Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Being a vegetarian in China

Tofu, anyone?

When I first moved to China I was a vegetarian. I'd been that since I was 16 (don't even remember why but it had something to do with me not liking the taste of meat?) and I wasn't planning to change. It didn't take me long to discover, however, that the term 'vegetarian' wasn't that useful in China. You tell the waiters you don't eat meat and they'll nod their heads and serve you tofu floating around in minced meat. Or, your eggplant will in a pot that also contains tiny meat pieces. Or, like once when I was in Yunnan, I ordered tofu that came with slices of pink ham.

-But I don't eat meat?! I told the waiter.
-It is not meat. It's a spice, that gives the taste. It's part of the dish! She replied.

After 2 months in China I gave up. We were in a restaurant and in came ribs, beef, and you name it. I took a rib and started munching. No one reacted. Cool. And that's how I left the vegetarian life and became a meat-eater again. (In case anyone wonders, I had a vague stomach pain that very night but except for that nothing big changed when I started eating meat after 8 years of being meat free. Only thing worth mentioning is that I got fuller faster and didn't have to eat full bowls of pasta anymore. I guess I should add that I still don't 'crave''meat, at least not pork which I still don't really like, so I mainly eat chicken and fish and the occasional hamburger -which is great. Gosh, I can't believe I didn't eat hamburgers for that long?!)

Anyways, last wknd in Shanghai I met a friend of a friend (British guy) who was travelling through China with his friends. He had been a vegetarian since he was 10 (now I believe he was in his late 20-ies) and in order not to ruin his diet he carried around a piece of paper with some Chinese characters that he showed at different restaurants.

-I have no idea what it says, he told me. But every time I show it people long quite concerned and I have never been served meat. I am positively surprised as I thought it was going to be hell to be a vegetarian in China.

I asked to see the paper. It said something like: "If this man eats meat, any kind of it, he will get very sick"

Doh. No wonder he got concerned nods. I am very impressed that it worked though!

So, maybe that's a tip to all you vegetarians planning to visit China. Because you know, just because it says 'tofu' on the menu doesn't mean it's only tofu in the bowl your are being served. Using meat as a 'taste enchancer' is a common standard over here.

I personally don't regret starting to eat meat (my dad is soooooo proud of me and have told me various times that now I am a 'real woman' again -gosh? Meathead or what?!? Haha!) and I am not worried about the meat over here like many tourists are.

I normally do project work for a German company twice a year and every time I have lunch with their Germans visitors, that are here only for the project work that goes on for 2-3 weeks, they are sitting there picking in their salads or fish free sushi. They are so scared of even touching a bit of meat/fish here that it's almost laughable. When they see me eat meat they always ask: "Aren't you scared of eating dogs?!" (and this is at very standard -even western- restaurants) and I always answer "No... I am not scared of eating dogs because we are not in a very dog-eating part of China, and, we are not in Korea... so you don't have to worry about that." And still, they roll their eyes behind my back as if I am 'the most naive thing'....

Having said all of this, vegetarian food in China can be great -you just have to find the right restaurants. There are some 'all vegetarian' restaurants in Shanghai, where 'Vegetarian Kitchen' is the best one I have tried. I also found a really good one in Beijing when I was there during the Olympics, but more about that some other time.


Anonymous said...


Can you please add names of some other vegetarian restaurants in Shanghai and Beijing?

I occasionally visit Shanghai and have a huge problem conveying the idea of 'vegetarian.' The toughest part is even when it is not meat, it is made to look like meat - Veggie Goose Liver, Veggie Pork.
Getting something that is not a meat replacement is rather difficult.

The last time though, I went to this place called New Age Veggie and the food was good, filling and spicy unlike the really bland and insubstantial food (mostly boiled vegetables) that I get in HK veggie restaurants. The waitresses though, could speak only Chinese.

- Nirja

Jonna Wibelius said...

Try some of the following:

Juju Be Tree (at Vegetarian Life Style) Address: 2/F, 848 Huangjinchengdao Lu, near Shuicheng Nan Lu
枣子树, 黄金城道路848号2楼, 近水城南路


Vegetarian Delight
20 Shuicheng Lu, near Hongqiao Lu
素膳坊, 水城路20号, 近虹桥路

I haven't tried any of them, but my friend has, and he liked them.

For Nepali vegetarian food, try:

Nepali Kitchen
Address: 819 Julu Lu, near Fumin Lu 金旺角尼泊尔餐厅, 巨鹿路819号, 近富民路

And then this cafe, 'H cafe' also has a lot of vegetarian options (at least they did last time I was there, about 1 year ago)

H Café, Address: 1415 Huashan Lu, near Hunan Lu
华山路1415号, 近湖南路

Also, there is a really nice little cafe called Haya's mediterranean kitchen... they have 2 locations, the most central being on Dagu Lu (very central). They do GREAT falafels!!! There's another one on Hongqiao Lu unless they have moved.

I found a good new veggie resto in Beijing during the Olympics:

Baihe Vegetarian Restaurant, you can find the address on their homepage: www.ertong.com (only in Chinese though, maybe u can get a Chi work mate to help you print the address from there?)

This Baihe place had a lot of the 'fake pork' etc dishes although it also had some other options that weren't 'fake meat', including great tofu dishes.. yum!

Another great, almost vegetarian restaurant in Beijing is 10m2. I don't know the exact address, but it's in the Huo Hai area... they do spicy vegetarian BBQs... I have written a blog post about the place before.

