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Vegetarian and Vegan Cuisine in China

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Perhaps the food-related question I get asked most through my blog is “What's it like for vegetarians and vegans in China. The same question came up recently on another thread, so I put this together. Hope it's useful. It would also, be great to hear other people's experience and solutions.

For the sake of typing convenience I’m going to conflate 'vegetarians and vegan' into just 'vegetarian' except where strictly relevant.

First a declaration of non-interest. I am very carnivorous, but I have known vegetarians who have passed through China, some staying only a few weeks, others staying for years.

Being vegetarian in China is a complicated issue. In some ways, China is probably one of the best countries in which to be vegetarian. In other ways, it is one of the worst.

I spent a couple of years in Gorbachev-era Russia and saw the empty supermarkets and markets. I saw people line up for hours to buy a bit of bread.. So, when I first came to China, I kind of expected the same. Instead, the first market I visited astounded me. The place was piled high with food, including around 30 different types of tofu, countless varieties of steamed buns and flat breads and scores of different vegetables, both fresh and preserved, most of which I didn't recognise. And so cheap I could hardly convert into any western currency.

If you are able to self-cater then China is heaven for vegetarians. For short term visitors dependent on restaurants or street food, the story is very different..

Despite the perception of a Buddhist tradition (not that strong, actually), very few Chinese are vegetarian and many just do not understand the concept. Explaining in a restaurant that you don't eat meat is no guarantee that you won't be served meat.

Meat is seen in China as a status symbol. If you are rich, you eat more meat.And everyone knows all foreigners are rich, so of course they eat meat! Meat eating is very much on the rise as China gets more rich - even to the extent of worrying many economists, food scientists etc. who fear the demand is pushing up prices and is environmentally dangerous. But that's another issue. Obesity is also more and more of a problem.

Banquet meals as served in large hotels and banquet dedicated restaurants will typically have a lot more meat dishes than a smaller family restaurant. Also the amount of meat in any dish will be greater in the banquet style places

Traditional Chinese cooking is/was very vegetable orientated. I still see my neighbours come home from the market with their catch of greenery every morning. However, whereas meat wasn't the central component of dinner, it was used almost as a condiment or seasoning. Your stir fried tofu dish may come with a scattering of ground pork on top, for example. This will not usually be mentioned on the menu.

Simple stir fried vegetables are often cooked in lard (pig fat) to 'improve' the flavour.

Another problem is that the Chinese word for meat (), when used on its own refers to pork. Other meats are specified, eg (beef) is 牛肉, literally cattle meat. What this means is that when you say you don't eat meat, they often think you mean you don't eat pork (something they do understand from the Chinese Muslim community), so they rush off to the kitchen and cook you up some stir fried chicken! I've actually heard a waitress saying to someone that chicken isn't meat. Also, few Chinese wait staff or cooks seem to know that ham is pig meat. I have also had a waitress argue ferociously with me that the unasked for ham in a dish of egg fried rice wasn't meat.

Also, Chinese restaurant dishes are often given have really flowery, poetic names which tell you nothing of the contents. Chinese speakers have to ask. One dish on my local restaurant menu reads “Maternal Grandmother's Fluttering Fragrance.” It is, of course, spicy pork ribs!

Away from the tourist places, where you probably don't want to be eating anyway, very few restaurants will have translations of any sort. Even the best places' translations will be indecipherable. I have been in restaurants where they have supplied an “English menu”, but if I didn't know Chinese would have been unable to order anything. It was gibberish.

To go back to Buddhism and Taoism, it is a mistake to assume that genuine followers of either (or more usually a mix of the two) are necessarily vegetarian. Many Chinese Buddhists are not. In fact, the Dalai Lama states in his autobiography that he is not vegetarian. It would be very difficult to survive in Tibet on a vegetarian diet.

There are vegetarian restaurants in many places (although the ones around where I am never seem to last more than six months). In the larger cities such as Beijing and Shanghai they are more easily findable.

Curiously, many of these restaurants make a point of emulating meat dishes. The menu reads like any meat using restaurant, but the “meat” is made from vegetable substitutes (often wheat gluten or konjac based).

To be continued

Edited by liuzhou (log)
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Here is a list of dishes from a typical Chinese vegetarian place selling what seems to be meat but isn't.

