The 2013-2014 beijingkids Health Guide is the latest resource for Beijing families dedicated to providing information on family health care, maternity, eating and breathing safety, mental health, emergency care and traditional Chinese Medicine. Articles from the guide will be featured twice a week on our website. Find the full version here.
There’s an old saying about the Chinese: They’ll eat anything with legs that isn’t a table, and everything with wings that isn’t an airplane. Local expats are spoiled for choice at the Chinese dinner table, but somehow the same questions keep on coming up: Is it hard being a vegetarian in China? Not at all.
Being a vegetarian, or even a vegan, in China is really easy – much easier than in all any other part of the world, which I know for a fact. I stopped eating meat 20 years ago and have traveled extensively in those years, and I have to say: China offers the greatest, and tastiest, variety of vegan options.
But I understand where people are coming from. Most expats are coming from a country where there is at least a basic knowledge about the existence of vegetarians. Places where, when you say you don’t eat meat, the server will not ask you if you would like beef instead, or perhaps seafood or chicken. In the north of China, there is not much vegetarian food culture outside of Buddhist fare and even that is hardly pervasive. So admittedly, it is hard to be a perfect vegan in Beijing. But know that it’s hard to be perfect at anything anywhere.
Perhaps the biggest challenge is the social awkwardness one has to overcome, when a well-meaning host, themselves raised on a vegan diet due to the extreme poverty China endured in the 1960s and 70s, places the juiciest, meatiest morsel in your bowl, and you have to explain why you can’t eat it. Or why you are simply picking around when so much food has been offered to you. The key is learning key communication skills, which I’ll get to in a bit – a handful of useful phrases that can defuse the tensest of situations, as well as the most well-intended culinary intrusions.
And then of course there are the nutritional naysayers who will try to convince you that a little meat is good for you. Morality aside, factory-farmed meat (and keep in mind that Beijing serves 20 million customers a day….) is bad for you. But that aside, something magical happens when you combine beans and rice – a perfect amino acid is formed – and you no longer have to worry about protein. So my secret formula is always: a tofu, a veg and a bowl of rice. And if you’re a vegan, take some B12. You’ll feel great.
But overall, there are some basic tricks that will help you evade meat bombs, which is important, especially if you’re Chinese is limited or you’re just starting out in veganism.
One of my all-time favorite trips is to go to Chinese Muslim restaurants (清真) which take dietary requests much more seriously than your average Chinese place. Believe it or not, hot pot joints, such as Shabu Shabu or Haidilao, are also a good option. Just be sure to ask for a vegetarian broth, or even just hot water with and all the dry ingredients that normally go into the stock: ginger, garlic, leeks, hot pepper, onions, salt, soy sauce, oil, etc. Let’s face it: The sesame sauce is the best part anyways. Some vegetarians live in fear of lard. Don’t. It’s not actually that common, because it’s more expensive than cooking oil. One Beijing dish that is classically made with lard is 麻豆腐, but you can ask for it without.
Smaller restaurants (炒菜馆), and bigger restaurants during non-rush times are also more flexible, and you can easily ask the chef for special orders, like Kungpao Chicken (宫保鸡丁), but with tofu. The possibilities are endless, and most Chinese bases sauces are vegetarian. A lot of restaurants even use vegetarian oyster sauce, because it’s a lot cheaper than regular oyster sauce. The possibilities are endless. Plus, if you live hear a restaurant that seems to get it, become their regular and get friendly with the staff. They will make sure you’re being taken care of.
This ordering takes some time to get used to, and you will learn to communicate your needs in a way they can understand. But remember: if you do happen to get meat in your food once or twice, change your ordering tactic, not your diet. Your food has been contaminated, but you have not, even if you accidentally consumed some meat. Remember that a big part of not eating meat is avoiding cruelty to animals, so why be so cruel with yourself when you slip up.
Avoid an all-or-nothing approach to veganism and to life. Keep yourself in the right direction and be forgiving of yourself, your friends, local restaurant employees. You can do it.
For more advice on how to survive as a vegan in a vegetable-friendly, but not necessarily vegetarian-friendly country, e-mail me at email@example.com.
Laura’s Favorites Bites
拍黄瓜 (pāi huáng guā) – “Mashed” cucumber with garlic.