OK, I hope some of that helps! Enjoy your meal!

Jonna Wibelius said...

I forgot to say: if u want a GREAT vegetarian meal go to a Korean restaurant and order yourself 'bibimbap' and tell the waiters 我不要肉 -wo bu yao rou (I don't want meat). Then you'll get a great stone pot dish that consists of rice, a good mix of veggies, an egg and a spicy sauce (optional). This was one of my vegeteraian friends Anna's favorite dishes before she left SH.

Anonymous said...

You make it sound like you didn't have a choice.

I'm a vegetarian and have lived in Taipei, Guangzhou, and now Beijing. Starting with very minimal Chinese, I haven't had a huge problem being a vegetarian in China. Of course, sometimes mistakes are made at restaurants, but it really is not that hard to tell the staff at a restaurant in a clear way that you do not eat meat.

You have to be clear and flexible. Some people expect to be able to get every dish meat-free, well that just isn't always possible, and you obviously weren't that committed to being a vegetarian, so it is no surprise that you gave it up at the slightest hurdle.

Hope that doesn't sound too harsh. To each her own!

Jonna Wibelius said...

Never intended to make it sound as if I 'didn't have any choice.' I more wanted to share that it was a bit of a hassle, especially when I first came here and knew ZERO Chinese. Now I bet I could have been a vegetarian without any problems but that's because I can speak the language...

Not committed? Well, I think I was quite committed, seeing I didn't touch meat/chicken/fish for 8 years?! I guess I just felt like ribs one day, or, you can express it like u did: 'gave up at the slightest hurdle.'

Might switch to a vegetarian diet in the future again -who knows? It's not that black and white.

Anonymous said...

Dong Bei restaurants are some of my favorite for getting vegetarian food, if, like me, you still eat eggs. They usually have several types of jiaozi that are egg and veggie; egg and tomato jiaozi are heavenly! Vegetable side dishes can almost always be made without meat, too!

Little Tiger said...

Yes bibimbap is good, very good!
I tried it in loads of places in Shanghai and Beijing but it was disappointing.
The best I ever had was in the north east...it was extremely good and only 7 kuai!
I miss it so much so I tried to make it myself.
Not comparable (I think that goes without saying :) )

Jonna Wibelius said...

egg & tomato jiaozi (dumplings) are heaven indeed!!! I sometimes go to 'dong bei ren' in Shanghai just to have a plate of those dumplings... It really proves that good food doesn't have have to be so complicated to make. The egg and tomato thing itself (xi hong si, chao ji dan) is a must-eat at least twice a week! mmmmm....

Little tiger -7 kuai bibimpab?! whaaat?! In suzhou it's around 30-40 kuai/bowl. Darn. Although nothing beats the bibimbap I ate when I visited Seoul last Jan... MMmmm.. korean food in general is sooooo good! I can't believe I didn't discover it until quite recently.

Vampire Rabbit said...

Just tell them you are Buddhist and do not eat meat. In BeiJing you can find many vegetarian restaurants near the Lama Temple.

Anonymous said...

it does seem something of a conundrum that the body of the Chinese diet is vegetables and the poorest people rarely eat meat, yet the concept of 'vegetarianism' seems beyond the grasp of most people.

Anonymous said...

Dear vegetarian friends,

Please find the list of vegetarian restaurantd in china on the website:

If you don't know Chinese, please ask someone to help and show you which is your nearest vegetarian restaurant.

If you really need any help to put these restaurant into English, you can leave a message to mail box: yanwuone2012@yahoo.com

Anonymous said...

i love the idea of your friend's friend's sign :)

Little Tiger said...

Yeah I know 7 kuai well spent... every morning for breakfast!. In my opinion North eastern food is underestimated. It is also much cheaper to eat out up there.
There are so many good things to eat: jiao zi, guo bao rou, korean food, seafood and of course for vegetarians 'liang ban' yum ;)

Harold said...

What do you or others do about having MSG ( wei jing) free food?

I get very sick from it.

In Taiwan, I would walk in and speak to the boss. My question was: Wo bu yao wei jing. I don't want MSG. Wo chi wei jing de shi hou, bing le. When I eat MSG I get sick.

I never had a problem.

This in spite of being told that it would be impossible to find MSG-free food.

However, I have never been to China so I am asking what it is like there for this.

Lyndsee said...

Okay, here is my most-missed (and, coincidentally, vegetarian) Chinese food: Fruit kabobs with a crunchy, sugary coating. They were usually strawberries and chunks of pineapple, and it was like they had been dipped in hot syrup, which dried crunchy. They were amazing! Find them if you can! Love the blog, btw.

Jonna Wibelius said...

Harold -I actually don't bother so much about the MSG... I know I should, and what u r doing is great.. some of my friends are doing the same (although they say: 'bu yao wei jing, bu yao tang!' as they don't like all the sugar the Shanghainese likes to put in their food). I have to stop being lazy and start asking for less MSG too.. just have to turn it into a habit and then it won't be such a big deal...

Lyndsee -I know what u r talking about, these fruit sticks are DELISH! There are loads of different kinds.. sugar coating is good, but I prefer it to be nuts on the stick.. nam! Or, apples... ahhh... have u tried it with a chocolate coating?! Heaven!! Glad to hear u like the blog :)

Anonymous said...

Check out http://vegetarian-china.info/