Section 1 - Starters and Appetizers


Vegetable Hand Scroll (Cucumber, Walnut, Pear, Carrot and Lettuce Wrapped in Nori Seaweed 素手卷 (黄瓜、核桃、梨、胡萝卜、生菜用海苔包) ¥5 each

Vegetable and Fruit Salad (Various Fruit and Vegetables according to season)

蔬果沙拉 (各种时令水果、蔬菜) ¥16

Cold “Abalone” 冰镇鲍鱼 ¥88

Stewed “Eel” 烧汁鳗鱼 ¥28

Cold Smoked “Pork” (Vegetarian Smoked “Pork”) 冰镇冷熏肉 (素熏肉) ¥28

Mustard Flavour Lobster Slices (Vegetarian “Lobster” Slices Sashimi)

芥味虾片 (素龙虾片刺身) ¥28

Ginger “Chicken” (Vegetarian “Chicken”, Ginger) 姜香鸡 (素鸡、生姜) ¥26

Assorted Appetizers (Vegetarian Sausage, Vegetarian “Ham”, Vegetarian Barbecued “Pork”) 什锦拼盘 (素腊肠、素火腿、素叉烧) ¥18

Hot and Spicy Dry “Beef” (Wheat Gluten, Hot and Spicy Flavourings)

麻辣牛肉干 (面筋、麻辣味) ¥18

Ginger “Pork” 姜泥白肉 ¥12

Roast “Pork” (Vegetarian Streaky “Pork”) 吊烧肉 (素五花肉) ¥12

Crown Prince Jujubes 太子参红枣 ¥12

Cold Dressed Black Jew’s Ear Fungus 凉拌黑云耳 ¥12

Cold Dressed Bamboo Shoots 凉拌竹笋 ¥15

Cold Dressed Golden Needle Mushrooms 凉拌金针菇 ¥12

Cold Dressed Piddock 凉拌海笋 ¥10

Cucumber and Dried Bean Milk Cream (Fuzhu) 黄瓜拌腐竹 ¥10

Chilli Oil Potato Strips 红油土豆丝 ¥8

Section 2 – Hot Dishes


Jin Gang Sa (Vajrasattva - Buddha's warrior attendant) (Seaweed Extract, Soy Bean Protein, Dry Fried) 金刚萨 (海藻提取物、大豆蛋白、干炸) ¥12

Sing The Praises (Soy Bean Protein, Vegetarian “Chicken”)

赞叹歌颂 (大豆蛋白、素鸡) N/A

Tawain “3 Cup” “Chicken” 台式三杯鸡 ¥28

Chilli “Chicken” (Vegetarian “Chicken”, Fermented Beans, Hot and Spicy)

辣子鸡 (素鸡、豆豉、辣椒) ¥28

Kungpo “Chicken” (Soy Bean Protein, Konjac, Peanut, Kungpo Taste)

宫保鸡丁 (大豆蛋白、魔芋、花生米、宫保味) ¥22

Endlessly Seek Enlightenment (Soy Bean Protein, Vegetarian “Duck”

觉海无涯 (大豆蛋白、素鸭) N/A

Mango Fried “Duck” Slices (Mango with Fried Vegetarian “Duck”)

香芒炒鸭片 (芒果炒素鸭) N/A

Spicy Boiled “Fish” (Beansprouts, Mushrooms, Vegetarian “Fish”, Hot and Spicy Taste)

水煮鱼 (豆芽、菌菇、素鱼、麻辣味) ¥38 regular, ¥58 large

Evergreen Missionary (Vegetarian “Fish”- Red Cooked, Sweet and Sour, or Sizzling Plate Sauce Flavour)

游化人间常青鲜 (素鱼红烧、糖醋、铁板烧汁味任选) ¥28

Black Pepper “Fish” Slices (Vegetarian “Fish”) 黑椒鱼块 (素鱼) ¥30

“Repent And Be Saved” (Vegetarian Shrimp, Sweet and Sour, Red Cooked or Curry Flavoured) 回头是岸 (素虾、糖醋、红烧、咖哩味) N/A.

“Happily Sacrifice and Show Mercy” Steamed “Pork” with Taro (Taro, Vegetarian “Pork”) 慈悲喜舍香芋扣肉 (芋头、素扣肉) ¥28

Pineapple “Chicken” Balls (Pineapple, Vegetarian “Chicken” Balls)

菠萝鸡球 (菠萝、鸡球) ¥30

Hot and Spicy Vegetarian “Snails” (Peanuts, Konjac, Kungpo Taste)

辣素螺 (花生米、磨芋、宫保味) ¥18

Lotus Leaf Cake Twice Cooked Vegetarian “Pork” 荷叶饼回锅素肉 ¥12

Green Chilli with Seasonal Mushrooms (Green Chilli, King Oyster Mushroom, Nameko Mushroom, Pig Stomach Mushroom, Spicy Fried)

杭椒炒时菇 (杭椒、杏鲍菇、滑子菇、猪肚菇辣炒) ¥26

Pickled Chilli “Liver” (Pickled Chilli, “Liver”) 泡椒肝片 (泡椒、肝片) ¥22

Olive Pickle “Meat” Floss (Olive Pickles, Dried “Meat” Floss, Kidney Beans wrapped in Lettuce Leaf.) 榄菜素松 (榄菜、素肉松、四季豆用生菜包着) ¥18

Braised “Two Winters” (Winter Bamboo, Dried Shiitake Mushrooms (Winter Mushrooms) Soy Braised) 油焖双冬 (冬笋、冬菇红烧) ¥18

One-Finger Zen (Vegetarian Sausage - Yam, Konjac, Wheat Gluten)

