Beancurd Rolls with Shredded Daikon Radish and Carrot by avlxyz
Beancurd Rolls with Shredded Daikon Radish and Carrot by avlxyz

Since I moved to China eight months or so ago, I’ve came across a large amount of challenges. They have ranged from communication breakdowns, to awkward stares, to being witness to things that you just can’t unsmell. However, the question that I have been asked the most by my friends and family back home have centred around one clear topic, food.

I have spent much of the last five years as a practicing vegan. While this decision is one that I certainly consider to be a great one, it has certainly not made dining easy, especially in China, where meat is less an option and more a way of life. Worry not though, fellow herbivores, maintaining your lifestyle choices can be possible in the Middle Kingdom.

Eating an animal free diet in China is indeed a challenge, but one that is certainly possible to overcome. But before you step right in, you need to be clear of meat’s place in China, both on the tables and in the minds of the people.

Meat is considered by many Chinese to be a status symbol, as it is generally more expensive than fruits and vegetables. As a result, the wealthy people tend to eat the most meat. This is a huge reason as to why the global consumption of meat has increased so rapidly in recent years. The Chinese are getting richer, and therefore consuming far more meat. This means that a wealthy foreigner should obviously eat lots of meat, since we clearly have lots of money.

Clearly, this in itself gives you quite the uphill battle. I had many occasions were I would communicate that I do not eat meat and it would be followed up with some very quizzical looks from the locals. It’s not that I felt judged or harassed for my beliefs, I was just alien to them.

Stir-fried vegetables menu options by avlxyz
Stir-fried vegetables menu options by avlxyz

That being said, it still doesn’t hurt to try to tell people that you are a vegetarian. If you can say the following phrase (or show the following characters) to a waiter, you could be off to a good start. 我是素食主义者, this translates pretty directly to “I am a vegetarian”, which is of course a very useful thing to say. However, to be honest, I find it to be quite a mouthful to say, and don’t feel that I can do it properly with all of the “sh” and “zh” sounds being thrown around. So if your Mandarin sounds as garbled as mine, try the much easier 我不吃肉, which is saying “I eat no meat”.

Also, in many traditional Chinese dishes, meat is used less for substance, and more for seasoning. There are many great dishes in China that use just a little bit of meat to add flavour to the food (I would assume because the original cooks were too poor to use all of the animal), so be prepared for many dishes to contain some sort of meat in them.

Menus at Chinese restaurants can often involve some interesting, and unintentionally misleading translations, which can lead you to get tofu full of beef chunks, or a plate of broccoli given to you covered in ham. This can be avoided by a simple bit of character recognition. The character means “meat”, and it appears on most menu items that would contain any meat, as the direct translation of beef and pork are “cow meat” and “pig meat” respectively. So if you think that you see something like “Grandmothers fragrant garden roots”, check to find that character, because those garden roots may end up smelling like pig intestines. I find that character easy to remember, as it looks like a few cows in a pen unaware of their fate, or two wishbones sitting on a table waiting to be cracked.

If you still aren’t certain, sometimes it can be helpful to point at something on the menu and ask 这个有没有肉 which is “Does this have meat?” and hope that they say “没有” indicating that there is no meat and you can stop stressing about the ordering and get back to enjoying your meal.

Of course the most important thing to remember, is to relax. There will more than likely be times were you are brought something with eyes or a beak on it despite your best efforts. My best advice in those situations is to just give the food to your friends (Chinese meals are meant to be family style anyway), and enjoy your rice or whatever else you may have. Then get ready to try again for the next meal, which of course may be soon given that you only had rice for dinner.

China can be a very frustrating place for a lao wai, but if you try to skip the food and stay with the Western establishments then you are missing out on an interesting and important part of Chinese society. So, Veggies out there, please do yourself a favour and try to brave some Chinese restaurants. After all, with the rate things are going here, all the Western restaurants will just be KFC soon enough anyway, then what are you going to eat?

