavored, hence more vegetarian choices. It was really hard to find vegetarian dishes in restaurants. I ate convenient store sliced lettuce for a week before I gave in in Japan.
I tried to find the “Vegetarian in China” app and couldn’t. Can you send a link? Thanks for this article!
So sorry, it looks like that app is no longer available!
Aww!! Pics are amazing, can’t take my eyes off from them!! Thanks for such an informative blog…
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!
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! :-)
great post ShannonOD ! thanks i did enjoy in studying your post.
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.
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!
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.
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 :)
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.
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.
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!
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.
Vegetarian soup with pork? Nice :D
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.
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!
Not a vego, but drooling now!
Mission accomplished then Rebecca! Drool-worthy is the goal :)
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!!
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!
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….
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?!” :)
I LOVED the food in China. Those pics are making my mouth water…
It was delicious! And Chinese food is so varied – when it was vege food I definitely chowed down enthusiastically too :)
As a vegetarian this was not just informative, but made me SO hungry. What did you find the easiest countries to be vegetarian in?
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! :)
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!
Yikes! Hope you made it through your last few classes before lunch; but then again, if you’re hungry…mission accomplished! ;-)
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.
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 :)
Add shrimp (
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!”).
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 :)
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).
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.
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” ;-)
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!
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!
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!
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.
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!* :)
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…
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 :)
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.
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!
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.
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! :)
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!
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! :)