一指禅 (干炸) ¥5 each

Thankful Heart Gingko and Lily (Almond, Lily, Gingko, Stir Fried)

银杏百合感恩心 (杏仁、百合、白果清炒) ¥22

“Happy Marriage Happy Relationship” Peas (Fried Vegetarian Sausage and Peas

好姻好缘荷兰豆 (腊肠炒荷兰豆) ¥12

"Tolerance Gains Good Fortune" Eight Treasure Zucchini (Corn, Vegetarian “Ham”, Shiitake Mushroom, Lily, Carrot, Steamed in Zucchini) ¥26

心量大福报就大八宝瓜 (玉米、素火腿、香菇、百合、胡萝卜在金瓜里蒸)

Olive Pickles Bean Thread Noodles with Baby Cabbage (Olive Pickle, Bean Thread Noodles Baby Cabbage, Steamed Together

榄菜粉丝娃娃菜 (榄菜、粉丝、娃娃菜一起蒸) ¥16

Wood Ear, Cucumber and Lily (Wood Ear Fungus, Cucumber, Lily, Gingko, Stir Fried)

木耳青瓜与百合 (木耳、黄瓜、百合、白果清炒) ¥16

Fried Pumpkin and Gingko (Stir Fried Pumpkin and Gingko)

南瓜炒百合 (南瓜与百合清炒) ¥16

“Cherish Luck and Build Relationships” Pineapple Lotus (Lotus Root, Pineapple, Sweet and Sour Flavour) 惜福结缘菠萝藕 (莲藕、菠萝、糖醋味) ¥16

Sautéed Sweet Corn with Pine Nuts (Stir Fried Sweet Corn with Pine Nuts)

松仁玉米 (松仁与玉米清炒) ¥12

“Observe Yourself” Towel Gourd (Stir Fried Towel Gourd, Wood Ear Fungus)

观自在丝瓜 (清炒丝瓜、木耳) ¥12

Silver Needle Mushroom Braised with Bean Curd (Silver Needle Mushroom, Bean Curd, Braised in Soy Sauce) 银针菇烩豆腐 (银针菇、豆腐红烧) ¥16

Gold Jade Bean Curd (Pumpkin and Bean Curd) 金玉豆腐 (南瓜、豆腐) ¥16

“Deep Calm Meditation” Bean Curd (Bean Curd, Hot and Spicy Flavour)

禅定豆腐 (豆腐、麻辣味) ¥10

Plain Boiled Bean Curd 清炖豆腐 ¥10

Straw Mushrooms with Vegetarian “Abalone” 草菇素九孔 ¥38

Black Bean Bitter Melon (Stir Fried Black Beans, Bitter Melon)

香豆苦瓜 (清炒豆豉、苦瓜) ¥10

Stir Fried Seasonal Vegetables (Stir Fried) 时令蔬菜 (清炒) ¥10

Spinach Noodles (Stir Fried Seasonal Vegetable with Bean Thread Noodles)

菠菜粉丝 (时菜与粉丝清炒) ¥10

Lotus Pond by Moonlight Lily (Lily, Celery, Wood Ear Fungus Steamed in Lotus Leaf)

荷塘月色香百合 (百合、西芹、木耳用荷叶蒸) ¥22

Braised Baby Cabbage in Broth 上汤娃娃菜 ¥12

Braised Lotus (Lotus Root) 南乳藕片 (莲藕) ¥8

Sautéed Sour Beans with Minced “Pork” (Vegetarian Minced “Pork”, Sour Beans)

酸豆角肉 (素肉、酸豆角) ¥8

Red Braised Eggplant 红烧茄子 ¥8

Section 3 – Iron Plate, Stew and Casserole Dishes


Griddled Ink Cap Mushrooms (Ink Cap Mushrooms)

干锅鸡腿菇 (鸡腿菇) ¥28

Stewed Pickled Cabbage Fish (Vegetarian “Fish”) 锅仔酸菜鱼 (素鱼) ¥28

Griddled Tea Tree Mushrooms (Tea Tree Mushrooms, Vegetarian Sausage, Fragrant Hot Flavour) 干锅茶树菇 (茶树菇、素腊肠、香辣味) ¥28

Fragrant Hot Wheat Gluten Pot (Wheat Gluten, Konjac, Chinese Medicine Herbs, Hot Flavour) 香辣面筋锅 (面筋、磨芋、中草药、辣味) ¥28

Iron Plate Seasonal Mushrooms (Nameko Mushrooms or other mushrooms, “Abalone” Sauce) 铁板时菇 (滑子菇等菌类、鲍汁) ¥26

Iron Plate “Steak” Rounds (Wheat Gluten, Potato Strips, Celery, Black Pepper Sauce)

铁板圆排 (面筋、土豆条、香芹、铁板、黑椒味) ¥26

Stewed Delicious Wild Mushrooms (Various Wild Mushrooms)