Discussion

34
  1. I can see it must be tough here, though i’m not a vegetarian myself. Nearly all of my favourite tofu dishes contain meat, such as my top fave 青蒜烧豆腐 (QingSuan Shao DouFu), because in China tofu (豆腐) is just another ingredient, not a substitute for meat.

    Even a cold tofu dish such as pidan doufu, has a coloured egg in it, so if you don’t eat eggs, that’s also a no-no.

  2. Having been a vegetarian for about eight years prior to coming to China, I can totally sympathize with ya Glen. I was fortunate (in a practical sense at least) to revert to my omnivorousness before I started travelling. I’ve dined with numerous Veggies since moving here and can’t imagine dealing with an added layer of complexity in an already challenging situation – particularly when you’re new in China, or don’t have strong language skills.

    Some great advice. Thanks for sharing it!

  3. I was in Ireland in the late 80’s and myself and my girlfriend stopped at a fast food place (in Galway)that had a sign outside that read, “VEGETARIAN BURGERS SOLD HERE”

    We ordered 2 and waited half and hour (not really fast food). Both burgers had a quarter pound of sizzling beef slapped between a humungus amount of shredded letuce covered in mayonaise.

    When my girlfriend explained that we had ordered a vegetarian burger, we got looks of bewilderment from the staff. The reply was, “well, you shoulda said you wanted the veggie burger without the meat”.

    That became our running joke (for a very short time). “one veggie burger without the meat please”

    on a side note – I ate both veggie burgers (scraped off the mayo and asked for ketchup) as I was cruelly hungry and am no vegetarian. Which disgusted my girlfriend as I had alluded to the fact I was a vegetarian to date her (but on holidays it’s hard to keep up the pretence when you smell an Irish stew) We broke up…Ah the memories, hehehe.

  4. 我是素食主义者 — Ah the problem with direct translation, it’s not colloquial.
    Say 我吃素 — easier for both you and the waiter. Add 我不吃肉 for clarification.

  5. Hi guys! this is a wicked site. I am going to songyuan, jilin in about 5 weeks and am a veggie. at the mo I haven’t taken a look at any mandarin(!) so food was a concern. does anyone know what the cost of veggies are for home cooking round this region? I can only find info on the net from 2007 and then an employer’s opinion. chars! s.

  6. This is a great post, and having some veggie friends, can empathise. We once returned one of the dishes because of the meat in it – we had specifically asked for “no meat” – and we saw them simply scrape out the chunks of meat and return the dish to us 🙁

    Sarah, veggies in China are very cheap and plentiful. I cook nearly every day, for 2, and use many veggies. I rarely spend more than 10元, that’s about £1 (or US$1.5).

  7. First off, thanks everyone for the helpful comments, it makes me happy to see such nice topical discussion here, especially after all of the flaming Ryan tends to get 🙂

    @abbaba, thanks for the colliqualizing (new word?) of my sentences, my Chinese is shall we say in the “developing” stages so I miss things like that. For anyone who is reading this and wants to know, that is said “wo che su”, which directly translates to “I eat vegetables”. And yes, that is much easier to say than what I wrote.

    @sarah. I was going to talk about the purchasing of fresh vegetables, which is very easy and very cheap in China, but I cut it for fear of turning my post into a novel. I am going to hold it for a later post. There are a lot of fruit and vegetable markets as well as soy milk/tofu dealers, making it very, very easy (and very, very cheap) to cook at home.

    Here in Suzhou there are a large amount of local farmer’s markets, and I’m sure it’s the same wherever you are. It’s very easy to buy a huge amount of them for a very low cost. That being said it is still easy to pay a lot if you stick to western style vegetables, but things like bok choi and carrots can be very easy to get.

  8. It’s very very ture about this. It’s hard to be a vegetarian in China.
    However, Buddhists are vegetarian. In China, there are still lots of ppl are Buddhists, they call this type of vegetarianism “吃斋”. And also there are some very very good restaurants which serve just vegatable and fruits. But they are kind of very expensive, even than some meat dishes.

