A few summers ago I was in China for the very stereotypical gig of teaching English. I spent three months on Hainan (island at the base of China), in the city of Haikou. It was there that I discovered just how easy it is living as a vegetarian in the United States compared to outside of the country. So, without further ado, here are some basic questions you might ask as a vegetarian or vegan before you head off to Orient.
Note to the Vegans: cheese, and other dairy products are not really in their food vocabulary – unless of course you hit up the ever-increasing number of American joints.
So what can I eat there? “Well there’s rice…”
When you cross national borders and enter China, you’re exchanging the irritating answer to “What can I eat here?” from “They have pasta / salad” to, “They have rice and vegetables!” But don’t be fooled here, your average stint to the local Mandarin House does not speak any volume as to what kind of food you’ll be able to consume in China. While it may seem doable to consume varying dishes of rice, noodles, and vegetables while abroad, it’s actually not safe to assume the rice is always going to be in line with “vegetarian”. Why? Because it’s incredibly common for them to substitute your version of typical cooking oils for alternatives such as lard (aka pig fat), especially when it’s from street vendors who, you should note, will on rare occasions recycle said oils (think recycled pig fat and meat juices/bits – yum). Though, as a vegetarian or vegan you can rest assured your stomach will alert you to these travesties if your eyes have not.
All in all, though it’s nothing like what you might’ve experienced on your home turf, I did return from China still loving and craving good Chinese food. Unfortunately, I developed a bias for truer Chinese food, and thus Panda Express is a no-go.
Chinese people are so skinny, I’ll lose weight there, right?
Not so fast, buddy. While China boasts a slimmer population compared to let’s say, your home country (God bless America – no really, someone bless our fat Twinkie-consuming souls), the grandeur of American consumerism, specifically on the literal side, has wormed its way into China’s borders and began plumping up the otherwise slender people. And oh boy do they do it right. I’d recommend trying out their version of Pizza Hut – their crust is something I still salivate over in my dreams.
This doesn’t mean you can’t maintain or lose weight there, but just like you do at home, you have to watch your portion control and keep a keen eye on what’s being placed in front of you. Like, a very keen eye. Depending on what you’re doing there you might end up like I did and gain ten pounds out of nowhere – but don’t worry I joined a gym and lost that real fast before coming back home with a mixture of running and weight lifting. However, I wouldn’t recommend this particular path to women who share my joy in weight lifting as China has yet to see muscular women, and being stared at like I’m crazy was not part of my exercise-highs.
Do they understand what I mean by “no meat”?
Unfortunately, just like the rest of the world they don’t include seafood in the category of meat, so not only will you need to inform them no meat, but mention no seafood either depending on the dish. They just might look at you like you’re crazy, but know that the harm stops there and they will do as you requested.
Easy, right? Not quite. While you might assume that simple (like my hedgehog dumpling over here) or vegetable dishes would be void of meat, sometimes they’ll find ways to sneak some meaty chunks into it without mentioning it in the brief descriptions you might find on menus or in the pictures displayed on walls that you can point at. While on a trip across the island, I encountered an eggplant dish (my favorite vegetable there – amazing considering I hate the vegetable the moment I’m home again), which had small pea sized chunks of fish. When I first bit into it I was very confused and wasn’t sure what I was eating as it was slightly hard (and I’ve never had fish ever). Thankfully my companions were able to identify it as fish, and thus save me from eating any more of it – not that I wanted to.
Is it dangerous to eat food or drinks from street vendors?
This is a gamble that I found well worth the risk, and I don’t mean in tainting the purity of my status as a vegetarian through consuming questionable oils, I’m talking food poisoning. While I personally did not experience the dark side of the gamble, one of my companions did, and had an unfortunate bout of projectile vomiting and other miseries for a few days – but we deduced that it had been from some meat she had consumed, so you as a vegetarian or vegan just might be safe after all.
Depending on the time of day you will experience different sorts of foods available to you from the street vendors. In the mornings you’ll find fresh fruits and fruit drinks including boba, and also fresh breads that appear as donuts but are way less sweetened than done in other countries (to your downfall if you’re not careful and have a sweet tooth, it hits just enough of it to make you want more, and more and…). Later on in the day more drink stands will pop up and different sorts of noodle and rice togo options that offer up spicy and peanut mixed delights, dumplings that do have vegetarian options often filled with corn and peas, and other cooked things such as “thousand layer bread” which really is a flat bread seasoned with savory spices that is to die for.
One thing you absolutely must submit yourself to is street barbeque. Often pulled out in the evenings when it was much more tolerable to work with, barbeques would line up a street corner with plastic chairs and tables popping up from nowhere. Select your own assortment of tofu and vegetables and have it served up to you when they’re done. Wonderful and a tasty experience.
In general I don’t think I can emphasize enough how obsessed over their food I was, but if you ever go and you have a general liking for Chinese food, then you’ll probably feel the same.
What is the fruit and vegetable options there?
Here is where you will fall in love with the glory of local markets if you haven’t experienced it in another country already. Though similar to a farmer’s market, the local markets in China have a more pure and raw feel to them that you just can’t help but love. Ever heard of rambutan? Well, you better, because you won’t regret it. Though daunting on the approach in getting to the core, these delectable fruits contain a soft grape-like core with a large seed to work around, but so worth the effort. To give you an idea I could consume a whole two pound bag of them in one sitting and regret nothing. But that’s not China’s only crowning glory of fruits and vegetables. My roommates and I enjoyed weekly, sometimes bi-weekly, fresh whole pineapples and watermelon – sweeter than you’ve ever tasted. And don’t forget about the vegetables! Rows and rows of fresh vegetables, recognizable and unrecognizable but all incredibly fresh and worth the experimentation.
Will restaurants have pictures with their food on menus?
Oh, yes they most certainly will, but being able to match those pictures, or even translate the ingredients of those pictures, will be your eternal struggle. This of course doesn’t mean you can’t point to pictures while your server is taking your order, but depending on the restaurant they may have to ask you questions, which can become simultaneously embarrassing and frustrating, so don’t be that obvious tourist for the rest of the restaurant and either come prepared or with a guide.
What sort of prices should I expect?
In my experience, if you’re somehow in China to begin with, then you’ll have plenty of money to spend on food – and really, forget the souvenirs, get the food. Just do it! Currency rates fluctuate and I’m sure it’s a little different than when I was there in the summer of 2013, but then 700 kuai (the spoken word for the paper currency) was roughly equivalent to 200USD. And the average meal that will more than adequately feed you is about 15kuai if you’re out and about among street vendors – 30 if your desire for their food is insatiable, like me!
So, where’s the safe haven for vegetarians in China?
Well… Buddhists. More specifically, a Buddhist restaurant. Why? Because these folk represent your only hope of unquestioned vegetarianism while abroad. They have imitation meat perfected down to your t’s crossed and your i’s dotted. They have strong command of flavor and variety with their vegetable and tofu fake meat imitations, and I can honestly say I’ve not tasted anything better since.
All in all, my best word of advice would be don’t go anywhere for food without bringing a translator the first time, or knowing the language well enough yourself to convey what you’re asking for, because trust me, it’s all worth it if the experience isn’t ruined by accidentally consuming meat.