Today’s blog comes from Tristan Davis, an STA Travel Student Ambassador at New York University (NYU) and an avid budget backpacker! He shares his tips on vegetarian dining on a budget in China…
This past summer I had the opportunity to backpack through China for a month, and though I was amazed by the country’s beauty, history and hospitality, the biggest surprise was the food.
I have always enjoyed American-Chinese take-out, but had only sampled a few different dishes, because most things on typical restaurant menus weren’t vegetarian. Even in New York City, when my friends want to go for Chinese, they look at me and say “oh wait… what are you going to eat?”.
So when they found out I was going to China, they asked me the same question.
Though China has reputation for its (sometimes peculiar) meat, it is not too “hard” to be a vegetarian or vegan in China despite what you may have heard. In many cities, Vegetarianism is a growing trend, and one can find all kinds of options: from vegetarian pages in menus, to entirely vegetarian food-court buffets and even upscale vegan restaurants. However, the latter establishments can be quite pricey for a college student. Personally, I enjoyed eating street food– it’s cheap, delicious, and I could see exactly what it was made of.
To all my vegans out there: don’t scratch China off of your list! Interestingly, Eastern-Chinese food does not generally contain dairy products, as nearly 90% of Han Chinese people are lactose intolerant. You won’t have too much trouble eating street food. Restaurants can be a little trickier, but don’t be discouraged. Egg-eating is common, and dairy-consumption, mostly yogurt, increases the further inland you travel, especially in Tibet, etc. Many of the dishes I use as examples are actually vegan.
First, if you’re not Mandarin speaker, traveling in China, as I was last summer, you’re going to need some vegetarian vocabulary. These phrases are important; often times, even if a dish doesn’t expressly have meat in it, it could potentially (and often is) cooked in lard, and many soups are made with animal-based broths.
Remember that, regardless of where in the world you are, if you’re dining at a non-vegetarian restaurant, and select an item that is not on a specifically vegetarian menu, there is no way to be 100% sure what’s in it– you can’t go back there and look in their kitchen!
I have included “Can I have steamed vegetables with tofu and rice please”, in case you find yourself stuck at a restaurant with no other viable options. Generally, restaurants can prepare this, and though it is not particularly adventurous, it’s always great!
I suggest taking pictures of the phrases you need on your phone, that way you can show them to people, in case they can’t understand you. Especially if there is a line of people waiting behind you! Try to learn some phrases though, before you go!
I am a vegetarian/vegan: 我是素食主义者 (wo shi su shi zhu yi zhe)
I do not eat: 我不吃 (wo bu chi)
- Meat: 肉 (rou)
- Fish: 魚 (yu)
- Poultry: 家禽 (jia qin)
- Seafood: 海鲜 (dong wu jiao zhi)
- Gelatin: 明胶 (ming jiao)
- Dairy: 乳制品 (Rǔ zhìpǐn)
- Eggs: 蛋 (Dàn)
- ..or any other animals: 或者其他任何的动物 (Huo zhe qi ta de dong wu)
- What is the broth?: 这是什么汤？(shen me shi tang?)
- Is it cooked with lard?: 这是用的猪油做的吗？(Zhe shi yong zhu you zuo de ma?)
- Can you make anything without meat or lard?: 我可以要蒸的蔬菜, 豆腐和白米饭吗？(Wo ke yi yao zheng de shu cai, dou fu, he bai mi fan ma?)
- Can I have steamed vegetables, with tofu and rice please?: 请问您可以不放肉或者猪油吗？(Qing wen ning ke yi bu fang rou huo zhe zhu you ma?)
IN STYLE: The capital city has many vegetarian restaurants, especially high-profile ones such as Gongdelin, which has an extensive menu, with amazing vegetable dishes of all kinds. The menu also boasts impressive authentic Chinese meat-mimics for the very adventurous, or for your meat-eater friends such as veggie-intestines. Gongdelin claims they taste just like the real thing. I personally recommend the crispy eggplant; the thick slices are to die for. Make a night of it, and order every appetizer! Trying new food is one of the best parts of traveling, and you’ll soon discover that there’s a lot of Chinese food you’ve never seen at home.
Visit the Beijing tourism official site for a list of the nicest vegetarian establishments, if you’re into that. I was backpacking, so my Gongdelin splurge was a one-night thing!
In the Forbidden City, and other tourist attractions, vegetarian options can be few and far between. On a hot summer day, I reluctantly settled for a “cucumber salad”– to my surprise it ended up being three entire, nearly foot-long, cucumbers, drizzled with sweet-and-spicy chunky pepper sauce! It was a perfectly light and refreshing yet filling lunch. Don’t be discouraged by the simplicity of VEG options- there’s always a twist!
You’ll also find that being a vegetarian saves you LOTS of money inside tourist attractions, with huge VEG-friendly entrees available for less than ~$5, while your friends dig deep into their pockets for extra Yuan.
ON A BUDGET: Yonghegong Street is great for street food. This area, studded with many notable temples such as the Lama Temple, is chock-full of vendors. Steamed buns here are fresh, very very inexpensive, less that 50 cents each. There are many varieties of steamed vegetable, mushroom, or red bean fillings. For dessert, try snow pea ice cream, or a dairy-free red bean popsicle!