  9. Anothe challenge you should have mentioned is NIGHT SOIL.

    Unfortunately, China also has a long tradition in the use of human feces as fertilizers, especially in growing fruits and vegetables. So eating a high (raw)vegetable/fruit diet in China is going to give you (lots of) bowel trouble and likely a worm infestation. Parasitic worms are common in China and that’s an understatement. The reason – “night soil”. Night soil is literally your crap, minus the toilet paper. It’s pumped onto the fields. So next time you eat that watermelon remember the water in it came from untreated sewage pumped onto the fields. In fact the Chinese are aware that eating watermelon can often give you the runs. Ask them what happens if you eat a lot of watermelon. Drug stores sell deworming pills like candy.
    Eating veggies in China is only possible if you boil them for half an hour (to make sure the bacteria and the worm eggs are dead) or fried in oil. Raw vegetables are Russian roulette for your bowels. You have to peel them or soak them in a 10% iodine solution for at least 20 minutes. Human feces does grow huge cabbages though. A quick search will turn up tons of articles on the night soil phenomena.
    Eating salad at a restaurant is a no no! First they are washed in undrinkable water, second you just can’t wash shit off a cucumber. See why below…
    DIFFICULTIES IN ELIMINATING HUMAN PATHOGENIC MICROORGANISMS ON RAW FRUITS AND VEGETABLES
    Author: L.R. Beuchat
    Abstract:
    Documented outbreaks of human gastroenteritis associated with consumption of raw fruits and vegetables contaminated with pathogenic bacteria, parasites, and viruses have occurred with increased frequency in many countries in the past decade. Enhanced epidemiologic and surveillance techniques, together with changes in agronomic, harvesting, distribution, processing, and consumption patterns and practices have undoubtedly contributed to this increase. The risk of human infections can be reduced by preventing contamination, controlling growth, or removing or killing pathogens by washing or treating raw fruits and vegetables with sanitizers. The efficacy of sanitizers, however, is often minimal because pathogens on and in plant tissues are protected against exposure to the lethal components. The hydrophobic cuticle, diverse surface morphology, and abrasions in the epidermal tissues of fruits and vegetables can prevent access of sanitizers to sites where pathogens may be lodged. The challenge is to devise a treatment that will reach pathogens on the surface and in subsurface areas of fruits and vegetables in an active form without compromising sensory quality.

  10. I am not a vegan, but I do prefer vegetarian food.
    I have been enjoying trying different vegetarian restaurants on recent visits to Beijing. It is quite relaxing not having to wonder if one’s vegetable dishes will have some pork decoration …

    I try not to think too much about the night soil issue mentioned above. I just don’t cook or eat raw vegetables while in China.

  11. HI everyone…..Nedzer – errrm? w.t.f.! This changes everything. I am a veggie for the love of Lclean’ food. Which regions employ these farming practices please? From which source did you get your info. I am deeply concerned (presuming it’s true). My lord.

  12. All regions. All fruits and veg grown in China use night soil.
    Search the web. Lisa from Toronto summed it up beat when she said, ” best not to think about it.”

  13. “Night Soil”
    For example, the use of human wastes as fertilizer is still widely practiced in China where human “night soil” is collected and spread on local fields along with animal wastes. The use of human wastes as fertilizer however has a significant potential for transmitting human parasites and disease. Therefore, the historical use of human wastes as fertilizer greatly accounts for the culturally-derived practice in Chinese cuisine of cooking almost all vegetables.

    Citation
    Cornell, Joseph (Lead Author); Michelle Miller (Topic Editor). 2007. “Fertilizer.” In: Encyclopedia of Earth. Eds. Cutler J. Cleveland (Washington, D.C.: Environmental Information Coalition, National Council for Science and the Environment). [First published in the Encyclopedia of Earth December 18, 2007; Last revised December 19, 2007; Retrieved April 21, 2009].

  14. Thanks guys, I would have gone chomping happily into a raw carrot were it not for your cautions on the ‘deadly night soil’. I have read that untreated night soil practices are virtually obselete now (but best not to take the chance s’pose) the thing that got to me was that the very reason I turned me veggie initially. I had read about the parasites in some meats, pork and chicken and the long term effects on the human body and thought better of it. I suppose it’s not like eating turd directly. Only I will conduct some interesting research into whether this rules out steaming veg. What do you guys think? Hey, on a lighter note, should I ever get to meet any of you information-sharing , peace-loving vegetation munching oracles, you are all welcome back to mine for a slice of pooh-pie, garnished with a vegetable of your choice!

