Vegetarians and vegans planning trips to China often have questions about how to find acceptable cuisine.
This page aims to answer your questions by familiarising you with the historical, cultural and practical implications of being vegetarian in this fascinating part of the world.
Although this site is based upon my own experience as a vegetarian, information for vegans is also provided.
First of all, don't be discouraged from travel. It is possible to travel widely in China and find vegetarian or vegan food. It just takes some effort and a bit of flexibility.
Most foreign vegetarians arrive in greater China with no local language skills, which was exactly the case for me.
I'll present some basic Chinese phrases for you that allow you to explain your dietary preference, and also give you a list of common dishes as a 'safe menu'.
The Chinese characters on this page are in simplified Chinese, the pronunciation is Mandarin (standard Chinese) and the romanization given here is pinyin.
How to say you're vegetarian
Unfortunately there is no simple way to say you're vegetarian that will be understood clearly in all situations.
But don't panic! ... there's some easy to remember phrases that come close.
The standard strategy is to get the gist of the message across with the Chinese phrase wo chi su (literally "I eat vegetables"), or one of its slightly more complex variant.
This phrase, combined with being vigilant against contaminants (little pieces of meat, meat-based soup stocks, sprinklings of dry shrimps, etc.) is a practical and easily achievable solution to the core problem of getting fed.
Indeed, they are three powerful characters - whether you print them out and point at them, or try to learn the pronunciation and repeat it yourself, you'll be dashing in to random restaurants and discovering new vegetarian delicacies in no time!
Of course, repeating this phrase has its limitations and there are is a more elevated phrases that you might also want to learn about.
|I am vegetarian
||wo chi zhai
This variant is a more religious-oriented way to say that you are vegetarian.
It is less likely to be understood and may cause confusion.
While it may not be so useful in the mainland since almost nobody will understand, in Hong Kong and Taiwan you might be able to explain the concept of a 'vegan' (纯素食者 chun su shi zhe).
How to say you don't eat something
Since vegans and many vegetarians have particular (dis)affinities for foods, it helps to know how to say that you don't eat something.
The phrase for this is wo bu chi... followed by the food in question.
For instance, wo bu chi ji dan means "I don't eat (chicken) eggs."
Two other useful foods to remember with this phrase are yu (fish) and hai xian (seafood).
Vegetarianism in Chinese history
China was a major center of Buddhism and the founding state of Taoism, two nature-oriented philosophies that promote vegetarianism and low-impact living.
However, the situation in modern China is quite different.
In recent history many Chinese people were too poor to afford meat, and today they have grown up and/or had children of their own.
Back with a vengeance, they are almost literally munching on any little critter they can get their hands on.
This explains the lack of overt vegetarianism and the quizzical looks you may garner when you finally get your message across.
Methods of preparation
The following are the most common phrases used to describe methods of food preparation.
||he most common method.
||A 'seared' fry - crispy on the outside.
||Describes soups, dumplings, etc.
||Dry fried (seared)
||For fried cakes, seared beans, etc.
||Like 'baozi' breakfast buns.
Fruits and Nuts
Common and recognisable fruits include pineapples, mangoes and bananas (especially in the southwest, where they are grown, or in the east, where they are shipped from the Philippines), watermelons(grown in the west and north of the country) and apples (for which Shandong province is famous).
A host of extra, unrecognisable fruits are also available in to the melon category, and in tropical climes to the south.
Prices for fresh fruits and vegetables are very low - though rising - and you can still find numerous small fruit and vegetable markets in even the largest cities.
Nuts such as peanuts (hua sheng), cashews (yao guo) and pistachios (kai xin guo) are also readily available. They come fresh in the market, salted, packaged, fried or even coated.
Although most 'western' food in China is of terrible quality with an inversely proportional price tag, there are some gems available.
Firstly, many cities in China now have cheap French breadsticks available through Walmart or Carrefour supermarkets.
More expensive imported goods such as cheese and wine are also available.
Pizza is usually a safe option for non-vegans intending to eat 'western' anywhere in China - it's hard to do badly, but do be careful of the toppings since Chinese have a strange fondness for corn on pizza!
Vegetarian food on Chinese buses / trains / planes
The sleeper trains across China are very convenient but do not provide vegetarian fare. Although there is a dining cart which, as a side dish, usually will have something edible, don't bet on it.
You would be best to bring your own fruit, biscuits or vegetarian instant noodles to have on the train. (Hot water is available in large thermoses and is constantly refilled by attendants.)
You can hop off the trains during longer stops and acquire various vegetarian munchies such as peanuts, packaged and spiced preserved tofu (but be careful! some flavoured tofu packs contain meat flavouring!), biscuits, etc.
The same munchies can be procured for long bus journeys.
Reportedly some Chinese airlines now provide vegetarian meals if you book them in advance.