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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 (肉), 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
While there have been other Chinese vegetable topics in the past, few of them were illustrated And some which were have lost those images in various "upgrades".
What I plan to do is photograph every vegetable I see and say what it is, if I know. However, this is a formidable task so it'll take time. The problem is that so many vegetables go under many different Chinese names and English names adopted from one or other Chinese language, too. For example, I know four different words for 'potato' and know there are more. And there are multiple regional preference in nomenclature. Most of what you will see will be vegetables from supermarkets, where I can see the Chinese labelling. In "farmer's" or wet markets, there is no labelling and although, If I ask, different traders will have different names for the same vegetable. Many a time I've been supplied a name, but been unable to find any reference to it from Mr Google or his Chinese counterparts. Or if I find the Chinese, can't find an accepted translation so have to translate literally.
Also, there is the problem that most of the names which are used in the English speaking countries have, for historical reasons, been adopted from Cantonese, whereas 90% of Chinese speak Mandarin (普通话 pǔ tōng huà). But I will do my best to supply as many alternative names as I can find. I shall also attempt to give Chinese names in simplified Chinese characters as used throughout mainland China and then in traditional Chinese characters, now mainly only used in Hong Kong, Taiwan and among much of the Chinese diaspora. If I only give one version, that means they are the same in Simp and Trad.
I'll try to do at least one a day. Until I collapse under the weight of vegetation.
Please, if you know any other names for any of these, chip in. Also, please point out any errors of mine.
I'll start with bok choy/choy. This is and alternatives such as pak choi or pok choi are Anglised attempts at the Cantonese pronunciation of the Mandarin! However in Cantonese it is more often 紹菜; Jyutping: siu6 coi3. In Chinese it is 白菜. Mandarin Pinyin 'bái cài'. This literally means 'white vegetable' but really just means 'cabbage' and of course there are many forms of cabbage. Merely asking for bái cài in many a Chinese store or restaurant will be met with blank stares and requests to clarify. From here on I'm just going to translate 白菜 as 'cabbage'.
So, here we go.
Brassica rapa subsp. pekinensis
This is what you may be served if you just ask for baicai. Or maybe not. In much of China it is 大白菜 dà bái cài meaning 'big cabbage'. In English, usually known as Napa cabbage, Chinese cabbage, celery cabbage, Chinese leaf, etc. In Chinese, alternative names include 结球白菜 / 結球白菜 ( jié qiú bái cài ), literally knotted ball cabbage, but there are many more.
It is possibly not well-known that China has some wonderful hams, up there with the best that Spain can offer. This lack of wide -knowledge, at least in the USA, is mainly down to regulations forbidding their importation. However, for travellers to China and those in places with less restrictive policies, here are some of the best.
This article from the WSJ is a good introduction to one of the best - Xuanwei Ham 宣威火腿 (xuān wēi huǒ tuǐ) from Yunnan province.
This Ingredient Makes Everything Better
I can usually obtain Xuanwei ham here around the Chinese New Year/Spring Festival, but I also have a good friend who lives in Yunnan who sends me regular supplies. The article compares it very favourably with jamon iberico, a sentiment with which I heartily agree.
more coming soon.
This is one of my daughter favorite dishes, being mild and less spicy she loves this rice dish. Its super easy to make and goes well with most Indian curries.
Do try this out and I am sure you will be happy with the results.
Prep Time : 5 mins
Cook Time: 5 mins
1 cup rice(basmati), cooked
1/2 cup coconut, shredded or grated
1 green chili, slit
1 dried red chili
1 1/2 tablespoon oil/ghee(clarified butter)
1/2 teaspoon mustard seeds
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/2 tablespoon chana dal(split chickpeas)
1/2 tablespoon urad dal(split black gram)
1 teaspoon ginger, finely chopped
A pinch of hing (asafoetida)
Few curry leaves
Salt to taste
1) Heat oil/ghee(clarified butter) in a pan in medium flame. I used coconut oil here because it tastes best for this dish.
2) Add mustard seeds, cumin seeds, chana dal(split chickpeas), urad dal(split black gram), green chili, dried red chili, ginger and curry leaves. Fry this for 30 seconds in medium flame. The trick is to ensure that these are fried but not burned.
3) Add a pinch of hing(asafoetida) and mix well.
4) Now add the cooked rice and coconut. Stir well for about 15 to 20 seconds and switch off the flame.
5) Finally add salt into this and mix well. You could add peanuts or cashew nuts if you prefer. Goes well with most curries.
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