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Travelling as a Vegetarian in China: The Complete Survival Blog

Travelling as a vegetarian in China is undoubtedly the most daring thing I’ve done till date. I’m talking about a time when lunch was the most dreaded time of the day. A time when I frantically searched the streets for something edible, something that could potentially fill me up. I was warned about this. I was told repeatedly, “you’re vegetarian. China might not be the best option for you to travel.” But the decision was made and I headed out to China.

To be honest, when I boarded my flight to China (Shanghai to be precise), I did not know how I was going to make it. An additional concern was the language –not even being able to communicate the fact that I am vegetarian. But, I made it and I was successful with two months of travelling as a vegetarian in China.

Travelling as a vegetarian in China is not easy. Let me be clear on that right at the outset. Walking through markets dominated by meat and seafood, especially when your stomach is longing for food, can be disheartening. For the fear of being served animal parts or creepy insects, I remained committed to consuming just fruits and bread for 2 weeks straight. I wasn’t quite aware of the things I was missing out on back then.

But now that I am clear and have a lovely experience of travelling as a vegetarian in China, I would like to help out fellow travelers through the means of my blog. Travelling as a vegetarian in China is surely not a cake walk but it isn’t impossible either.

Travelling as a Vegetarian in China  – Important Suggestions

Learn two important phrases

Wo Chi Su (I eat vegetarian), Who Bu Chi Rou Huo Hai Xian (I don’t eat meat or sea food) are two ‘must know’ phrases if you are travelling as a vegetarian in China.

Write down important phrases

It is important that while speaking you get the pronunciation of both the above phrases right. Since it is difficult for a non-native person to speak Mandarin properly, take a printout of the above two phrases and show them to the person serving you food, when required.

Understand how vegetarianism works in China

The way vegetarianism is conceptualized in various parts of the world is surprisingly different. While seafood is considered non-vegetarian in India (my home land), a large variety of it is consumed by vegetarians in China. Some Buddhists in China do eat mussels and sometimes oysters too, leading to the complex conceptualization. So understand the concept well if you’re travelling as a vegetarian in China.

Ensure that dishes served to you are vegetarian

Just because you order vegetarian food does not guarantee that you will receive the same. Reason being that at most places, eggs and even sea food is considered vegetarian. So be careful.

Explore the Chinese streets

One of the best ways to serve yourself a good vegetarian meal is by exploring the streets in China. Street food can prove to be hell of a rescue spot for you.

Visit monastery run restaurants

Monasteries across China have small eateries attached to them that serve vegetarian food. So visit them for authentic vegetarian meals and also for the spiritual experience.

Inquire about vegetarian restaurants

In China, a vegetarian place might be right at the corner but you might skip it owing to the language. Therefore, always ask people around you and you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Use apps that will benefit you

While travelling as a vegetarian in China, use the ‘Happy Cow’ app. Not only does this application let you narrow down your searches in terms of vegan, vegetarian and veg options, but also in terms of the pricing, area, ratings, etc.

Don’t miss out on experiences

This is my last and most important suggestion to you. Do not miss out on destinations or experiences just because you’re scared. What my trip to China majorly taught me was that travelling is all about making compromises. It is all about pushing your boundaries. It’s about doing things you once thought you never could.

 




China is extremely diverse in what it has to offer to its visitors. Be it the giant pandas, the magnificent Great Wall of China, or the inexplicably cheap shopping. Letting go of so much just because travelling as a vegetarian in China is popularized as next to impossible – Nope ! Do not let that happen to you.

China is a lovely country for travelers and you must over come factors that held you back from exploring these wondrous Asian nation. Before I go into the details of surviving as a vegetarianism in China, it is important that you have knowledge of the basic travel aspects.

What to Know Before Travelling to China?

