In general, there is a lot of really delicious vegetarian food in China. There are tons of vegetables and fresh fruit and the spices turn regular food into culinary delights. But you still have to know how to find what you’re looking for and as a vegetarian you might find it tricky at the beginning of your China travel experience. If you choose one of the many China Hotels the staff at the reception desk will be happy to give you some advice. Very often people will understand if you say that you’re a vegetarian. But it helps to add that you don’t eat meat, fish or seafood, if that’s the case. And even then, is there a guarantee that there is no touch of fish paste or oyster sauce in your dish? Probably not. If you’re that open, just go from the taste and maybe have a friend take the first bite. If you’re not, you might consider avoiding street food in general missing out on some great food though.  Still, things like baked sweet potatoes or corn on the cob from the streets are just pure vegetables, maybe not exciting but still tasty.

If you think the easiest place to get you something to eat is the supermarket, keep in mind that China is not your home country and even international chain stores don’t offer exactly the same. There are international brands as well as local products but the range of goods is oriented towards the Chinese buyers. This is not a problem at all but for foreigners the difficulty is finding out what’s exactly in the products, unless you have an excellent knowledge of Chinese or somebody who can help you out. When you look for it you can find some products with an English list of the ingredients because just from looking at it you can’t really be sure.

There is not much that can go wrong in the bakery section. Vegetarians who avoid gelatin might stay away from cakes with a creamy filling. But things like rice cakes with a slightly sticky consistency are in general made with starch and not gelatin and there is a really big offer. In general, fruit is a sure bet and easy to get anywhere. If you buy it from street stands just try to bargain as much as you can because vendors often try to charge foreigners more taking advantage of their inexperience. Going from the first offer you can cut it down to a third or a half and then find a compromise. And that’s not only the case for fruit but for all other things you might buy in the streets and smaller shops.

Another thing vegetarians should be aware of is that you might find something that’s in your opinion surely vegetarian but then the next moment you find out that it’s being prepared in the same frying pan as all the meat dishes or even being cooked in the same broth with meat and fish. A no-go for many vegetarians, especially if you have the taste of meat on your vegetarian food. I guess the only thing that helps is to have a close look before buying and to see how the food is prepared. Moreover, it’s sometimes hard to find out if a certain food was prepared with animal fat or vegetable oil. So, again you might listen to your taste buds or you can go for steamed food, like steamed dumplings (baozi) with a vegetable or egg filling. In general, rice is usually just plain rice and noodles are vegetarian, too, although they are often served in a broth that doesn’t necessarily need to be vegetarian.

Talking about restaurants, it’s not impossible to find vegetarian ones. But Buddhist restaurants for example also offer fish and seafood dishes. So they might not be an easy place either for people who don’t eat that. In bigger shopping centers the restaurants adapt more to western eating habits and it’s usually not too complicated to find meat and fish free dishes. And, of course, touristy areas have reacted to visitor’s eating habits and you can find things like pizza easily, although it has nothing to do with Asian cuisine. Regarding all these difficulties for vegetarians it is even harder for vegans. The only place that comes to my mind for is Loving Hut, an international vegetarian and vegan restaurant chain that has branches in Beijing and Hongkong.

In general, there might not be the perfect advice for vegetarians in China. First of all, there are different types of vegetarians some who eat fish and seafood and others who don’t. And then people are vegetarians for different reasons and more or less strict and also, everybody has his own personal taste. So all you can do is keep those little difficulties in mind when you’re planning your China tours . And once you get there you just find your own way.

Jack Li

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