I am sitting at the table, at a fairly nondescript Chinese restaurant in Shenzhen’s Fumin district. Around me, my friends and boyfriend are beginning to dig into their meals happily, but I hesitate. I flag down the waitress. “Excuse me,” I say, or rather, I speak into Google Translate. “I asked for no meat. I am vegetarian. What is this?” I point to the offending chunks of Spam-like mystery meat that have been liberally sprinkled around my tofu dish. The waitress seems confused. I pass my phone across to her and await her translated response. “It’s pork sausage,” her message reads. “You asked for no meat. I thought this was okay.” At this moment, I start to question whether I have in fact moved to China, or if I somehow made a wrong turn and ended up on an entirely different planet, where pigs grow on trees, and nothing makes sense.
Before moving to China, well-meaning friends and family would ask “Do you think it will be difficult being vegan in China? I mean, they eat a lot of meat there don’t they?” I usually ended up reassuring them that I would be totally fine, and mumbling something about Buddhists being vegetarian. While I can confidently say that I have not yet died of malnutrition, I’ve definitely had my share of struggles – and encountered far fewer Buddhists than I naively imagined.
I’ve found that people don’t quite understand what vegetarian means, let alone why someone would want to be one. Of course, there’s also the significant language barrier: For one thing, I can no longer read food labels with superhuman speed, and tell you whether or not something is vegan. However, I want you to know that there is hope for us! Here are my top tips for surviving life in China as a vegan or vegetarian!
Tip 1: Learn How to Say “I Don’t Eat Meat”
Okay, so you’ve got a few options for this one. Some of the first things I learned to say in Mandarin were: “wǒ chī sù ” (Literally: I eat vegetables, but also can mean “I am vegetarian”), “wǒ bù chī ròu ” (I don’t eat meat), and “méiyou ròu ” (Without meat). Look up “Fiona Tian” on Youtube for a handy guide to pronunciation!
However, this is not always understood for various reasons – hence the pork sausage fiasco. So I have found the best possible solution is to either get a native Mandarin speaker to write you a little card in Mandarin explaining in detail what you don’t eat or look online for “Vegan/Vegetarian Translation Card Mandarin”. Here is a very thorough one. More often though, I just type my little spiel into Google Translate and show the waiter or chef my phone – it works well in most cases!
You can also use Google Translate’s photo translation tool to check ingredients on food labels (with a VPN of course)! Either way, I am still always skeptical and will crack open a dumpling to inspect it before taking a bite.
Plan Ahead — Seek out Vegetarian Restaurants
Back home, it might have been easy enough to be spontaneous, and just wander around until you found somewhere suitable to eat. However, I’ve learned that in China, it pays to plan ahead. If you’re vegetarian or vegan, you’ve probably already heard of the app and website called Happy Cow – if you haven’t, you’re seriously missing out! It’s a community-compiled list of vegetarian and vegan-friendly restaurants and cafes, and most cities have tons of entries!
The app isn’t free, but it’s really cheap – and in my mind, definitely worth paying for. The app includes a map feature where you can input your current location, and see what veg-friendly restaurants are close by. Thanks to Happy Cow, I have found several fantastic vegetarian places in Shenzhen! Check it out here and start getting excited about all the amazing veggie-friendly eats!
Tip 2: Cook at Home
If you’re vegan, you’ve probably already got some mad cooking skills. After all, you can’t just throw a piece of meat and some side veggies on a plate and call it a day — you’ve got to be a bit more creative than that. So why not cook at home? It’s the best way to make sure you know EXACTLY what’s going into your food. No sneaky meat broth, no random bits of egg in your rice.
There is a vast assortment of fruit and vegetables available for cheap at any local grocery store or market. Tofu and other bean curd products like seitan (made from vital wheat gluten) are also cheap. You may not find the same vegan luxuries as you might at home, like pre-made veggie burgers or vegan ice cream. But that’s part of the challenge, right?
You can adapt and find new staple meals using what’s available. (That’s what I tell myself when I am feeling sad about the lack of vegan ice cream anyway).
Tip 3: Adjust Your Expectations
Back when I lived in Bristol, it was easy to be very selective about what I ate. Vegan options were abundant, and people understood what you meant when you asked for your meal to be made dairy free. In China, I realize how much I took this all for granted. I don’t always have the ability or the time to figure out every single ingredient that went into what I’m being served.
So my two options are either:
A) Be very hangry all the time and possibly starve
B) Accept that I can only do my best, and be forgiving to myself.
Over the Mid-Autumn break, my boyfriend and I had dinner with his Chinese aunt and uncle in Hong Kong at a Hot Pot restaurant. It turned out they could not separate the pot into a veggie and a meat side, and the vegetarian broth happened to have eggs in it. So yes, I dipped my vegetables and tofu into the egg broth, and everyone else kindly waited until I’d had enough veggies before starting to cook their meat in it.
I was okay with this compromise – you might not have been. I wouldn’t have been if this were in Bristol. Everyone has their comfort level, just know that yours might adjust slightly when you come to China.
Tip 4: Eat All the Vegan Street Snacks!
- Steamed Buns (包子bāo zi) – There are many varieties of steamed bun that are vegan-friendly! Use your translator app to ask for a vegetarian bun (try Pleco!) – usually, these come with cabbage, mushroom and/or tofu inside. You can also eat the sweet red bean buns and the sesame paste buns, as well as the plain, unfilled ones! Depending on the type of Baozi, you will pay between 1-3 RMB for one.
- Sesame Balls (referred to as 麻圆 má yuán in Shenzhen but goes by many different names) – There is a lady who sells these chewy-on-the-inside, crisp-on-the-outside, sweet yet savoury treats near my apartment, and let me tell you: it is a test of my willpower not to buy one every day. Expect to pay around 2-3 RMB for one of these.
- Scallion Pancakes (葱油饼 cōng yóu bǐng) – This is a little bit different version in China, but mostly it is a type of flatbread commonly filled with scallions. It’s crunchy, a bit oily, and delicious. It surprisingly doesn’t contain any egg! For one pancake, you will pay around 3-5 RMB.
- Sweet Potato (红薯 hóngshǔ) – I have never eaten as much sweet potato as I have here in China, but I’m not complaining! It’s often served with my school breakfast, and you can often see street vendors with carts full of steaming hot roasted sweet potatoes. You can expect to pay around 3 RMB for sweet potatoes.
- Roasted Chestnuts (糖炒栗 táng chǎo lìzi) – Commonly sold by street vendors (and you can even buy bags of peeled chestnuts from the corner shop)! It is usually 40-50 RMB for 0.5 kg of Roasted Chestnuts.
- Fruit Tea (水果茶 shuǐguǒ chá) – Okay, this isn’t really a street snack, but I felt the need to include it because tea shops are EVERYWHERE in Shenzhen. Make sure to order a fruit and/or herbal tea without milk if you’re vegan (the fruit type is generally served cold, like a juice). It often comes with big chunks of actual fruit in it – bonus snack! You can get a fruit tea around 15-25 RMB.
Let’s be honest: China may not be the easiest place to be vegan or even vegetarian. However, challenging does not mean impossible. It just takes willpower, patience, and a good sense of humour. It also helps to find some veggie-friendly friends to commiserate with, but more importantly, to share your amazing finds with. Now get out there and eat all the veggies!