老虎菜 (lăo hǔ cài) – A salad made from pepper, onions and garlic.
烤麸 (kăo fū) – Shanghai specialty made from mushroom, bamboo and gluten.
炝炒圆白菜 (qiàng chăo yuán bái cài) – Parboiled and stir-fried cabbage—with a minimum of oil.
地三鲜 (dì sān xiān) – Eggplants, green pepper, potato–A classic northern dish.
干煸豆角/干煸土豆丝 (gān biān dòu jiăo, gān biān tǔ dòu sī) – Spicy fried string beans / spicy fried shredded potato.
红烧茄子 (hóng shāo qié zì) – Braised eggplants.
红烧豆腐 (hóng shāo dòu fù) – Braised tofu.
酸辣土豆丝 (má là tǔ dòu sī) – Hot and sour shredded potatoes.
清炒青菜 (qīng chāo qīng cài) – Plain stir-fried greens—you can specify which greens you like. Servers will tell you what is seasonal.
蒜蓉青菜 (suàn róng qīng cài) – Greens stir-fried with minced garlic.
香菇油菜 (xiāng gū yóu cài) – Shiitake mushrooms with bok choy.
虎皮青椒 (hǔ pí qīng jiāo) – “Tiger skin” green peppers, fried until the skin separates from the flesh. Usually with doubanjiang.
蒜茸豆苗、豆尖 (suàn róng dòu miáo / dòu jiān) (Pea shoots stir-fried with minced garlic)
面疙瘩 (miàn gē de’r) – Spatzle noodle soup with greens, tomato, and egg (can ask for no eggs). Beijing comfort food.
素炒饼 (sù chăo bĭng) – Beijing flatbread cut into strips and stir-fried with cabbage.
拔丝 [insert name of starchy fruit or vegetable]: (bá sī ___) Sugar-coated fritters—Half-dessert, half-side dish, 拔丝 is battered, candied pieces of fruit or vegetable that are dipped in hot water to cool and harden the candy shell. A must try for those new to Chinese food! Some possibilities include banana, apple, potato, sweet potato and water chestnut.
The following dishes are delicious, but be sure to say “不要放肉，包括肉末” (“bù yào fàng ròu, bāo kuò ròu mò”):
家常豆腐 (jiā cháng dòu fù) Homestyle Tofu, this dish is easiest to order without meat.
麻婆豆腐 (Mápó dòu fù) – Spicy tofu that usually has ground pork, so insist emphatically.
麻辣豆腐 (Málà dòu fù) – Numbingly spicy tofu
酸辣粉丝 (suān là fěn sī) Hot and sour bean thread noodles.
Laura’s Favorite Restaurants
Samadhi Vegetarian Teahouse
2/F Shifanghaoting, 16 Xinyuan Nanlu, Chaoyang District. (8453 1644) 朝阳区新源南路16号世方豪庭2层
Stall 0912, 2/F, Bldg 9, Jianwai Soho, 39 Dongsanhuan Zhonglu, Chaoyang District. (5869 9856, 139 1172 9610) 朝阳区东三环中路39号建外Soho9号楼2层0912
23A Caoyun Hutong, Dongzhimennei Beixiaojie, Dongcheng District. (6405 2082) 东城区东直门内北小街,草园胡同甲23号
1/F, 0110T Chuangye Dasha, Tsinghua University East Gate, Wudaokou, Haidian District. (6279 7078) 海淀区清华东门创业大厦1楼110室 (清华科技园内)
Vegetarian Grocery Stores
Zheng Long Zhai Vegetarian Goods
3 Xin Wenhua Jie, Xicheng District 正隆斋全素食品西单店
Sells mock meat products of all kinds. For shock-value, try the vegan fried egg. For snacks, veggie jerky always hits the spot. The most useful product is the TVP texturized vegetable protein (a.k.a . dried soy chunks). At 8 kuai per pack, they are a great value. Just soak in water and use for texture and protein in soups, stews, stir-frys, casseroles, etc.
88 Baochao Hutong, Dongcheng District. (6603 1053) 宝钞胡同88号
This article originally appeared on page 62-63 of the beijingkids Health Guide.
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Photo by Mitchell Pe Masilun