Before my trip to China, I got an earful about my dietary choices from a number of friends.
“You’ll have a hard time finding food without meat in it.”
“There’s pork in everything.”
“You’re pretty much going to be stuck eating rice.”
“Good luck getting much without pork or fish in it in Hong Kong.”
Not so fast there, chums!In spite of J’s assurances during the planning stages that there’d be plenty for me to eat in China, I really did start to despair. I even went so far as to pack an entire Costco-sized box worth of Clif bars, fretting as to whether or not it’d be enough to keep me from going hungry.
Well, as my bathroom scale can attest, I definitely did not go hungry. And while it was nice to have the Clif bars (especially when I spent a day sick in Shenzhen, and didn’t want to risk getting anything spicy), they added more weight to my pack than they were worth, and by the end I was forcing myself to eat them — or foisting them off on J — just to clear up some room in my overstuffed bags.
And so, without further fuss or ado, here are a handful of food options that got me through the trip.
We had a couple hot pot places back home in Ottawa (that have since gone out of business), but never anything as nice as Haidilao. Started in Sichuan in 1994, Haidilao is a chain of over 130 hot pot restaurants scattered all over Mainland China. As with any other hot pot place, the setup is simple. You start with a choice (or two choices) of broth — the range of which includes a few vegan/vegetarian options — and then add whatever meat, vegetables, tofu, or fake meat options you’d like from a wide array of choices — all you need to do to keep it vegan/vegetarian is omit the meats, and make sure your tablemates are okay leaving at least one of the broths un-meated.
You cook your assortment of ingredients in the boiling broth, and once they’re done, dunk them in your sauce of choice and consume sloppily. Seriously, the process of cooking and consuming hot pot is messy enough that places will give you aprons or bibs, and Haidilao even provides little Ziploc bags that you can drop your phone in so that it doesn’t end up all soupy.
The beauty with hot pot is that it’s basically a culinary Choose Your Own Adventure. You make it as spicy or as tame as you want through your choice of broths and dipping sauces, and the composition of your dish hinges entirely on what you choose to put in. Every meal is unique, a testament to your creativity!
Malatang is sort of similar to hot pot, in that you pick out your ingredients from a vast array of vegetables, tofu options, and meats. You pay by weight, and then the restaurant cooks up your options in big specialized pots, and then douses them in spicy, numbing oil (the “mala” spice) and sesame paste.
The beauty is that the meat and non-meat ingredients are cooked in different broths, so if you happen to be vegetarian, there’s no risk of meat contamination. And the selection of ingredients is usually quite impressive. In the small malatang restaurant we went to in Shenyang, a little way off San Hao Road, I loaded up on noodles, broccoli, bok choy, bamboo shoots, water chestnuts, wood ear mushrooms, lotus root, seitan, and three kinds of tofu. It was all cooked up and presented to me in a big delicious bowl of win.
Even vegan street food can be easily found. Granted, it’s easier to do in the North than it is further South, and by the time we got to Hong Kong, street food that didn’t have egg/fish/meat was in much shorter supply.
In Beijing, J found us a vendor selling roasted potatoes covered in Chinese five-spice, and another selling little paper bowls of stinky tofu, only a couple minutes’ walk from our hostel on Nanluoguxiang.
In Shenyang, there were even more options. On our first day, J and I chowed down on spicy cold noodles from a street-side stall and menzi —a strange pile of mashed potato and cubes of starch, covered in the ubiquitous five-spice — from the noodle-stall’s neighbour.
Later still in Shenyang, we found ourselves at one of the bustling night markets, where we greedily scarfed down skewers of mian jin (a sort of fake meat made from wheat gluten, often known in the west by the Japanese name seitan), spicy potatoes, and yet more menzi.
And no matter where we went, we could always find vegan street foods for breakfast. Youtiao (a long lump of fried dough, kind of like a churro), zhou (congee, or rice porridge), and hot doujiang (soy milk, often sweetened) saved a hungry Dave on many a morning.
Throw in all the baozi (steamed, stuffed buns) vendors, and the fresh fruit stands (where you can buy mangoes, lychees, dragon fruit, and dozens of others), and you could easily survive on street food alone.
When in doubt, look for a Buddhist temple. Many Chinese Buddhists are vegetarians, and the restaurants that cater to them tend to pop up around temple areas. Several years ago, when she was visiting Macau, a very hungry J — unable to read either the Portuguese or the Traditional Chinese signs very well — luckily stumbled upon a Buddhist temple with an attached restaurant.
Even if you can’t find a temple, you can often find someone to point you toward a Buddhist restaurant. In Hong Kong, J found help locating a restaurant by asking a staff member in a Buddhist bookstore, who actually walked us most of the way to a nearby vegetarian buffet.
Similarly to above, Halal restaurants will often have an abundance of vegetarian and vegan options. Because of internal migration within China, there’s a proliferation of Muslim Chinese in all of the big cities, and as a result, each city has plenty of restaurants catering to them. Seriously, we spotted dozens of halal restaurants in every city we stayed in, from Shenyang to Shenzhen.
And the Rest
Honestly, there are plenty of restaurants that either cater specifically to vegans and vegetarians, or at least have enough options that it’s easy to eat there. In Dandong, on the border with North Korea, J ordered us enough vegan food at a little hole in the wall that we could have easily fed four people. In Hong Kong, we found an entirely vegan restaurant that served Western-style food like burgers and made all their fake meats in house.
If you find yourself having a hard time, you can always fall back on one simple phrase: “Wo chi su” (or, with the pronunciation marks in pinyin: “wǒ chī sù”). Literally, it means “I eat vegetables”, but everyone knows that you really mean “I am a vegetarian”. Alternatively, you can try “wo bu chi rou (pronounced “row”) / jidan / yu / niunai / haixian” in any combination (“I don’t eat meat / egg / fish / milk / seafood”). You could even just fall back on saying you’re a Buddhist (either if you a) are a Buddhist, or b) don’t mind masquerading as one), and places will generally be fine with making you something without meat. The phrase for that is “wǒ shì fójiào tú” (‘whoa shee foe-jee-ow too’), which literally translates to “I am Buddhist”.
As with anything else when it comes to travel, a little research and some persistence will go a long way toward making your trip that much better.