Best time to visit China is vast. It really depends on which part of the country you decide to visit.
Currency Yuan
Language Spoken Mandarin is the official language. The younger generation is generally able to converse in English.
Must Remember Google doesn’t work in China.
Must Have A dictionary or a smartphone application for translation.
Does China have vegetarian delicacies? Most certainly
Safety level for backpackers Very high
Top travel tip The focus here should not be on the taste of food but on a well-fed tummy.

 Travelling as a Vegetarian in China: Getting Your Message Across

When it comes to travelling as a vegetarian in China, the problem isn’t just the unpopularity of vegetarian food. What makes it worse is the existence of an omnipresent language barrier.

The memories of my second day in China are still too fresh in my head. Excited to be all alone in a foreign country, I set out to explore the stunning city of Ningbo all by myself.

At noon, I made my way to a seemingly “westernized” restaurant – with hopes to be able to play it safe. A Margherita pizza or a plate of white sauce pasta was on my mind. Although not as westernized as it seemed, I somehow told the waiter what I wanted!  A rice dish of sorts.

To my horror, a creature with its eyes popping out, soaked in its own blood was presented to me in the form of a fancy platter. I did not indeed have a very pleasant welcome in China.

Following this very incident, I was systematically taught a few phrases and words that proved to be a saviour while travelling as a vegetarian in China. I insist you learn them too.

I eat vegetarian Wo Chi Su
I don’t eat meat or seafood Who Bu Chi Rou Huo Hai Xian

Although the former is easier to pronounce and remember, it often means “Buddhist Vegetarian,” which is generally devoid of garlic and onions – what eating Jain entails in India. An elimination of garlic and onions would also mean an elimination of great flavours.

If you want to avoid that, stick to option 2 while travelling as a vegetarian in China. You could also have the phrase written on a piece of paper in case memorizing it seems hard.

Tip: Google Translate doesn’t work in China. Being aware of that would’ve helped me avoid the situation I was in for the first 2 days.
Travelling as a vegetarian in China

My welcome in China. Picture credits: Tarang Mohnot

Travelling as a Vegetarian in China: The Concept of Vegetarianism in China

Here’s the thing – how vegetarianism is conceptualized in various parts of the world is surprisingly contrasting. While seafood is considered non-vegetarian in India, a large variety of it is consumed by vegetarians in China. Some Buddhists in China do eat mussels and sometimes oysters too, leading to the complex conceptualization.

Additionally, a number of curious expressions and questions might follow once you mention the fact that you’re vegetarian. “Are you Muslim?” “Do you have health concerns?” “Are you an animal activist?” Although a little strange at first, these questions are justified keeping in mind the fact that vegetarians are in extremely less numbers in China. While travelling as a vegetarian in China, it could thus be difficult to find common ground at times. Just like the idea of consuming insects and animal parts might come as a complete surprise to us, the idea of not consuming meat might be equally shocking to them.

Once, while dining at a fine dine restaurant in Shanghai, I asked if some vegetarian options could be recommended to me. The waiter asked, “Do you eat fish?” making me lose even the remaining hope that I had at that point.I suddenly had no expectations of being fed any food at all that night.

Tip: Try to be patient and accommodating when it comes to culture shocks in terms of food, while travelling as a vegetarian in China.
Travelling as a vegetarian in China

A dish comprising potatoes being prepared in Ningbo. Picture credits: Tarang Mohnot

Travelling as a Vegetarian in China: Is that Really Vegetarian?

While travelling as a vegetarian in China, at no point can you be off guard. Now while a number of dishes might advertise themselves as “vegetarian,” the chances of it not being 100% vegetarian are very high. I can recall ordering “eggplant with garlic sauce” or “vegetable stir fried noodles,” only to find that it’s been cooked in fish sauce or has been garnished with ham.

Another instance dates back to when I happily called for “Vegetable Spring Rolls,” that contained shrimp. On questioning the presence of shrimp in my apparently vegetarian meal, I was told that it doesn’t contain “meat.” What could I possibly say to that?