IN STYLE: This vibrant city is very modern and trendy, as Shanghai is one of the world’s financial capitals. Vegetarianism, veganism, and eco-friendliness are becoming more popular, and you’ll see that there is no shortage of VEG restaurants in the hip areas.
Personally I’d recommend trying any ‘black fungus’ dish. This tasty mushroom, also known as ‘Wood Ear’, has many strange names. It is native to the nearby provinces, and even used medicinally, as it increases circulation and can significantly lower cholesterol. Check out this guide for the complete list.
Also, I’d recommend trying Indian food in China– It’s completely different from the Indian food you’d find in your home country, or even in India. Shanghai is a very cosmopolitan city, and has many Indian restaurants worth trying. Dishes such as sweet-and-sour paneer, are at the top of my list! The combination of South and East Asian flavors is mesmerizing, and a good break from traditional Chinese food, if you’ve been traveling through China for a while.
ON A BUDGET: Street vendors are on every corner in Shanghai, but the concentrated market area is on Fangbang Xi Lu This street is in the touristy old-city, so beware of inflated prices!
On West Nanjing Rd, there is a little hole-in-the-wall place where a very nice lady makes what she calls “Taiwanese Pancakes”, flaky fried dough wrapped around lettuce, onion, cucumber, fried egg, really whatever she has day-to-day. Though she made others with meat, she was more than willing and understanding, and made mine separately, with vegetable oil, and different utensils. I went back and saw her every morning for my veggie-filled Taiwanese pancake!
Street Food Capital: This city, home of the famous Terracotta Warrior, is a street-food lovers dream: the Muslim Quarter contains easily thousands of vendors selling everything from mapo tofu, noodles, kebabs to fresh fruit, summer rolls, and all kinds of delicacies you’ve probably never seen before.
Xi’an also has several vegetarian restaurants, but I highly suggest experiencing the fusion of Chinese-Turkic-Arab street food more than anything. The street tofu dishes are excellent in Xi’an, carefully seasoned to perfection with Middle Eastern-influences, and topped with sweet and spicy chilies, and chives.
What’s great about trying the same dish in many cities, is that you can taste the difference in how its made region to region. The consistency of the tofu and the sauce, the kinds of toppings and the pungency of the peppers were different in every place I visited!
Another bonus of eating street food is that vendors are always looking for ways to cut costs– vegetable or peanut oil is much cheaper that lard, and they will be very happy to charge you the same price for a meatless-meal. Don’t worry, it’s still very very inexpensive.
The tofu pictured above is from Suzhou, a city about an hour from Shanghai– notice the differences between this tofu and the Xi’an style. In Suzhou, the tofu (I tried many many kinds) was generally much softer, melting in my mouth. It was much milder compared to the spicy Xi’an tofu I tried to inquire what the spices were, but did not have much success. Definitely some garlic in there.
It never hurts to tip as well, if they go out of their way to wash off their equipment. Vegetarianism is a mutually-beneficial for these kinds of transactions, and I’ve had a generally accommodating experience. The Chinese are very friendly and love tourists!
Known for having some of the best, and spiciest food in all of China, this beautiful less-touristy city is worth adding to your itinerary, foodie or otherwise. I can’t wait to go back!
IN STYLE: Hot-Pot originates in Chongqing, and though this boiling vat of oil is usually for cooking meat, VEG options are available. The hard part, is finding 1-3 other vegetarians/vegans to share it with you! My friend from University, a Chongqing native, was kind enough to share this vegan Hot-Pot with me at Da Dui Zhang Hot-Pot restaurant. (She also helped me with the ‘VEG Vocab”, thank you so much Shukang!)
One Hot-Pot could feed a whole family! This one came with 4 types of mushrooms, two kinds of lettuce, sprouts, pumpkin, lotus roots, and noodles, to cook in the delicious mix. The watermelon was much needed!
ON A BUDGET: According to Shukang, the best market street in Chongqing is Hao Chi Street (好吃街). Sadly, I did not have enough time to go there, as I was only in Chongqing for 12 hours to see my friend before flying home. Plus, I was still stuffed from Hot Pot anyway!
The food in Beijing, Shanghai, Xi’an and Chongqing is some of the best food you will ever eat your life. No matter what anyone tells you, it is not too hard to be a vegetarian in China, don’t ever let that stop you from going! (Any honestly, you’re not missing out on anything).
Make sure to brush up on your Mandarin “veggie vocab” before you go, you’ll need it. The goal is to spend less time figuring out where to eat, and more time actually eating this country’s incredible cuisine! If you can’t decide on a restaurant, or are looking for a quick and inexpensive meal, you’re bound to find something as equally appetizing on the street. Don’t be scared to try new things! 再見!
Authored by Tristan Davis – STA Travel Student Ambassador
Tristan Davis is an STA Travel Student Ambassador at New York University (NYU) and avid budget backpacker. After his friend/host in Beijing suffered a loss in the family, Tristan, who didn’t speak any Chinese found himself traveling alone, for a month. It was an unforgettable adventure! Connect with him on Instagram.