Top 5: Tips For Vegetarians In China

Melissa Sconyers
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You’re out  for a fancy dinner with a group of Chinese friends. On the table in front of you is a Lazy Susan and it spins to reveal tonight’s first appetizer: chicken feet. You watch in fascination as the woman to your right picks a foot out of the bowl and casually gnaws on it, mentioning that chicken feet are good for the skin. Then a man to your left scoops a chicken head--eyes, beak, and all--out of his chicken noodle soup.

Being a vegetarian in China can be difficult. Almost every dish has meat and many people won’t understand why you don’t want to eat it. So if you plan on maintaining an animal-free diet in China, read this helpful guide. It will save you from the tragic fate that befalls many vegetarians here--of eating white rice...and only white rice.

#1 - Write it down

The Chinese word for meat (“rou”) is particularly challenging for foreigners to get the hang of because of the way the letter “r” is pronounced. Therefore, I strongly recommend that you have a Chinese friend write down the phrases "I don't eat meat" and "I eat vegetables" on a piece of paper.  Then make sure you carry this piece of paper around with you at all times.

#2 - Be persistent

When ordering food in a restaurant, my typical conversation goes something like this:

"I don't eat meat. Can you make this dish without meat?"
"What about chicken?"
"No, I don't eat meat."
"No, no meat."
"Well, what about fish? Surely you eat fish."
"No, really, ALL meat, I do not eat."

At this point, my Seussian outburst usually provokes a quizzical expression from the waiter or waitress. Sometimes, if I'm still met with particularly strong opposition, I’ll tell them I'm allergic to meat. And then I smile angelically to sweetly convey, "You don't want me to die, do you?"

#3 - Understand the mindset

There are generally two reasons a person doesn’t eat meat in China: 1) They are too poor to afford it, or 2) They are Buddhist. If you're a foreigner, most people will assume you’re not poor--Chinese people widely and unapologetically equate foreignness with wealth. Saying "Buddha" or "Buddhist" is a reliable alternative way to make sure your meals are meat-free. (I personally only fall back on this as a last resort. Once, I was taken seriously and received Buddhist necklaces as gifts.)

When choosing where to eat, Buddhist restaurants are also a good bet. You can usually find them in populous areas and they will serve some of the most amazing vegetarian dishes you’ll ever eat, especially if you like mock meats.

#4 - Avoid the "local specialties"

Many Chinese cities have a local specialty and that almost always means a meat dish. In Beijing, it's Peking duck. In Shanghai, it's a number of different fresh fishes. In smaller, rural cities, it's usually chuan'r or chunks of grilled meat on a stick (like shish kabob but without any vegetables). So as eager as your hosts might be to take you to a “local specialty” restaurant, you’re better off avoiding them. Most of their menu will be dedicated to their specialty and they might be less willing to accommodate your vegetarian needs.

#5 - Remember that “tofu” does not mean “meatless”

Unlike in the Western world, where tofu is generally reserved for vegetarian dishes, tofu is NOT a meat alternative in China--it's a meat addition.  Sometimes it’s mixed in and sometimes its added as a garnish or flavoring (with stir-fried eggplant, for instance). Remember that things that look safe in menu pictures, such as a plate of ultra-green vegetables under a wave of water--don’t laugh, this is more common than you can imagine--might also come with a smattering of ham on top.

Following these five tips will make your life as a vegetarian much easier. But even so, there will probably be times when you wonder if there’s meat in something you’ve ordered. If that happnes, simply use the tried and true method of vegetarians all over the world: keep company with meat-eaters. Not sure if that’s tofu or chicken? Ask your omnivorous friend to try it first.


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