While you might thus feel helpless and frustrated with the food scenario in China, (trust me, that’ll happen a lot), understand that there exists a wide cultural gap.

In times that you’re too skeptical, stick to dessert. Although they won’t fill you up completely, it will be some relief from the meaty surprises.

Tip: It would be a good idea to do some prior research on what Chinese conceptions of vegetarian food are.
Travelling as a vegetarian in China

Chinese perception of non-meat food. Picture credits: Tarang Mohnot

Travelling as a Vegetarian in China: Hitting the Streets

I still remember that day. A plan was in the making – of venturing out, and exploring the endless street food options of Ningbo. I was dreading it. I was definitely not up for hungrily walking through non-exhaustive options of meaty foods.

However, I was easily convinced to accompany my friends by being called a “spoilsport.” We hopped on to a bus,and a 25 minute drive took us to our destination. Next thing I know, I couldn’t stop gazing at the (truly) vegetarian food options that lined the bustling streets of Ningbo.

It finally felt like I’m being fed food that’s not only edible by vegetarian standards, but also utterly delicious.

Here are some of the dishes you must keep an eye out for if you’re travelling as a vegetarian in China:

Vegetable Dumplings

I came to realize that there were so many times that I simply didn’t ask while travelling as a vegetarian in China. As I skeptically walked around the food market, my Chinese friends ushered me into a little stall run by an old, friendly Chinese woman in her late 60’s.

Low wooden tables and low wooden chairs marked the stall, and a red spicy looking sauce was brought to our table. In no time, I was confusedly staring at steaming hot dumplings packed inside a cute bamboo box. I sniffed the steam, trying to figure out what kind of meaty surprise has made its way to my table this time.

Eat it,” said my friends. I did as told only to find out that it was PURE VEGETARIAN. I couldn’t contain my excitement, and couldn’t stop feeling bad about how I’d missed out on this delicacy all this while. If it wasn’t for these beautiful moist bundles of joy, I would be wandering around the markets hungrily or stuffing myself with breads endlessly.

Tip: Assuming wouldn’t work while travelling as a vegetarian in China. Always make it a point to ask.
Traveling as a vegetarian in China

Me with my pals enjoying a meal. Photo credits: Tarang Mohnot

Morning Glory

Containing no meat and featuring just one main ingredient, this dish is a treasure for spinach lovers and also light on the pocket. Since its name doesn’t make it very obvious, I’ll give you a short description of what the famous morning glory in China is like: stir-fried spinach immersed in a soupy sauce made from soy bean, infused with strong flavours of garlic.

It’s a shame that these authentic vegetarian dishes do not mark any of the menus in Chinese restaurants back in India. What’s best about the morning glory is that it is not only a great accompaniment with rice, but also tastes great in itself.

Stir Fried Tomatoes and Eggs (for the Eggetarians out there)

My host family back in Ningbo was quite distressed about having a vegetarian to feed in the house. I was miserable with the thought of making it so hard on them. They were miserable with the thought of not being able to do enough.

Then, one morning something miraculous happened. A bowl with a reddish tomato sauce and what looked like scrambled eggs, was lying on the table. Another bowl with rice, of course, lay next to it. “Try it,” I was told.

Trust me or not, that will be the most dreaded phrase while travelling as a vegetarian in China. happened. I tried it. I loved it. Surprisingly easy to make, this dish along with a bowl of steaming hot rice, marked almost every dinner that I had at home in China.

Chinese Buns

To my relief, while travelling as a vegetarian in China, I found out that bread is pretty extensively consumed all over the country. Popular by the name of baozi, these buns come with a vast variety of fillings – mushroom, soybean, carrots, onions, sesame, red beans, or taro paste. All you need to do is keep an eye out for piles and piles of steaming round, wooden containers. While travelling as a vegetarian in China, I spotted street side vendors selling these on almost every other street. Watch out, however. It’s never so simple while travelling as a vegetarian in China. Some of these buns do contain small amounts of minced meat, and it would be a good idea to ask about the same before actually ordering them.

