5 Tips to Vegetarian Survival in China

Tuesday, September 16, 2014 | By:

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”. 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.

 5.  Relax

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.

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8 Responses to 5 Tips to Vegetarian Survival in China

  1. Marcus says:

    Also you can join our Beijing Vegetarians and Vegan Group and connect with the vibrant local veggie and vegan scene here:

  2. Olivia Bullock (艾文婷) says:

    Thanks so much, Marcus! What an awesome resource.

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  4. Keoni Everington (华武杰) says:

    It’s a shame that vegetarianism is such a alien concept in the Chinese mainland. You vegetarians should come on down to Taipei, there are wonderful vegetarian restaurants on every corner. Marcus, isn’t Meetup routinely blocked in China?

    • Liuzhou Laowai says:

      “isn’t Meetup routinely blocked in China?’


      • Keoni Everington (华武杰) says:

        Meetup has been blocked and unblocked numerous times over the past 10 years. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why. It’s hard to believe with your vast wealth of knowledge that you missed that one Liuzhou Laowai.

  5. Liuzhou Laowai says:

    • Marcus says:

      Sorry… I only just saw these responses – No, Meetup is not blocked (at the moment anyway) It’s been accessible for the last couple of years. There are loads of great groups on there,

      And for any Vegans out there, watch this space – we have a China Vegan website about to launch.

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