“Surely it’s impossible to be vegetarian in China?”
“Surely it’s impossible to be vegetarian in China?”
This was one of the most frequent questions that cropped up in the lead up to my big move to China in 2018. And truth be told, it was a worry – like a lot of people, I had the (very wrong) preconception of being faced with nothing but meat and chicken feet. I worried that I would have to make this huge compromise of my lifestyle just to get by and not go hungry. And I’m sure there are many others who share this same worry, debating whether or not the benefits of teaching in China are really worth it if they have to concern themselves over such an important factor. Which is why I wanted to write this blog post, to allay the worries that I also shared and hopefully reassure you that it is absolutely possible to be a vegetarian in China!
Cooking at Home
Firstly, the base of most meals in China is rice and/or vegetables, which I know sounds bland and boring, but when the vegetables are cooked in a multitude of spices and seasoning, and the rice is fluffed to perfection, it can be the furthest thing from boring. Both of which are extremely cheap and reasonably priced both in supermarkets and restaurants, so you’ll never break the bank, and you can usually find all the vegetables you’d expect to find at home plus some you’d be hard pushed to find in your local Tesco! A weekly shop consisting of as many vegetables as I could carry home and any extra snacks for the week only ever put me back about ¥115/£12.
Eating out is such a core element of socialising in China, and many teachers find they rarely cook, just because it’s so cheap and delicious. From picking up a roadside snack for breakfast on the way to school, to a big elaborate 20 dish dinner, restaurant meals become an everyday treat.
It’s absolutely worth downloading the Google Translate app before you fly out (you’ll find it tricky to download when you’re there unless you have a VPN – take a look at our teacher resources for more info), as it has a feature where it can translate a whole picture for you. This makes life a lot easier, as you can just snap a picture of the menu and swiftly see which dishes are safe for you to eat, no hassle necessary. Another super helpful thing is that many menus in restaurants will actually have pictures of all or most of the dishes, and it’s normally pretty easy to see which ones are meat based, but it’s handy to translate for peace of mind.
Alternatively, I know some other fellow vegetarians took the extra step of carrying a card with them that says something along the lines of ‘I am vegetarian, I don’t eat meat, please show me the food without animals’ (我是素食主义者，我不吃肉，请给我看看没有动物的食物) in Chinese for them to show the waitstaff. I never had a bad experience eating out; even if the language barrier was particularly apparent, they were always extremely accommodating and happy to help me out.
My favourite vegetarian dishes I had were all from the same restaurant just two minutes from my apartment, and I ordered them every single week without fail. I’d have garlic cooked greens, accompanied by seasoned cauliflower mixed with chilli, garlic, and oil, and these amazing mini omelettes stuffed with miscellaneous vegetables and spices, bathed in a steaming broth with strips of potato. All of this together was a truly incredible meal from which I never came away hungry.
The Staple Dishes
There are also typical dishes that you can keep an eye out for as staples that you can’t go wrong with. Dishes such as tomato and egg (don’t be put off, it’s actually delicious and so well seasoned) can be found pretty much anywhere in China, so you’ll never struggle if you can find that, as well as classic dishes like vegetable noodles, stir fried vegetables cooked in so many different ways, and loads of varieties of steamed dumplings. There’s no shortage of any of these dishes, and although there may be variations on these classics depending on where you go, they’re generally considered good veggie failsafes.
What about if I’m Vegan…?
I myself am not vegan, but from talking to others who are vegan and went to China or are still there, it’s very much possible! Obviously there’s the rice and vegetables I mentioned earlier, but those aren’t your only options. You don’t need to fret about getting enough protein in China, because tofu is extremely popular in most areas and is eaten widely even by non-vegans. Foods like beans, nuts, legumes, and even seitan are not hard to come by. As veganism is not a widespread concept, it can again be helpful to carry a translation for what it means, and in detail, to show in restaurants – to prevent any misunderstandings! When in doubt, find your way to a Buddhist restaurant (they’re very common) and know that the majority of the food will be vegan as eggs and dairy aren’t widely used. For more tips, have a read of our blog posts from one of our own vegan teachers here.
Sushi bars and street food vendors are everywhere in China, so there will always be local delicacies where you can see them being prepared and rest assured that it’s vegan friendly. In tier one and tier two cities it’s not hard to find Western restaurants for your fix of vegetarian/vegan Mexican, Italian, Japanese, American, Indian…the list is endless, and of course there’s all of the big international fast food chains! Where I was in Guangdong, I found a beautiful Italian restaurant with the most delicious bread baskets, and that was before I even got to the main course! They served everything from vegan gnocchi to pizza, and even I thought the salads looked tempting.
These are just a couple of suggestions to help you out if it is something you’re worried or concerned about; I’ve been there, and I promise you’ll always find so many tasty options! If you have any more questions about moving to China, check out our FAQ section here.Share: