Vegan in China

So one of the reasons I haven’t been posting much (or at all this year) is that I’ve been doing a lot of travelling for work to China. I’ll admit, I was worried when I first started, as the Chinese are kind of known for their love of meat. Meat is in everything here; seasonings, sauces, broths, vegetable dishes, you name it, it’s probably got meat or meat product in it. However, I’ve learned a few tricks on how to maintain a vegan lifestyle here. It’s not impossible, but it will take some adjustments.

When out on your own, try to find Indian restaurants. Most of the food at an Indian restaurant is not only vegetarian but vegan as well. Most restaurants have at least one (or usually more than one) person who speaks a little English. Just be patient (as they would be with you were you speaking Mandarin) and keep trying to explain. In a pinch, Chana Masala is usually a safe bet, and loaded with protein.

Breakfasts are surprisingly easy. Although the buffets are usually loaded with sausages, bacon, and eggs, most also feature baked beans, which are vegan (outside of America, where they love to stick pork in them). That, in addition to a cup of fresh soy milk, can serve as an excellent source of protein to get you started. And many Chinese breakfasts involve some sort of steamed or sauteed green vegetable, which I wish more American breakfasts featured. It might be hard to get used to, but it’s a great way to get in your vitamins early in the day.

Talk to your hosts. The Chinese hosts I have started off feeding me KFC, McDonalds, and Pizza Hut. I asked them why and they said because they thought that was what would make me most comfortable, as a westerner. So I let them know that even though I’m from America, I don’t eat meat or meat products. I prefer vegetables, but no meat broth, no meat sauces, nothing containing animal product. And what did I get? Now I am taken to neat off-the-radar Cantonese and Shanghainese restaurants, my hosts order for me and tell me not only which dishes are OK for my choice, but also how it is prepared. They know that as long as meat products aren’t involved, I’m quite adventurous (which you will see later), so that has proven to be fun. The Chinese like to impress by ordering many different meals, the idea being that with a balance of different flavors and tastes, one leaves feeling more satisfied. There’s also the notion of abundance, but I like the former explanation better. It allows me to have a huge variety of food without over indulging.

Find the vegetarian restaurants. They exist. They’re usually termed “Healthy” or “Organic” or even “Buddhist” (which is very strict; not only vegan, but often low in seasonings in general). I have found fantastic food at these places; some fake meats, which I never get tired of due to their comically inventive nature, and some unusual vegetable or noodle dishes. A word to the wise vegan: Almost all noodle dishes and soups in China feature a meat broth or are cooked with meat. It is essential to ask before tasting. I have not yet found a noodle dish outside of a vegetarian-only restaurant that was not cooked with meat. But, like I said before I’ve found some incredible dishes at these vegetarian restaurants. Here’s a few to get you started:

Dao Shao Mein

This first dish is Dao Shao Mein. The name comes from how the noodles are made; it’s a big block of pasta and the cook shaves it off with a knife into ribbons. This was the first noodle dish I’ve been able to eat here in China, and it was magnificent. I know that looks like egg in there; it’s not. I asked my hosts to ask the Chef to put fake meat in there for me, and the restaurant happily obliged. The squeaky wheel gets the grease, my friends.

Fan Xia

This is Fan Xia, a tomato soup where a peeled and cored-out whole tomato is poached in tomato soup (that tasted remarkably like Campbell’s tomato soup!). The tomato has been stuffed with white beans and corn. It is simple, incredibly satisfying, and absolutely delicious. The non-vegetarian version has Abalone or some sort of mollusk inside; I much preferred this one. I can’t wait to make it for my mother-in-law, who I think will find this fascinating.

Tree Bark Bacteria

OK this is easily the strangest and most adventurous thing I have ever eaten. It’s a lichen or fungus of some sort, lightly cooked (I don’t know how) and tossed with sesame oil and chili oil, then with coriander and peanuts. Admittingly, it is delicious. Kind of chewy like mushrooms, but textured. It looks so weird, and the translator’s poor choice of the word “bacteria” meant that I just could not get past the mental reference. But it didn’t kill me, it didn’t make me sick, and it was a really interesting experience. See, you can try new things when vegan! Weird Chinese food is not just for meat-eaters alone!

This was just a start, but I wanted to post to let you vegans out there know that China is not off-limits just because the majority of the population is meat-loving. You just have to do what you do in the US: be aware of what you’re eating, ask lots of questions, and don’t be afraid to try new things.


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