锅仔美味野山菌 (各种山菌) ¥26

Radish and Vegetarian “Lamb” Casserole 萝卜炖素羊腩煲 N/A

Towel Gourd and Wheat Gluten Casserole 丝瓜面筋煲 ¥26

Zucchini and Taro Casserole (Pumpkin, Taro, Cheese)

金瓜芋头煲 (南瓜、芋头、芝士) ¥22

“Peaceful Heart” Bean Curd (Bean Curd, Sweet Corn, Vegetarian “Ham”, Vegetarian “Shrimp” 平常心豆腐包 (豆腐、玉米、素火腿、素虾仁) ¥16

“Follow Karma” Black Bean, Shiitake Mushroom and Eggplant Stew (Black Beans, Shiitake Mushroom Strips, Eggplant)

随缘摄化豆豉香菇茄子煲 (豆豉、香菇丝、茄子) ¥12

Section 4 – Soups


Wax Gourd, Kelp and Coix Seed Soup (Wax Gourd, Kelp, Coix Seed)

冬瓜海带薏仁汤 (冬瓜、海带结、薏仁) ¥12 Small - ¥20 Medium - ¥30 Large

Bamboo Fungus Three Thread Soup (Bamboo Fungus, Floral Mushroom, Wood Ear Fungus) 竹荪三丝羹 (竹荪、花菇、木耳) ¥18 Small - ¥26 Medium - ¥40 Large

“Make A Fortune and Have A Good Start” (Long Thread Moss, Wood Ear Fungus, Floral Mushroom) 发财好彩头 (发菜、木耳、花菇) ¥18 Small - ¥26 Medium - ¥40 Large

Towel Gourd, Vegetarian Balls and Gold Needle Mushrooms (Towel Gourd, Vegetarian Balls, Gold Needle Mushrooms) 丝瓜丸子金针菇 (丝瓜、素丸子、金针菇)

¥38 Small - ¥48 Medium - ¥68 Large

Mustard Leaf Bean Curd Soup (Mustard Leaf, Bean Curd) 芥菜豆腐汤 (芥菜、豆腐)

¥10 Small - ¥16 Medium - ¥26 Large

Hot and Sour Soup 酸辣汤 ¥10 Small - ¥16 Medium - ¥26 Large

Pumpkin Soup (Mashed Pumpkin, Coconut Juice) 南瓜羹 (南瓜泥、椰汁)

¥6 Small - ¥16 Medium - ¥30 Large

Taro Soup (Mashed Taro, Coconut Juice) 芋头羹 (芋头泥、椰汁)

¥6 Small - ¥16 Medium - ¥30 Large

Imperial Style Steamed “Abalone” with “Shark’s Fin” and “Fish” Maw in Broth (Shiitake Mushroom, Taro, Wild Bamboo, Bamboo Shoot, etc)

御膳品佛跳墙 (香菇、芋头、山笋、竹笋等) ¥58 Small - ¥110 Medium

“Putuo Guanyin” Coloured Glaze Soup (Hedgehog Mushroom, Bamboo Fungus, Wild Bamboo, “Abalone”, “Mutton”

普陀观音琉璃汤 (猴头菇、竹荪、山笋、鲍鱼仔、羊肉) ¥68 Small - ¥128 Medium

Section 5 – Noodles and Staples


Steamed Rice

米饭 ¥1 Bowl - ¥10 Pot

Vegetarian Dried “Meat” Floss, Olive Pickle Fried Rice

素肉松炒饭、榄菜炒饭 ¥10 Small - ¥20 Medium

Ginger and Vegetable Porridge

生姜蔬菜粥 ¥2 Bowl

Gingko Porridge, Shiitake Mushroom Vegetarian Rice Porridge

白果粥、香菇素米粥 ¥3 Bowl

Pumpkin Cake, Taro Cake, Potato Cake, Crispy Radish Cake

南瓜饼、芋蓉饼、土豆饼、萝卜稣 ¥6 for 6

Fresh Buttermilk, Crispy Yam Cake

鲜奶脆、淮山稣 ¥10 for 4

Crispy Durian Cake

榴莲稣 ¥12 for 4

Pumpkin Sticky Rice Dumplings

南瓜汤圆 ¥6 for 4

Boiled Vegetarian Dumplings (Jiaozi) (Celery, Tea Tree Mushroom, Cabbage)

素水饺 (芹菜、茶树菇、白菜) ¥30 / half kilo

Noodles in Thick Gravy

打卤面 ¥6 Bowl

Fried Wheat Noodles (Rice Noodles)

炒面() ¥6 Bowl



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To go back to Buddhism and Taoism, it is a mistake to assume that genuine followers of either (or more usually a mix of the two) are necessarily vegetarian. Many Chinese Buddhists are not. In fact the Dalai Lama states in his autobiography that he is not vegetarian. It would be very difficult to survive in Tibet on a vegetarian.

Probably, what you said and what you meant to say are both true...:)

Edited by SylviaLovegren (log)
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Probably, what you said and what you meant to say are both true...:)

Indeed. Of course, I accidentally omitted 'diet'. I have edited.