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  16. Sarah said, “I have read that untreated night soil practices are virtually obselete now”

    That’s not true. I don’t know where you would have picked up that info. it’s widely practiced. Sorry
    “Not” using pooh to grow veggies is the rarity.

  17. hi, all. As far as i know, there are some vegetarian restaurants in certain cities like Shanghai and Hongkong, but pricing may be a little higher than it worths (from my point of view, vegetable should be inexpensive ).

    Generally speaking, China is not a good place for vegans, especially those from foreign countries. As Glen mentioned above, in Chinese people’s opinion, westerners eat a lot of meat because they usually see the scene that Americans grab a burger or beefsteak for lunch… secondly, the population of vegetarian is far too small, and I believe they will cook for themselves other than eating outside (which can’t help much in stimulating the expansion of vegetarian restaurants)

    BTW, i know a nice place for vegan who are traveling in any region of China, that is, Buddhist temple. Foods there are supposed to be more purely meat-free and cheap 🙂

  18. To be honest, when I first arrived to China (and other less developed countries) I was terrified of the “Night Soil” so I didn’t eat too many fresh fruits and vegetables. The adage for fruits and vegetables tends to be “Boil it, peel it, wash it”, in that order.

    So if you have to eat it raw, peel it (i.e. bananas), and then wash it if that doesn’t work. Obviously you are increasing your chances pretty quickly as you move down the ladder.

    However now, I am pretty lax on this, and I have even eaten some raw broccoli and carrots and had no problems, I know that’s hardly comforting since it only takes one screw up to be bad. I would recommend easing yourself into things.

    And as many people have said, Buddhist temples are great places to go for food (and atmosphere) and are generally very cheap, since they are trying to rid themselves of personal wealth and really just need to cover their costs.

  19. Shanghai has some very good vegetarian restaurants but as a strict vegetarian I’ve had to limit myself mostly to Buddhist-run vegetarian places I can trust and Western restaurants where I know what the ingredients are. After moving to China I quickly learned that most waitresses and regular restaurants will either lie about there being no meat or lard in a dish or don’t understand what constitutes meat and lard. Most seem to have no respect for the vegetarians choice or religious reasons for avoiding meat. “Oh, you count pork as meat? Well, there’s just a little bit in the tofu.” Odd that Taiwan is so vegetarian friendly while China is about the worst place for a vegetarian.

  20. Thanks Glen, nice article. The same is often true in Hong Kong restaurants: the concept of vegetarianism puzzles most people, and I wonder whether sometimes they think you’re asking for no meat because you’re poor 🙂

    When in China I usually eat at those street-side wok stalls, where you can point out what ingredients you want and it’s all cooked up together in front of you.

  21. Glen, great article. I’m sure being a vegetarian in China is difficult, and I would be curious how different it would be out here in Xinjiang. Ever been? Never met a vegetarian here, yet. I can’t decide if it would be harder because of the huge amount of lamb meat that they use here or easier because of all the different kinds of noodles available.

    Ryan, you’re a vegetarian? I learn new things every day.

    Nedzer, your comments are frightening for me, a guy who loves to eat raw (but cleaned) vegetables. After three years I’m still alive and healthy, though, so I guess that counts for something. 🙂

  22. Hi Glen,

    Your two posts so far have been great! Keep them coming. I reposted the first bit of this on the travel forum of ChinaTravel.net. If you are interested in having more of your travel and culture stuff reposted, drop me an email.

    Regards,
    Rebekah
    Forum Editor
    ChinaTravel.net

  23. Pete > I fully agree on the street side stalls, they are amazing and going to be featured in a later post on the topic (I keep saying that!), delicious, culturally adventurous, inexpensive and not in the slightest bit intimidating. I’m not certain as to exactly what type of oil they are using, but I think it is probably vegetable based on the fact that it reduces cost. But I guess there has to be a bit of sacrifice and trust in being a veggie here.

