Many vegetarian travelers may be concerned about whether they can find a place to eat while visiting China. This is quite natural, especially going to a country with language barrier and different cultural background. If you are traveling to the cities, there are various popular vegetarian foods and always some vegetarian restaurants in China catering to the needs of Buddhists and vegetarians. After all, Chinese consume 40% of the world’s vegetables and fruits annually. Traditionally Chinese people have many vegetables dishes cooked with meat garnish. We can simply ask the restaurant to take the meat out before cooking. It is also a good solution for the travelers if the veg food is not available.
In many cities of China, there are some vegetarian restaurants sponsored by the Buddhist followers to promote Buddhism and vegetarianism. They offer vegetarian buffets at the cost of around CNY30-60pp (US$4.3-8.6). Some high-profile vegan restaurants were set up to accommodate the needs of wealthy people in big cities (Cost: CNY200-1000pp). Of course the dishes usually look more finely-worked.
Here below are some helpful tips for international travelers who are doing vegetarian tours in China:
1. Research on the vegetarian foods & restaurant in China
While China is paradise for foodies, it is not considered a very vegetarian-friendly country by many. Local people’s conception of vegetarianism may be not the same as yours. Most Chinese people consider eggs are vegetarian. Some even consider seafood vegetarian.
If you book a China vegetarian tour with a travel agent, like us, please inform him/her of your food preference and ask for some suggestions. The travel agent will then arrange for you the local vegetarian restaurant, in consideration of your food preference yet also combining local delicacy. If you travel independently in China, then search online to look for any useful information of your destinations, such as Google, Youtube, Reddit or travel forums. And make sure you find the real vegetarian restaurants, and the dishes you order are actually vegetarian.
2. Learn to speak “I am a vegetarian” in China.
In Chinese, it is better to say wǒ chī sù (我吃素，I eat vegetarian food), which is simpler to foreigners. If you are a vegan, then you are supposed to say wǒ chī quán sù (我吃全素，I eat only veg food). Here below are some other helpful phrases:
- I don’t eat meat – 我不吃肉 (wǒ bù chī ròu)
- I don’t eat eggs – 我不吃蛋 (wǒ bù chī dàn )
- I don’t eat fish or seafood – 我不吃鱼或海鲜 (wǒ bù chī yú huò hǎi xiān)
- I don’t eat dairy products – 我不吃乳制品 (wǒ bù chī rǔ zhì pǐn)
There are some videos online teaching people how to say these phrases:
3. Highly recommended vegetarian dishes in China
Chinese vegetarian dishes are usually cooked with vegetable oil / salad oil, vegetables, soy products, tofu, gluten, bamboo shoots, fungi, algae, and dried or fresh fruits. Here are we list some popular and reliable meat-free dishes to sample on your China trip. >> Click to check more vegetarian foods ideas
Spicy Sichuan Bean Curd: 麻辣豆腐 (má là dòu fu)
Stir-fried eggplant, sweet peppers, and potato: 地三鲜 (dì sān xiān)
Fried shredded green pepper and potato: 青椒土豆丝 (qīng jiāo tǔ dòu sī)
Fried broccoli: 白灼西兰花 (bái zhuó xī lán huā)
Fried egg and tomato: 西红柿炒蛋 (xī hóng shì chǎo dàn)
Scallion pancakes: 葱油饼 (cōng yóu bǐng)
Fried flowering cabbage: 白灼菜心 (bái zhuó cài xīn)
Fried lettuce: 白灼生菜 (bái zhuó shēng cài)
Vegetarian steam bun: 素包子 (sù bāo zi)
4. Use a Vegetarian Food App
You can visit the website of Happy Cow to locate vegetarian restaurants in China. At your convenience, it is also recommended to download the HappyCow App into your smart phone, so you can read the info at any time.
5.Use translation app when ordering dishes
In case, you can’t find a vegetarian restaurant near where you stay, and have to order dishes at a regular local restaurant. You can possibly install a translation app in your smart phone like Waygo, which is an award-winning app that translates food menus and signage. Other ones like Google Translate, Microsoft Translator, Baidu Translate (China) can also help.
6. Eat at temple-run restaurants
Monasteries and temples are some of the best places to visit when traveling as a vegetarian in China. Most of them have eateries that offer authentic vegetarian foods and meat-free dishes. The well-known "vegetarian chicken", "vegetarian duck", and "vegetarian ham" were originated from the temple.
Vegetarian dishes from Fayuan Temple in Beijing, Lingyin Temple in Hangzhou, Jade Buddha Temple in Shanghai, Baoguang Temple in Chongqing, and Daming Temple in Yangzhou, have been popular among locals for hundreds of years and even thousands of years. Vegetarian feasts in Daming Temple have even become the mainstream of Huaiyang cuisine.
7. Ensure the foods you are served are truly vegetarian
As I’ve mentioned at the beginning of this article, Chinese conceptions of vegetarian foods are different from that of many other counties. Just because you have stated clearly that, “我吃素 (I am a vegetarian),” and you order vegetarian foods, don’t guarantee you will get the same. Let alone there are always unexpected “traps” - some foods look like vegetarian, but actually garnished with meat, egg or seafood. So you’ll need to ask the restaurant staff to clarify the oil, soup bases, ingredients, baozi/dumpling stuffing, and more.
8. Explore the local wet market and streets
When it comes to your trip to China, you’re actually lucky, vegetarian travelers somehow have more options on food than that of many other countries, not only because of the diverse Chinese cuisine, but also because the rich food materials. While there’s lots of fun to visit the traditional wet market and back streets in China, it’s also likely that you can find vegan foods and drinks, like red dates, mixed nuts, local seasonal fruits and vegetables. At the food stalls and vendors, there’re also chances you can taste some authentic Chinese vegan snacks, like Yunnan style baked tofu, meat-free noodles (e.g. Wuhan hot dry noodles), mushroom steam bun, vegetable steam bun, dim sum (Ludagunr, green bean cake, rice cake, sugar oil baba), grinding tea, tangyuan (sweet dumplings), Chinese desert, vegan steamed vermicelli roll…
9.Healthy vegan travel snacks are helpful
China is growing to be a vegetarian-friendly country, but currently finding vegan foods in some remote areas can still be tricky. Therefore, you’d better to pack some vegan snacks, so even if you’re hiking the unexplored village in Yunnan or driving through rural areas of Guizhou, or the wilderness of the Silk Road, with no vegan restaurants/store in sight, you’ll still have something healthy, yummy vegan foods to eat.
Vegan snacks contain no meat, dairy, or eggs. The best vegetarian snacks/drinks for you to travel with should be of small size and easy to pack, such as:
Nuts & seeds (pistachio, hazelnut, walnut, peanut, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, etc.)
Fruits & veggies (apple, banana, baby tomatoes, cherry, carrot, etc.)
Whole grain crackers
10. Cook yourself.
If you’re interested in cooking and Chinese cuisine, you’re encouraged to take a cookery lesson in China. Learn from local family or professional chef the way to prepare Chinese vegetarian dishes. Remember the recipe and take it home.