Edited by liuzhou (log)
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Thanks liuzhou; very interesting. Takeaway chow mein and chilli-garlic beancurd are as far as I've got. Seems like there's more to know, right? :biggrin:

Edited by Plantes Vertes (log)
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Some solutions.

I have seen several suggestions on the internet on how do deal with the problems of getting vegetarian food in China (and the near impossibility of getting vegan food). As ever, I am highly sceptical that many of them work. One reason is linguistic; the other cultural.

The most common suggestion is to learn the phrase 我吃素 (wǒ chī sù) which is probably the simplest way to say "I am vegetarian". The problem with this suggestion is that you really have to get the pronunciation right and Chinese being a tonal language makes this difficult for speakers of non-tonal languages such as English. The second thing is that even if you get it spot on, there is no guarantee that the waitress won't say (in Chinese) "Oh I see. So you don't meat meat. I will bring you some very delicious chicken instead! And scatter some dried shrimp over your fried rice. It tastes much better that way," leaving you utterly bewildered by this barrage of incomprehensible and useless Chinese.

Many visitors have learned that people either just don't understand (or don't want to understand) visitors' Chinese, or they get the three words you have painfully learned, then assume you understand everything and lay into a full length lecture on the folly of your failure to be sensible and eat the bounty of the animal kingdom, nose to tail, while you sit there dying of malnutrition.

So, I'm trying here to avoid giving 'useful' phrases. As often as not they just confuse things further. (Even speaking the language or travelling with native speakers to guide and translate doesn't usually help. You still run into the refusal or inability to comprehend vegetarianism. Then there is the problem with the 10,000 dialects.) I recommend the pointing system.

Another tip I have heard, but never tried (I don't need to; I eat everything) is to not say what you don't want to eat; but to point out (perhaps literally) what you do want to eat.. It is not considered offensive in most small Chinese restaurants to wander into the kitchen, open fridges and cupboards etc and indicate what you want. Don't do this at peak hours, 12:00 to 13:00 where I am, but variable. Also, examining other diners' meals (more or less discretely) and pointing to them if they take your fancy often works.


This is probably the easiest to deal with. Hit the street early enough (most Chinese people get up early) and you will find little stalls everywhere selling all sorts of stuff. Perhaps the most popular breakfast is dough sticks (cruller) served with soy milk .


Image from Wikipedia Commons, issued under licence.

You will see the foot long sticks everywhere, but when served they are usually cut (with scissors) into chopstick manageable pieces. I'm going to go out on a limb here and say they are probably fried in vegetable oil (it's cheaper) but it can't be guaranteed. The soy milk is, of course, vegan.

Other breakfast items include the many steamed buns. Some contain meat, sometimes signalled by the meat character (肉), but not always. Then there are the pancake type preparations. They are cooked in front of your eyes and you can see what they are putting in them. Usually egg, spring onions/scallions, coriander/cilantro etc. Again no guarantee what the cooking oil is, but probably vegetable.

Also, there are the noodle places. Many of these set the ingredients out in front of you and you point at what you want to be included. Problem here is they may well serve the noodles in a soup made from chicken stock.

Hotel Breakfasts

Many hotels (esp. tourist hotels) do buffet style breakfasts. These can be a good time to fill up for the day. You can see the food before you commit yourself. The amount of food I see people eat at these breakfasts is amazing. I'm sure they don't normally eat such a big breakfast at home.

Boiled eggs, fried noodles (fried in what?), buns, breads, cakes, rice porridge. I forget. It's been a while. Some even do cornflakes. Coffee will nearly always be instant, often pre-sugared and with whitener already added

Lunch and dinner coming soon. I am getting hungry,so going for a break.

Edited by liuzhou (log)
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Liuzhou, is it true that in a New Year's feast, there has to be at least one vegetarian dish?


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dcarch, I'm not answering for Liuzhou but within the circles of the Chinese diaspora that fall within my experience a vegetarian dish is "traditional" - usually for either the Big Dinner on New Year's Eve or on New Year's Day§ - but not obligatory in more recent times. Even with my parents' generation such a dish was not always made/ordered/whatever but nevertheless when such a dish (see below) was on the table one ate at least a mouthful or two of it, especially the "fat choy" in it.

Liuzhou will, no doubt, let us know what the practice is in Mainland China.

This was traditionally what is known in the Western world as "Buddha's Delight" [羅漢齋; Yale Cantonese lo4 hon3 jaai1], which should have something called "fat/fatt choy" (in Cantonese) in it, a near-homonym for the prosperity/good luck part of the traditional greeting "Kung Hei Fat Choy". Whether the dish is vegetarian (or vegan) will depend on what exactly goes into it, as there are many different renditions of it where although the "core ingredients" are present, other variable stuff may be added to it - let alone what oil is used to cook it. Oysters (dried) are often added in - that is vegetarian, I think? - but scallops (dried) may also be put in or substituted - and scallops are not vegetarian, if my information is correct. And so it goes.

