Despite the black chickens and profusion of mystery meats on sticks being a vegetarian in China is not difficult. In fact, speaking from experience, it's much easier to be a vegetarian in China than in the United States or most of Europe. With one caveat: if you're a strict vegetarian – meaning you don't anything that's been cooked with meat fat or on a grill with fleshy things, or if you're not willing to pick around the occasional piece of meat – then it's going to be quite trying and you may lose weight and sometimes your patience too.
Eating in China is always a shared experience and so a whole variety of dishes are ordered – meat, fish, vegetables, dofu, cold dishes, soup... and everyone shares. Chinese eat a lot of meat these days but they also eat a lot of vegetables. You almost never see a meal without vegetable dishes and there is always a wonderful variety of greens – some that you don't see much outside of China – eggplant, eggs, a veritable cornucopia of mushrooms, endless variations of tofu and gluten products. And most of it's easy on the wallet too.
Vegetarians in the west are often better off with “ethnic” - Indian, Thai, African - restaurants than they are with the native food. Growing up a vegetarian in the midwestern US my dining out options were often confined to omelets and grilled cheese sandwiches. Things are improving but because at most western restaurants you order only for yourself you can end up dining on side dishes or the same one salad or veggie pasta the restaurant has over, and over, and over again.
Chinese may be surprised when you say you are a vegetarian but they usually understand well what it means, in fact the fuwuyuan – waiters and waitresses - will often ask if you eat eggs or not. But while Chines people do not think that chicken counts as vegetarian – which the occasional American or 'vegetarian' does – meat tends to find its way into dishes as a seasoning. Ganbian siji dou – spicy green beans - will often have bits of meat even if you're really clear about not wanting any, the same thing happens with veggie stalwart jia chang dofu – home-style tofu.
Being a vegetarian in China takes some vigilance, patience, and tolerance but it is rewarding. You don't need to go to China's many excellent vegetarian restaurants to enjoy delicious meatless food and you will get a lot less weird looks than you might think. Friends will express surprise and shake their heads – how can you live without meat? – and then order up 7 amazing vegetarian dishes that you've never seen before. Chines people are wonderful to eat with – they will pour you tea and make sure you're getting (more) than enough food, and will often happily eat a meal of all vegetarian dishes.
Vegans won't have too much trouble either as very few dairy products are used in Chinese cooking. If you're really strict you may have some problems but one thing you can do is keep going to the same restaurants until you've managed to train the wait staff – the fuwuyuan at the restaurants I go to frequently always remember I'm a veggie and point out dishes I might like and warn me when dishes have meat in them. Or go to a vegetarian restaurant. Strict Buddhists are vegetarians and so most cities have restaurants where you can eat every single thing on the menu. Some go overboard – I don't really want fake fat on my fake meat and I haven't been won over yet by fake fish – but the mock meat they serve up has nothing to do with the rubbery veggie dogs you ate back home.
Some useful phrases to keep your meal flesh free:
我吃素 | w? chī sù– literally means I eat vegetables, effectively means 'I'm a vegetarian'.
我不吃肉 | w? bù chī ròu – I don't eat meat – remember, repetition is key, take every opportunity to remind them you don't partake of the flesh.
我是素食 | w? shì sù shí – I am a vegetarian.
可以不放肉吗 | k? y? bù fàng ròu m?– can you not add meat? What you ask when trying to find if meat can be taken out of a dish. They will respond 可以| k? y? – sure, or 不可以| bù k? y? – it's not possible.
有什么素菜 | y?u shén me sù cài– what vegetable dishes do you have?
什么肉都不要 | shén me ròu dōu bù yào– I don't want any meat at all
Aways remember to be nice and friendly and say 谢谢 | xiè xie - thank you.
How To Order Chinese Food Dot Com has a great guide to Chinese vegetarian dishes with pictures, descriptions, and Chinese characters and pronunciation.
How To: Be Vegetarian in Guangzhou
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