    Josh > I’m actually going to Xinjiang for the May Holiday, I’ll report back to you! However, here in Suzhou there are a few Western Chinese (i.e. Xinjiang/Gansu Province) restaurants that I frequent and thoroughly enjoy. They noodles are fantastic, and they usually flavour them with chillis and/or garlic so that it’s not too bland. I’m not certain that I could do that every day to be honest, but it does make a nice treat sometimes. Do you have any suggestions top keep my dinning fresh while I’m out there?

  24. In regards to the Night Soil issue: I lived in China for a little over two years and got to travel pretty extensively through the country. I have been a vegetarian for 13 years now and a large part of my diet is raw fruits and veggies. I bought everything from local markets and ate pretty much any fruit/veggie that was set down in front of me while I was on the road and never, ever had an issue. Mind you, I washed all my produce at home with dishsoap and water (and have since gotten into the habit of doing that since my return to Canada).

    Here is the thing with “Night Soil” – yes, it’s still used in China. But I’m sorry to break it to you guys – we use human sewage as fertilizer in North America too. What do you think happens in “treatment plants” here? Sewage is filtered, water is removed and the resulting sludge is often used on North American crops. Only I would say here it’s almost worse because there are chemicals and hormones and all SORTS of crap in our sludge, which many believe have led to huge health problems in those residing in communities adjacent to crops that use such fertilizer. But alas, I digress.

    Human waste is 100% safe to use as fertilizer IF it is properly separated and composted. (Please read that again – I don’t want people jumping down my throat on this – IT NEEDS TO BE SAFELY COMPOSTED). If the waste is properly collected and allowed to compost, there is as little danger in using it on food as there is using animal waste. There are many sanitation efforts in place in rural China to educate and enable farmers to change their practices. So the issue of “night soil” becomes a tricky one – how do you know which farms/farmers are properly using this type of fertilizer?

    I don’t have the answer… sorry. But just don’t do anything that gives you the eebie-geebies and be safe (boil/peel/wash – with soap, I would add) Regardless – don’t judge. The practice of using human waste as fertilizer is as old as agriculture itself. The term “night soil” comes from the European practice of people collecting human waste from privy vaults during the night and taking them out of the towns and cities to fertilizer farms (where they could compost) or directly to farmers fields. It’s not a “Chinese” thing – it’s a “farmer” thing.

    For those who are dying to argue with me on this: I am a Masters student currently studying the history of sewage practices and modern global sanitation. Not to say I’m an expert, but I have a certain degree of education on the matter. I can provide citations for all this, but a GREAT book (both for information on the above and other global sanitation problems) is “The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why it Matters” by Rose George.

    Hi Glen!!! Great article!!

  25. Wow – Carrie, fantastic response. And, to the best of my knowledge, you’re the only person I’ve ever met (other than English majors) that openly admits to having a shit university education 🙂

    I asked my wife (Chinese) about the night soil thing, and she said that largely it’s grown to be too expensive a practice for most small farms to use now. You wouldn’t think that something so readily available as human feces would be expensive, but apparently with more sanitation comes less direct access to it.

    I’ve eaten raw veggies (washed, but not with soap) for four years now, and no parasites to speak of. Well… none that I know about at least.

  26. There are many vegetarians in China/Taiwan due to religion. Even in Rowland Heights (modern day Chinatown East of Los Angeles), we have two Chinese vegetarian restaurants currently.

    I would not be as concerned about night soil, China has done a great job of industrialization in agriculture. For example, a concern of a friend visiting them was what items came from China, such as tofu, vegetables, etc. Heavy metals, pesticides, melamine (used to fake increased protein levels), etc.

  27. @Ray: In my time here I’ve not met a single practicing Buddhist outside a temple (and even then I have some doubts). I’m sure they exist, but I would not say there are “many” practicing vegetarians – even among those that might put “Buddhist” down on a census.

    Taiwan may be a different story, but Taiwan is a different story – it’s just an entirely different animal than the PRC.