§ Traditionally, one was not supposed to cook (or perform manual labor) on New Year's Day [so folks who *had* to bemoaned their fate] so leftovers from the Big Dinner the night before was eaten for New Year's Day - or one went out for a meal, when those who *had* to work since they were in the restaurant business served you. :wacko: Some people, especially of the older generation, did make an effort to "sek jaai" ("eat vegetarian") on the first day of the New Year to "purify" themselves - again, within my experience when growing up - so that dish of lo hon jaai came in handy on that day. :smile:

Edited by huiray (log)

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Liuzhou, is it true that in a New Year's feast, there has to be at least one vegetarian dish?


I don't know about "has to be", but there usually is at least one at any celebration meal or banquet.

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Breakfast again

Before getting on to lunch, a few more thoughts came to mind about breakfast.

If you are of a sensitive disposition in the morning, like me (especially after a particularly liquidly refreshing evening) I suggest avoiding hotel breakfast completely. There is nothing many Chinese people like to do, especially the more elderly, than go for breakfast and have a good shout. The breakfast rooms are cacophonous.

Which brings me to Yum Cha or Morning Tea.

Originally from the Cantonese speaking parts of China, but now available pretty much all over, Yum Cha (simplified Chinese: 饮茶; traditional Chinese: 飲茶) is what is generally referred to as DIm Sum in western countries, although strictly speaking dim sum (simp: 点心 ; trad: 點心) is the food served at a yum cha meal rather than the event itself.

Dim sum literally translates as 'little hearts' and consists of mainly small items such as filled buns, rice noodle rolls, cakes etc. In traditional places these items are wheeled round the restaurant on trolleys and you take your pick of what passes by.

Some of these 'little hearts' are vegetarian; most are not. It isn't easy to tell just by looking however. Many a surprise may be lurking inside an innocent looking bun. Two of the three buns below are vegetarian. One certainly isn't. But which?

3 buns 1.jpg

3 buns 2.jpg

The answer is the front one. The two at the back contain sweet bean paste (left) and sesame and peanut (right) - the one in front is a pork bun.

Tread carefully and put in your earplugs.

Also, often available at yum cha and in small restaurants etc is congee or rice porridge (粥 zhōu). This is eaten at all times of the day, but often for breakfast. It is a thinnish rice porridge, sometimes eaten as it is (白粥 bái zhōu - rice and water) but usually augmented by something savoury - usually meat based but sometimes pickled vegetables are all that is added. Another common addition is sweetcorn kernels (玉米粥 yù mǐ zhōu). Sweet congees are more vegetarian. One to look for is 'eight treasure congee' (八宝粥/八寶粥 bā bǎo zhōu) . This is rice porridge with added ingredients such as peanuts, jujubes, lotus seeds, lily, Job's tears, ginkgo etc. In my local porridge shop, the only vegetarian options are the sweet congees. Here is their menu:



Congee / Porridge:

Frog congee

Pig Offal Congee
Fish congee
Beef congee
Chicken congee
Preserved egg and lean pork congee
Lean pork and leaf mustard congee
Rice field eel congee

Sweet congees

Mung bean congee
Eight treasure congee
Peanut, silver ear fungus, jujube and mung bean congee

Another possible breakfast option is noodles, predominantly rice noodles in the south and wheat in the north, although both can be found most places. Most small noodle places prepare these to order and have bowls of ingredients for you to point at. Beware, however, of them adding stock which will not be vegetarian. Dry noodle dishes are available, but not everywhere.

I think the best bet is to load up on some plain steamed bread from the supermarket or stalls such as this

bun shop.jpg

then hit the streets and find the local snack people. They can keep you going on steamed or roast corn, roast red potatoes, pickles, roast chestnuts, peanuts, fruit etc etc.


The supermarkets sell yoghurts (usually very sweet and thin) and soy milk. Fresh cow's milk is more difficult to obtain outside of the large cities - few supermarkets carry it. Western style bread is also difficult to find, although some places do French style baguettes which are passable if fresh.

Edited by liuzhou (log)
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The Problem

Before I get onto lunch and dinner, here is a quick illustration of the problem for vegetarians in China.


Celery, cashew nut and carrot - perfect. No. Not quite.Let's add some shrimp to perk it up.

fruit salad with beef.jpg

What does a fruit salad need to beef it up? Yes! Beef!

veg with chicken's feet.jpg

Some simple vegetables to munch on aren't quite good enough. Lets add some chicken's feet!


Some beautiful stir fried oyster mushrooms. They are vegetarian. Nope. They were fried in lard (pig fat) to improve the taste.

A recent blog article on one of the travel sites (I forget which) listed "China's five top vegetarian dishes". Three contained meat. The article was withdrawn after scorn and derision was poured on the writer.

The Solution?

fake beef.jpg

Vegetarian "Beef" from one of the many Chinese Buddhist Vegetarian restaurants which specialises in dishes which look and taste like non-vegetarian dishes. Why?

fake chicken.jpg

Fake chicken from the same restaurant. See menu in post 2 above.

