We’ve all heard the horror stories about Chinese cuisine – boiled snake blood? 1000 year old eggs? Chicken claws? They’re enough to fuel the nightmares of a carnivore, let alone a vegan or a vegetarian. However, it’s still possible to go to China not eating meat or dairy and feast like royalty.
I recently visited China for 10 days and travelled to Beijing, Xi’an, Suzhou and Shanghai and despite hearing choruses of “you’ll only be eating boiled rice” from people when I told them that I, a vegetarian, was going to China, I didn’t starve (although I had a rucksack full of Nakd bars at the ready just incase). Granted, a lot of the food did contain meat, and even portions of vegetables were covered in shrimps or beef without stating so on the menu, but there was also a wealth of delicious veggie friendly food to enjoy. A harder feat was to find vegan friendly dishes as although Chinese food doesn’t contain a lot of milk or cheese, almost every dish I came across contained some sort of egg (usually green in colour and questionable in taste) – but it was not impossible!
Here are a couple of the places I found along my journey that I highly recommend for all my veg pals.
Hai Di Lao, or ‘Hot Pot’, (Beijing) – All around China you will see restaurants advertising themselves as ‘Hot Pots’. This style of restaurant is very popular, very fun and extremely tasty. The idea is to order as many vegetables as you can dream of and pop them in a boiling pot of tomato stock in the centre of your table. Meat is also on the menu if you are dining with a meat eater, although I would recommend getting a separate tub of stock for them to cook in. Then, you just sit back and wait whilst your pak choi, tofu, aubergine, mushrooms, sweet potato noodles (the list is endless!) cook before your very eyes.
Digging the food out with chopsticks proves to be a very difficult, yet amusing, task but the accommodating staff are on hand to help dish everything up for you. It was very sociable and was very inclusive of vegans, vegetarians and meat eaters – it’s not often all three share from the same dish!
Home Plate (Beijing) – Of course you travel all the way to another country to sample some of their traditional cuisine, but sometimes you just really fancy a home comfort. Home Plate, a Westernised BBQ restaurant with episodes of Charlie Chaplin playing on the projector and Arctic Monkeys on the duke box, served one of the best veggie burgers I have ever had the pleasure of tasting, along with 6 different barbecue sauces to try. It was hidden away in an ex-pat part of Beijing called Sanlitun which was filled with a whole host of cool bars and bookshops to enjoy.
Sproutworks (Shanghai) – Whilst exploring Shanghai, I stumbled across Sproutworks – the only restaurant I saw with food marked vegan. Although not exclusively a vegan restaurant, they had a wide variety of V marked products to offer.
The restaurant was a little pricier than others I had come across, but for tasty vegan-marked food (and peace of mind) it’s definitely a place to head to.
Street food (everywhere!) – Street vendors were in every city I visited and all of the food not only looked delicious, but was incredibly cheap. They had everything from deep fried bananas and ice cream to 30 different flavours of tofu and spiced mushrooms.
My favourite street food by far was a Jian Bing (pronounced jee-an bing) which is a breakfast pancake wrap with salad, onions, peanuts, sesame seeds, coriander and a crispy spice paste. Most of the street vendors I saw making this would crack an egg on the wrap, as well as add milk to the batter, so this wasn’t a vegan option.
And at 4 yuan (about 40 pence) for two big wraps it was a much better option financially than the hotel buffet (and tastier too).
Grandma’s House (Suzhou and Shanghai) – This chain of traditional Chinese cuisine restaurants had some of the most delicious food I tasted on my travels, but if you plan to visit then be wary that the dishes differ from city to city and the menu doesn’t always explain exactly what the food is.
After tasting some of the vegetable dishes that Grandma’s House had to offer in Suzhou (with a Chinese speaking guide to help), my friend and I decided to venture to their Shanghai branch on our own for our very last meal. We ordered six dishes – 1 meat dish for my friend and 5 vegetable dishes for us to share. However, 4 of the vegetable dishes came with varying types of meat on, despite not stating so on the menu. The staff spoke little English, and we only had a few Chinese phrases tucked up our sleeves, so we were unable to send things back.
Luckily the one dish I could eat, Japanese pumpkin, was incredible and meat and dairy free, so rounded off my last meal of the trip perfectly.
So all in all eating in China was a cheap and delicious breeze, especially with my favourite phrase “no meat” by my side: Bu ya ròu (pronounced buh ya row, as in to row a boat not have an argument) or Wú ròu (wuh row). I would 100% recommend visiting China and exploring all that the food markets and traditional restaurants have to offer, maybe even eating a rotten egg or two – you might be pleasantly surprised.