Being a vegetarian in China is hard. I can say that from experience. Meat forms a huge part of the Chinese diet and, according to reports, China consumes more meat than any other country. What’s a vegetarian in China to do?! Well, by following my tips on what to look out for, where to eat and how to cope when no-one else understands your lifestyle choice, you certainly won’t starve.
Top tips for Vegetarians in China
#1 Make sure you know ALL ingredients in a dish before tucking in
On my first trip to China last year, I found myself acutely aware of every single thing I was putting in my mouth. Menus typically don’t state whether they’re suitable for vegetarians. Nor do they state every single ingredient. Just because something sounds vegetarian in China, it doesn’t mean it is. And unless you speak the local lingo or find a restaurant staff that speak your language, you won’t know until you’ve ordered and the dish is sat in front of you.
On one group dinner, I happily span the lazy Susan until the egg fried rice was right in my eye-line. And then I let out a little cry. There were tiny pieces of bacon mixed in with the rice. So I stuffed my face with meatless cabbage. The next night, I ordered a tofu dish. Surely that couldn’t contain meat?! I was wrong again. In between the little nuggets of plant-based protein sat some rather hefty chunks of bacon.
Yes, a lot of vegetable and tofu dishes can also be cooked in meat fats to ‘improve the flavour’. And you should avoid soups because, yknow, meat stock. Be careful!
#2 Pay attention to your protein intake
Despite the troubles associated with finding meat in your tofu dishes, don’t be tempted to live on vegetables and rice. You have to become your own nutritionist, making sure you’re getting enough protein in your diet. Where you do find meat free tofu and rice, eat it! Where not, you can supplement your meals with high protein snacks, such as seaweed, nuts and granola bars, all of which are readily available in corner shops and supermarkets. You can also bring some from home to be extra safe.
#3 Breakfast is the most important meal of the day
My mama always told me to eat my breakfast. In China, I was only too happy to oblige. Breakfast was always my favourite meal of the day, and I used it to my advantage by chowing down on fried eggs on toast, and lots of it. Some of our hotels also served omelettes, but it’s up to you to decide how you feel about having something that is cooked in the same pan and with the same utensils as a meaty omelette. I also found soya milk in a few of the hotels we stayed in, so I also enjoyed a few good bowls of cereal which helped get my protein back up.
#4 If you need some western food, have some
There’s a snobbery amongst travellers that says you should only eat food native to your country, and any international cuisine that you can find at home is banned. Far from it, in my opinion!
Living in England, I would tear my hair out with boredom if all I could eat was meat pies, fish and chips and roast dinners. The fact I’m a vegetarian is only one reason for that! The truth is, we live in a globalised world. One where it’s possible to find authentic Indian cuisine outside of India, delicious pastas thousands of miles away from Italy and the best French Fries outside the US.
That’s why I had no qualms in actively seeking out and eating at the most amazing little pizza place in Shanghai. No qualms at all.
#5 Don’t be afraid to educate others
On our 9 day trip to China, I had a few heated discussions with my guide who was very quick to ask “How have you lived without eating meat?!” while scoffing chicken feet.
Well, firstly I’ve not always been vegetarian. It was only once I understood the cruelty that exists with omnivorism that I decided to stop eating meat. Secondly, because I am fortunate to live in a place that’s full of vegetarian restaurants and understands there’s more to life than chewing on dead animals. Thirdly, and most importantly, it’s none of your damn business.
But of course, I explained to him politely that it was a lifestyle choice and actually there’s quite a few of us around these days, and wouldn’t it be lovely if I could go to a restaurant and eat something beyond cabbage (that could have been cooked in beef stock for all I know).
The truth is, being a vegetarian in China isn’t a popular lifestyle choice. And that’s absolutely fine. Eating meat is part of the Chinese culture, just as not eating beef in India is part of theirs. It’s your job as a globetrotter to talk to the people you come into contact with and let them know that other opinions exist.
#6 Be wary of the products
As a vegetarian, I’m guessing you’re an animal lover too? Well, beyond the food, you also need to be wary of the products available to buy in China. On our tour, we were taken to a silk factory where the poor little silk worms were boiled alive in order to produce their beautiful fabric. Similarly, pearl factories aren’t cruelty-free either, thanks to their need for oysters.
Do also note that in order to sell in mainland China, toiletries companies HAVE to be tested on animals. Please do the animal kingdom a favour and bring your own cruelty-free products from home.
Where have you struggled to be a vegetarian while travelling? I’d love to hear your tips on how to be a vegetarian in China, or any other country for that matter! Leave me a comment below!
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