Travelling as a vegetarian in China

A meal comprising Chinese Buns, Morning Glory and Dumplings at ‘Grandma’s Kitchen.’ Picture credits: Rchung

Tofu

So I ate a lot of tofu during my stay in China. And by “a lot,” I mean A LOT. While tofu is healthy, it also fills you up pretty quick.

Chunky pieces of tofu cooked in a spicy bean chilli sauce totally catered to my Indian roots and tastes – tofu being the closest substitute to Paneer, and well, spicy is what Indian food is. However, it’s not as rosy a picture as you’re painting in your head. Here’s how the first time eating spicy tofu went for me:

All seemed to being going well, until I took another bite of the spicy tofu I seemed to be relishing until that point. I raised my eyebrows and was on guard as I bit onto a brown rubbery substance – one that looked like anything but some sort of vegetable.“Pretty sure that’s….pork,” admitted my Chinese friend. I said nothing for a few seconds. The thought of some amount of pork already having made it to my tummy made me sick. But something made me pick up my spoon once again. I ended up finishing all of the spicy tofu, as I cautiously avoided the minced pork – it was that tasty.

The options to eat on the streets are endless in China.

Tip: If you are someone who’s travelling on a tight budget, street food is an extremely economical option. Dishes generally range from 2-10 yuan.

 To be honest, the options are endless. While these are dishes that top my list, there’ll be many more you’ll stumble upon while travelling as a vegetarian in China. All you need is a little patience, and the thirst to explore more and more.


Travelling as a Vegetarian in China: Buddhism and Vegetarianism

On one of the days during my stay in China, it had been 7 hours since I’d had anything to eat. My head felt dizzy and my belly gnawed at the sight of huge masses of meat dangling by the side of every street I took. I was sick of stuffing myself with fruits and breads.

Then something amazing happened. I happened to cross a monastery. A board installed right at the entrance read “serving fresh vegetarian food.”

While religion has never been my go-to, it certainly ended up being, while travelling as a vegetarian in China. A number of these monasteries run small restaurants that serve simple, vegetarian food. These restaurants are definitely a great alternative, for you do not have to constantly be on guard, or be on the lookout for meaty garnishes.

I walked out of that monastery feeling more content than I ever had. My tummy was happy, and so was my soul. Since that very day, I’d always keep my eyes open for monasteries – never thought this day would come being the staunch atheist that I am.

Travel does wonders.

Travelling as a vegetarian in China

A delightful vegetarian meal can be a matter of great joy in China. Picture credits: Tarang Mohnot

Travelling as a Vegetarian in China: Vegetarian Restaurants

A number of links will pop up if you google search “vegetarian restaurants in China.” While I was surprised when I did this myself, I eventually came to realize that it really is a globalizing world. In addition to a number of vegetarian restaurants, I even dined at vegetarian Indian restaurants while travelling as a vegetarian in China.

The thing is, the number of vegetarians in China is on the rise. More and more people have started to accept and embrace the idea of vegetarianism. Additionally, we are living in an era where the idea of travelling is being popularized faster than ever. “Serving vegetarian food has helped me tap on to a completely new market segment. It is not only the meat eaters but also the vegetarians and the vegans that happily dine at my restaurant now.We need to keep adapting to changing times and changing trends,” said Zhang Yu, owner of a Chinese restaurant I had dinner at while in Hangzhou.

One evening, while strolling at a park in Ningbo, I happened to strike a conversation with 2 locals. I told them my story of why I was in China, along with telling them how I was struggling with food every single day. They sympathized with me, and asked if I wanted to grab dinner with them. I immediately agreed, for something felt very right. To my surprise, they took me to a vegetarian restaurant right around the corner – strange how I was so unaware of it.

