A vegetarian variation of the classic Sichuanese dish, Mapodoufu. Image courtesy of Avlxyz on Fickr.
To all vegetarians and vegans currently living in China – oh, how I admire you. At home, I abstained from meat for two years, but a few months before my arrival in Beijing I rejoined the world of omnivores.
I have friends in China that don’t have the luxury of a flexible diet, due either to health reasons or to moral convictions stronger than my own. Based on their experiences and my failures, I’ve put together some tips for vegetarians in China.
1. Talk the talk
Your first task is to drill the pronunciation for “I’m a vegetarian (我吃素wǒ chī sù).” To increase your chances of success, be specific about what you can’t eat. It takes a bit longer, but there are many cautionary tales about vegetarians being given chicken soup with the assurance, “Oh, it’s just chicken, not meat!” Try explaining, 我不吃猪肉、牛肉、鸡肉和鱼肉 (Wǒ bù chī zhūròu、niúròu、jīròu hé yúròu, I don’t eat pork, beef, chicken, or fish.)
2. Take advantage of technology
Many online restaurant directories, including the Beijinger and the Shanghaiist, allow you to search reviews for “vegetarian” or “vegan”. HappyCow.com has restaurant run-downs for several large cities in China and helps you find either vegetarian restaurants or “veg-friendly” spots with meatless options.
3. Avoid street food
Street food is cheap and ever-present in Chinese cities, but fried food is typically cooked in animal fat, and even veggies are frequently flavored with scraps of meat. Street food also doesn’t usually allow for modifications or substitutions, so you can’t request for a sauce to be made without meat, for example. You can always ask, “Does this have meat in it?” (里面有没有肉？ Lǐmiàn yǒu méiyǒu ròu?) but be prepared to clarify exactly what you can’t eat.
4. Go traditional
China has a long history of vegetarianism, and some of the most solid choices are traditional food from Buddhist and Daoist chefs. These dishes are often hearty and earthy, full of leafy vegetables, mushrooms, and tofu over grains. If you like spice, there are plenty of curries to try, while other sects prohibit strong spices like garlic and offer milder fare.
Being flexible about vegetarianism isn’t an option for everyone, but if your 麻婆豆腐 (mápó dòufu, a popular spicy tofu dish) comes out with chunks of pork, even though you requested it without meat, try to smile at your waiter and ask politely for the dish without any meat… and be willing to pay for it twice. Being vegetarian is regarded as a confusing inconvenience by many Chinese people, so try to have a sense of humor about your food and always be respectful. Patience and humility will take you far!
Image courtesy of FotoosVanRobin from Wikipedia.