    Not really sure what you’re saying about heavy metals, pesticides and melamine – but I think “great job” and “industrialization in agriculture” are two things that have little connection in the PRC.

    Farms are very much under-industrialized here to support the massive rural workforce. Large farms are rare, whereas patchworks of co-op plots blanket the countryside. Rare is it to find a tractor or any complex irrigation system. Mostly it’s folks breaking their backs in the fields – same as it was for the last few thousand years.

  28. Ryan,

    http://www.childbook.com/v/blog/2008/01/toxic-toys-and-chinese-workers.html references a Wall Street Journal Article that claims 10% of Chinese agriculture land is contaminated by heavy metals. And from the food poisoning in China I have been blogging about, there seems to also be a lot of pesticide contamination. China also had (has) a huge amount of questionable food additives. Boric Acid, Lye? that were added sometimes just for color, and for other reasons. My wife while in China recently, witnessed orange slices being dunked in some liquid

    In Taiwan there is a lot of vegetarianism, as in the Chinese community in the US.

    Interesting site that may help you – http://www.vegetarian-china.info/

    Religion is a very touchy subject. Figuring out the number of Budhists in China seems challenging. Official is at least 8%. Since FG , I am sure many people have become even more private about their beliefs.

    Chinese agriculture I don’t know much about truthfully, beyond it does export a huge amount.

    Ray

  29. On one of my flights (China Air) back home to Hong Kong I kept the label from my vegetarian meal. I laminated it and keep it in my wallet, it has worked wonderfully in getting vegetarian meals. Sometimes a place will offer to prepare something special if it is not on the menu.

  30. Two words:

    Hot Pot.

    Just go to a hot pot restaurant; the type where you have a personal pot. Fool-proof catch-all solution with good availability.

    You can get plain water instead of the seasoned broth stuff they usually boil in. If you know a bit of Chinese, you can fashion a vegan broth with a few spices and salt- you have to be a little careful there, though, and take it step-by-step.

    For example, first I’d get water, then I’d ask for some salt on the side. Maybe some ginger. Some sesame oil. Stick to elemental components, and they can’t get that wrong.

    In general, that kind of do-it-yourself cooking is the easiest and most reliable.

    Might just take a bit of miming to get the plain water if you don’t know any Chinese- but in any major city, there will be a patron at the restaurant (who speaks some English) who will step in to help you explain.

    1. Cooking for oneself (And China is pretty much THE best place on the world to do that for a vegan)

    2. In a pinch, go to a market and just buy some tofu. It’s already been cooked, as long as it’s fresh it’s fine to eat cold. No “night soil” issues there, although there’s little reason to be afraid of raw acidic vegetables like tomatoes.
    You can find the soft tofu in a box (buy some chopsticks too), and usually some kind of jarred or bagged sauce with English ingredients on it. The best is if you can find bái yè, or hundred pages, which is in the form of thin sheets and makes great sandwich-like wraps. That will usually be back in the deli section (there could be a small chance of cross contamination if it’s near meat, so beware of position and handling when you buy it). A little tub of sesame butter to spread inside and roll it up (maybe a bit of some kind of sauce), and that’s a pretty good lunch.

    3. Of course, there are many vegetarian restaurants in the major cities.

    4. And if not- hot pot (as mentioned)

    5. And if you can’t find hot-pot, you can always get another restaurant to make whatever you can describe. It’s not hard to find a new Chinese friend to help you out for ten minutes (they’re usually happy to practice English and it’s the most interesting thing to happen that day). Important, though: Try describing what you will eat, instead of what you won’t- it’s easier that way sometimes. E.g. “only soy oil, vegetables, and salt, no sauce” They can understand those kinds of limitations- just don’t give them room for creativity, or they’ll try to make it more delicious for you by adding meat flavour or something like that. I’ve even gotten things cooked in the microwave on a clean dish to avoid Wok cross-contamination. That route starts to get tedious, though, if your Chinese isn’t good. Otherwise, they’re happy to do it, and you’ll just get strange looks. Having it all written down might work.

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