Eating Vegetarian in China

28/11/2013 12:19 | Updated 27 January 2014

Our brains do a dizzy dance while our bellies gnaw at us like rats tearing through a carcass. Visions of delicious vegan foods from back home swirl before our eyes.

We've spent all day on the bus, with nothing to eat. Instead of stuffing our faces as soon as the driver set us free in Xi'an, we chose, insanely, to first cycle through the wild streets in search of our hostel.

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Now we are in an emergency situation. We must eat before all systems shut down for good.

In Search Of Sustenance

We walk towards the Muslim Quarter, where we've been told we'll find the best street food. At the top of the street we spot an appealing noodle stall, but we are not thinking clearly, and consequently pass it over because we "don't want to just eat at the first place we see".

Stupid, stupid, stupid.

A half-hour later, we return to the self-same noodle stall, our half-starved brains having been unable to decide between the dozens of identical-looking eateries in the Muslim Quarter.

Six baskets of fresh noodles of different shapes and thickness are arrayed on the front of the noodle cart, allowing us to just point at our selections. A relief, since wrangling with the language in our weakened state is a near impossibility.

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The friendly woman running the stall grabs two great handfuls of the noodles we've chosen and piles them on a couple of plastic-wrapped plates. She places these in a row beside the dishes that have been ordered ahead of ours. We are 7th in line.

Then, she wants to know what we'd like with our noodles. We wrap our tongues around our most used phrase, "bu chi rou", meaning "we do not eat meat".

She understands immediately and nods to indicate that this is not a problem. Then she runs over to a bowl of eggs and holds one in the air. "No", I shake my head. "OK", she nods, and then gestures for us to go sit down and wait.

Being (Mostly) Vegan Is Easy

We sit on low plastic stools arranged on the sidewalk and watch while the chef, most likely the friendly woman's son, serves wok after wok of steaming noodles, veggies, and bits of meat, likely beef. We resign ourselves to having leftover meat juices and remnants of cow in our own noodles.

That's life as a vegetarian cycle tourist. Not eating is not an option, so you do your best, and take what you can get.

But then, we notice that the chef is manhandling a second giant wok from the underside of the cart. They are so busy, we think, that he needs to fire up an extra pan just to keep up with demand. He lights up a roaring blaze and places the clean wok on top of it. Then he throws in some oil, a little sauce, our noodles, and various veggies and hot peppers. In minutes it is all sizzling temptingly, and he slides our two giant servings onto our plates.

As we are served our steaming plates of noodles, we notice that the chef has put aside our fresh wok and returned to using the other one for the remaining orders. We realise the wok was only for us, so that we wouldn't end up with meat in our food.

Amazing. These people really understand vegetarians.

You're Never Alone In China

And why wouldn't they? Vegetarianism has been around for thousands of years in China, originating with followers of Taoism and Buddhism. Millions of vegetarians (some estimate 50 million) live in China today.

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Before we came here, friends in the know assured us it would be hard to get fed in China. Actually, they said it would be impossible – we wouldn't find anything to eat. Everything is meat! Everyone eats meat!

Even our Rough Guide To Southwest China warns us that "vegetarians visiting China will find their options limited" and "no one will understand why you don't want meat when you could clearly afford to gorge yourself on a regular basis".

And yet, from where we're sitting, on tiny plastic stools with our knees up around our chins, stuffing our faces with giant plates of noodles and veggies cooked in our own special wok, things are looking pretty good.

China is the 16th country we've visited on this trip, and it is leaps and bounds ahead of any other as far as vegetarian food goes. Not a single person has looked at us as if we're insane when we tell them that we don't eat meat. This happened all the time in Eastern Europe, where most people were pretty sure they must have misunderstood our request.

Almost every restaurateur in China, no matter how humble the restaurant, has been willing to bend over backwards for our vegetarian ways.

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But they don't really have to, because vegetable and tofu dishes are standard fare in China, and make up part of almost any meal.

Know Where To Look

The only places we actively avoid are the meat specialists. They're easy to spot, seeing as they normally have duck carcasses hanging in a grisly row outside, usually alongside plastic buckets filled with various unidentifiable meaty looking blobs.

You don't really need to hunt for speciality vegetarian restaurants here. Almost any cook will be able to whip up some delicious meat free foods for you, without even going off-menu. Of course, you are taking the chance that your meal will include animal fats and broths – something we have come to accept along the way.

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If you can't stomach this possibility, it's relatively easy to find dedicated veggie places too.

In the extra large cities, the ones you've most likely heard of, like Beijing, Shanghai, Xi'an, and Chengdu, there is at least one sprawling, upmarket vegetarian restaurant, such as Vegetarian Lifestyle. These are often tucked away in a high rise mall, so you need to know where to look. In our experience, they have beautifully photographed picture menus with English translations, and serve dishes like vegetarian Peking duck and vegetarian fish.

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They are on the pricey side (by Chinese standards) but are worth visiting for two reasons.

One, if you are getting sick of tofu every day, you'll find more variety here, including lots of types of mock meats.

Two, it's a total trip to enter these vast restaurants packed to the gills with families, couples, and businessmen, all eating vegetarian food. To be surrounded by this many people eating the way we do is a thrill.

There are even a couple of Western vegetarian food options in the cities. Just search Happy Cow to find them.

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In smaller cities, and anywhere with an active Buddhist Temple, you are likely to find a vegan restaurant attached to the temple itself. These range from fancy dining to cheap-but-tasty buffets. They're not always easy to find though.

Sometimes they are listed in our guide books, sometimes we find them on our Happy Cow app, and sometimes just by searching online for "vegetarian restaurant" and the name of the city we're in. We've been told just to ask around for "temple food", but we haven't tried this out yet.

We've never been disappointed in the quality of the food and quite frequently find ourselves eating alongside real Buddhist monks.

Even in tiny villages, we have stumbled upon the occasional vegetarian restaurant.

One day, riding through the Qinling mountains, we went into the first restaurant we saw in a one-street market town. The bowls of noodles everyone was eating, the only dish at the restaurant, were decorated with a few veggies, peppers, and bits of tofu. Not a sliver of meat anywhere.

Getting Your Message Across

The only hard part of being vegetarian in China is learning how to communicate that you don't want meat.

Saying, in Mandarin, "I am a vegetarian" only seems to work in big cities. In most areas, the word for vegetarian just doesn't seem to mean anything.

More reliable has been our printed card that says "wo men bu chi rou". It's especially helpful when our terrible pronunciation or regional variations in the language render us incomprehensible to the poor waitresses who have to serve us.

Chinese friends in Beijing told us this was the right thing to say, which was later confirmed by people we met in Xi'an. Yet, as we travel further south, things have started to get complicated. In the region we have just left, Hubei Province, it seems that this little phrase, which has served us well for six weeks, no longer works.

We discovered this the hard way, when a waitress brought us a meaty dish, insisting that it was not "rou". We made a fuss and refused to eat it. The manager explained, with much moo-ing and miming, that the meat was from a cow, not "rou".

Only later did we learn that in these parts, "rou" is just "pork".

So now we are exploring new techniques. We're learning how to say "we eat vegetables", we are creating a deck of photo cards showing pictures of the things we will not eat, and we are trying out a new phrase that is also supposed to mean "we don't eat meat".

None of these techniques will be necessary for the next few weeks, however, since we'll be in Shanghai, where we'll cook for ourselves, visit all the vegetarian restaurants we can manage, and have the luxury of being understood in English almost everywhere we go.

You can join our daily adventures in China at My Five Acres.

All photos copyright Jane Mountain, 2013