Edited by liuzhou (log)
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Liuzhou, nice thread and posts.

Thank you

Oysters (dried) are often added in - that is vegetarian, I think? - but scallops (dried) may also be put in or substituted - and scallops are not vegetarian, if my information is correct.

Oysters are certainly not vegetarian. Whatever gave you that idea? They are no different from scallops in that. No shellfish, mollusc etc is vegetarian.

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Oysters (dried) are often added in - that is vegetarian, I think? - but scallops (dried) may also be put in or substituted - and scallops are not vegetarian, if my information is correct.

Oysters are certainly not vegetarian. Whatever gave you that idea? They are no different from scallops in that. No shellfish, mollusc etc is vegetarian.


I also gather that, apart from shellfish not being sentient lifeforms, there is this notion that oysters are "immobile", fixed to one spot (like plants??) whereas scallops are "mobile" (like animals???) in some of the arguments about the ethics of consuming one or the other...whether I agree with these notions or if they make perfect sense is another issue. :-)

Edited by huiray (log)

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whether I agree with these notions or if they make perfect sense is another issue.

Not an argument I'm going to get into either.

I've heard people insist that mushrooms aren't vegetables but are some kind of animal.

There are a lot of strange ideas in a lot of strange minds.

Edited by liuzhou (log)
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Lunch and Dinner

Apologies for the late serving of lunch and dinner. Work found where I was hiding and demanded my attention.

China doesn't really differentiate between lunch and dinner, in the sense that the same dishes could be served at either. Family home lunches often include leftovers from the previous evening's dinner and dinner will have lunch's leftovers. Also, I don't remember ever coming across a restaurant in China which had separate lunch and dinner menus.

(In fact, last night's dinner could equally well turn up for breakfast.)

Again, if you are self-catering there is no problem other than being overwhelmed by choice. For those dependent on restaurants etc, again it becomes difficult, for the reasons given above.

I've been checking out the internet and the suggestions there.

One common suggestion is to try to find hot pot restaurants. These are basically self-catering in a restaurant setting. You order up the ingredients you want and cook them yourself in the boiling broth in the centre of the table. Common vegetarian ingredients include tofu in various forms (try frozen tofu for an interesting texture), mushrooms of all kinds (fresh and dried), noodles (often vermicelli or glass noodles, lotus root, potato, bean sprouts, broccoli, various marrows, pea leaves, coriander / cilantro, seaweed, taro, etc etc.



Sounds great, but there is a problem. They are going to bring you a big bowl of boiling stock to cook your goodies in. And it is 100% certain that the stock won't be vegetarian. Most will be chicken based although the very popular Sichuan style spicy hotpot base traditionally uses both beef dripping and beef stock. I have a Chinese hot pot cookbook in front of me now. It has 34 different soup bases. Not one is vegetarian.

I had a conversation last night with a Chinese friend in which we discussed the best way to deal with this problem. We agreed that they aren't usually going to make you a vegetable stock. They are far too busy. Even if you ask for vegetable soup, they are going to add chicken (probably stock cube or powder). So you ask for plain boiled water. They will understand that and bring you a glass of hot boiled water to drink. Finally we settled on the clumsy phrase “要一锅开水代替汤底 yào yī guō kāi shuǐ dài tì tāng dǐ” which means “I want a pan of boiling water as a replacement for the soup base.” We are still highly sceptical that this would actually work. Someone in the kitchen will probably decide to perk it up with a bit of animal - and MSG.

And even if it did work, you would have to effectively make your own stock with the boiling water and some initial vegetation; otherwise you will just be eating boiled mushrooms.

Perhaps a better idea is to find one of the many restaurants which hand you a ticket when you arrive, then you wander up and down a long line of cooking stations pointing and choosing the ingredients and food you want. They stamp your ticket and, in theory, when you get back to your table (don't forget which number it is – these places can be huge) the food may well have already arrived. The ticket becomes your bill.

You will still have the problem of guessing what is in pre-prepared things like dumplings and steamed buns
(almost certainly meat - see breakfast above). But the chances of hitting on something acceptable is higher than choosing from a undecipherable menu.

Many places have picture menus which may help. But remember that pictures of food often hide a multitude of things. The pictures are not usually over-stylised or fake, but you can't, in particular, know what oils or stocks are being used or what is lurking beneath or within.

Egg and Tomato

I have to mention egg and tomato (西红柿炒鸡蛋 (xī hóng shì chǎo jī dàn) aka 番茄炒鸡蛋 (fān qié chǎo jī dàn).

This renowned dish has kept any a vegetarian alive while in China, although one friend who was here for three years has sworn never to eat egg and tomato ever again. It may not be on the menu, but there isn't a cook in China who doesn't know how to make it. It is the first dish all Chinese kids learn to cook. Basically, just scrambled eggs with tomato and maybe some spring onion/scallion. Dead simple. There are a zillion recipes and videos on the web.