Tip: Oftentimes, there are vegetarian restaurants that exist, but the problem is not being able to know about the same because restaurant banners are all in Mandarin. So, once again, make it a point to inquire.

The food was absolutely delicious! What’s more is that while every dish looked like meat, what hid under the surface was just vegetables. I hadn’t been so fascinated in a while.

Travelling as a Vegetarian in China: Use the Happy Cow App

In a world that is dominated by technology, it would be a shame to not take advantage of certain apps that can help you out. There are a number of people out there who feel deeply for the vegetarians. Some kind soul decided to build a smartphone application that would enable vegetarians and vegans to browse through vegetarian restaurants in over 175 countries all across the world. The app is known as Happy Cow.

It can be downloaded for free on Android devices, and by paying a nominal fee on Apple devices. Being able to find out vegetarian restaurants at the sheer disposal of a smartphone is almost a luxury. Not only does this application let you narrow down your searches in terms of vegan, vegetarian and veg options, but also in terms of the pricing, area, ratings, etc.

Unfortunately, I was unaware of this application while travelling as a vegetarian in China back in 2015. However, I’ve been using it during my travels otherwise, and it has worked amazingly. It will certainly help you have a more comfortable trip while travelling as a vegetarian in China.

Travelling as a vegetarian in China

Know the vegetarian ingredients in China. Picture credits: Tarang Mohnot

Travelling as a Vegetarian in China: Commonly Used Ingredients in Vegetarian Food

It’s important that you know and pronounce vegetarian ingredients correctly while traveling as a vegetarian in China. Before I introduce you some, here’s a funny story that happened with me –

We have ordered vegetarian food for you,” my friends told me.

What does it contain?” I asked them.

Semen! It’s really tasty!” they responded excitedly.

SEMEN?” I exclaimed.

I could do nothing but wait to see what this “one of a kind” dish was…

Within minutes, I was presented with a vegetable gravy and sesame noodles. They mispronounced big time and all of us had a big laugh.

Therefore, the moral of the story is to pronounce words correctly in China especially when it comes to food. Else, you’ll end up making a fool of yourself.

Sesame is one of the ingredients widely used in vegetarian food in China.

Following are other such ingredients –

Ingredient Popular Dishes in which used
Eggplant Eggplant with spicy garlic sauce
Tofu Spicy tofu, sweet tofu pudding
Bamboo Shoots Bamboo shoots in a broth
Spinach Stir fried Spinach
Red Beans Red bean paste buns, red bean soup
Cabbage, Tomatoes, Carrots Stir-fried, eaten with rice

To be honest, China never stopped testing my patience. Just when I thought I was doing fine when it came to food, I would come across meaty surprises or meaty garnishes in my apparently vegetarian food. However, with a little exploration and a little patience, I realized that I really did not have to wander with an empty stomach. I did not have to stress every time dinner approached.

I came to the understanding that it was equally difficult for my host family to cater to my strict, vegetarian demands.

What my trip to China majorly taught me was that travelling is all about making compromises. It is all about pushing your boundaries. It’s about doing things you once thought you never could.

If you’re somebody who avoids travelling to certain countries owing to your vegetarianism, please do not encourage that attitude. You’d be missing out on a world full of beautiful destinations, beautiful people & beautiful experiences.

 Take the leap. You’ll come back with miraculous stories.

Happy wayfaring.

About the Author

Tarang Mohnot

Tarang Mohnot

Tarang Mohnot is a student of Economics and Sociology at St. Xavier’s College in Mumbai. Constantly trying to quench her thirst for travel, Tarang’s goal in life is to keep on getting her passport stamped over and over again. This implies that she wants to explore new destinations each year.

Resorting to a local inhabitant’s advice over Google searches, to physical maps over Google maps, to haversacks over suitcases, and to exploration over planning, Tarang hopes to visit places no one has ever been and to share her travel experiences with thousands all over the world – something her CV won’t ever tell.

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