Noodle Places

Some noodle places do vegetarian options. One big chain is the Japan/China franchise operation – Ajimen. They have a few vegetarian options. Menu has pictures and English.

Here in town, we have a Hong Kong noodle place which has a couple of vegetarian options. Again an English translation and pictures.


China seldom does salads as they are known in the west. Many or most people have a strong aversion to eating anything raw, mainly for hygiene reasons (see below).

Two exceptions.

Smacked cucumber with garlic (蒜泥拍黄瓜 suàn ní pāi huáng guā), originally from Sichuan but popular everywhere.

Tiger salad (老虎采 lǎo hǔ cǎi). There are two versions: one from northwest China up near the border with Siberia and another from the far west. Both are very good. The one pictured is the NW variety. Not so easy to find, but if you do, I heartily recommend it.

Tiger salad.jpg

Tiger salad

Most supermarkets do a variety of Chinese style ‘salads’ or prepared dishes which can make up a great lunch. You can see what you are buying (usually).


Supermarket 'salads"

Happy Birthday

Be very wary of birthday cake! I don't think the Chinese ever really got the baking concept. Their ‘bread’ is nearly all cake and their cakes nearly all fat. Pig fat. Yes. They make birthday cakes using lard. Not always but often!

Travel Food

Accept it now. You are not going to get a vegetarian meal on a plane or train anywhere in China. Some airlines (actually they are all the same airline – they all belong to the government. We are communist here.) have claimed to offer vegetarian meals if you book them five years in advance or something similar. I've never heard of anyone receiving one.

Do what the locals do (for different reasons). Stock up on snack foods. Peanuts, potato chips/crisps, fruit, chocolate, candies, cakes and cookies. Work out how much food you need for the duration of your journey, then buy twice that.

You will see lots of people eating instant pot noodles on trains. Each carriage has a boiling water supply. The pot noodles aren't vegetarian either.

A round up of photos


Buns - vegetarian

Corn and Red Potatoes.jpg

Street Food - Roast Corn and Roast Red Potato

mixed veg.jpg

Mixed vegetables - one of my favourite banquet dishes

I have a little more to add -mainly summary and some random thoughts that otherwise escaped. Later.

Edited by liuzhou (log)
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In a related sense, here is an anecdote from when I visited M'sia and was treated to dinner (with my siblings and mother) by my late father's closest friend's wife at a posh Chinese restaurant. Dish upon dish of marvelous meat-based things came streaming out - but I and my siblings, after a week there, were longing for veggies. Yes, meat and yet more meat had always been regarded as "status symbols" in Chinese cuisine and hospitality, I certainly recognized that. Yet... Finally I gently asked our host if I could ask for another dish and of course she agreed - whereupon I asked the waiter for a certain vegetable in a nice sauce and when it arrived fell upon it (together with my siblings) and, after a pause, the children of our host as well. :-) (Do note that none of us were "vegetarians" and I for one like my meat too) In fact, we ordered a second dish of the same thing and we polished that off too. The point of this anecdote is that MEAT is often taken to be the central feature of a meal meant to honor someone in Chinese culture. The trials of attempting to be a Western-style vegetarian in a Chinese milieu, as Liuzhou as illustrated, is a bit of a culture clash.

Edited by huiray (log)
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So to summarise:

Being a vegetarian in China is easy and exciting and interesting if you are self-catering.

For those dependent on restaurants, street food etc it is difficult, but not impossible.

The problem is partly a language barrier issue - few restaurants have English menus or English speaking staff - but even Chinese speakers (native or otherwise) struggle.

Traditional Chinese cuisine and home cooking is still largely vegetable based, but not vegetarian. Animal fats are widely used for frying and animal products often added to pimp up the veg.

You won't starve in China, but you have to be prepared to work at finding acceptable food. Some people take that on; others give up and leave.

Try to see the cooking being done. Sometimes possible - not always. Point out what you want - not what you don't want. But be wary of animal fats being used and what is that strange looking 'spice' being added? Pork floss? Shredded dried shrimp?

I have deliberately avoided recommending specific dishes. What is available varies enormously from place to place. The few dishes or foods I have specified are those I think are available pretty much everywhere.

I have no experience of it, but I think being vegan in China would be very problematic unless you were self catering. It's not that the food isn't there. It most certainly is. Veganism is just not understood in China at all.

Finally, let me relate an anecdote. A few years ago, I was in a little-known town near the Guangxi - Yunnan border. I was invited to a full scale banquet. (My heart usually sinks when that happens - the food is usually second rate at best. People are only there to get as drunk as possible as quickly as possible.) But to decline the invitation would have been inexcusably rude, so along I went.

The food was divine. The hosts and guests were polite, sober and interesting. It was, without doubt, the best banquet I have had in near-on 20 years in China. And it was entirely vegetarian.

Or so they told me!

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A fuller and corrected version of this is available here.

That last picture is terrifying

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