Although China has a reputation for being a meat-eating country, its not entirely true. Actually most dishes use a lot of vegetables and only small chunks of meat. Vegetables are such an important part of making a varied and healthy meal in China that there are also countless dishes that only use vegetables.
Here are ten vegetarian dishes you should try.
1. Three Treasures of the Earth (地三鲜 Disanxian)
This dish is a classic homestyle dish, and as it's so hearty it’s especially good in winter.
The three treasures are eggplant, potato and pepper (capsicum). First they are flash deep fried one by one and then put together in the pan to be fried with garlic, ginger and sugar. The end result is melt-in-the-mouth potato and eggplant with crunchy pepper covered in a rich, slightly sticky sauce.
2. Numbing Spicy Fragrant Pot (麻辣香锅 Malaxiangguo)
This is a spicy dish from Sichuan province that packs a big flavor and punch. When ordering, you choose each ingredient to go into the pot so you can add meat and seafood if you like, or make it veggie by just choosing tofu, vegetables and things like sweet potato noodles (矿粉 kuangfen). Once you've selected your ingredients everything is fried up together with spices, chilli, black beans and onion and brought to your table in a huge bowl.
Recommended ingredients are lotus root, potato, broccoli, all types of tofu, cauliflower, all types of mushrooms and the crunchy Chinese vegetable called celtuce (莴笋 wosun).
3. Braised Japanese Tofu (红烧日本豆腐 Hongshao Riben Dofu)
There are dozens of delicious tofu dishes in China and this is just one of them. The tofu comes in the form of slightly flattened balls or disks an is firm on the outside but creamy and soft on the inside. Its braised in a slightly sweet sauce with ginger and garlic. One word of warning though - it will test your chopstick skills! You need to pick the tofu up very gently otherwise it will break apart, in which case you may need to ask for a spoon!
4. Chinese Salads / Cold Dishes (凉菜 Liangcai)
Chinese people will often order a cold vegetable dish or two to have alongside their meal. The most famous one is probably smashed cucumber (拍黄瓜 paihuangua) which is simply cucumber with garlic, vinegar, oil and perhaps a bit of chilli. Another classic is spinach and peanuts (果仁菠菜 guorenbocai) where the spinach has been blanched then mixed with vinegar and peanuts. There are countless more salads so just ask your guide for some recommendations.
5. Grandmother's Potato (老奶洋芋 Lao Nai Yang Yu)
This is a classic dish from Yunnan province of southwestern China. Its simple but extremely tasty -just potatoes mashed then fried with some oil and chilli. Its only very mildly spicy so suitable for all palates. There are other vegetarian dishes you can try from Yunnan such as mint salad, and egg friend with jasmine flowers.
6. Hand-torn Cabbage (手撕圆白菜 Shousi Yuan Baicai)
This is just one of many vegetarian dishes celebrating a single vegetable. Here cabbage has been torn into chunks and fried with some seasoning, but the cabbage still retains some of its crunchiness, which is part of the beauty of this dish.
Other singular vegetable dishes include broccoli stir fried with garlic (炒西兰花), shredded potato fried with vinegar (土豆丝), and braised eggplant (红烧茄子 ask for no meat as this dish usually has some minced pork with it).
7. Hot and Spicy Soup (麻辣烫 Malatang)
Similar to the hot and spicy pot dish above except with a soup and your own individual bowl. This dish is also from Sichuan but popular all over China, you even see it in 7/11s. Ingredients of your choice are boiled either separately or together in a slightly spicy soup - its similar to hotpot if you have ever tried that.
If you visit a malatang restaurant you can choose which level of spice you'd like - bula (不辣) is no spice, weila (微辣) is a bit spicy, and tela (特辣) is very spicy. Recommended ingredients are bok choy, spinach, lotus root, sweet potato, tofu, broccoli, mushrooms, cauliflower, and quails eggs.
8. Bitter Melon and Egg (苦瓜炒鸡蛋 Kugua Chao Jidan)
We will start by saying this dish is not for everyone! Bitter melon is an acquired taste and you'll probably either love it or hate it. Bitter melon or gourd is a crunchy green vegetable that has a very bitter aftertaste. Its super healthy and is a cooling vegetable so great to eat alongside a spicy dish. The best combination is when it has been fried with egg, so the slightly salty and soft scrambled egg compliments the bitter and crunchy vegetable.
If that's not your thing then you can also try a classic homestyle dish that you see on almost every menu in China - fried egg and tomato (番茄炒蛋). Other combinations include fried egg and cucumber (青瓜炒鸡蛋).
9. Oil Noodles (油泼面 Youpo Mian)
There are a number of vegetarian noodle dishes from around China that you can try and this one hails from Shaanxi province where Xi'an is the capital. These noodles are cooked fresh from dough that has been rolled and then cut into thick strips. After the noodles have been boiled they are topped with bok choy, oil, vinegar and some seasoning and then you can stir everything together once it arrives at your table.
There are other variations on this dish that can include meat so make sure you ask your guide to order the vegetarian one. Another great vegetarian noodle dish is with fried egg and tomato - it can be served with the egg and tomato on top so you mix it all in together or simply served in a broth together.
10. Dry Fried Beans (干煸豆角 Ganbian Doujiao / 干煸四季豆 Ganbian Siji Dou)
Although this dish originates from Sichuan it is served at restaurants all over China. You must ask for the vegetarian version as otherwise it will come with some ground pork. This dish consists of slightly salty and spicy long green fried beans that should still retain their crunch and juiciness. Its a firm favorite with everyone who visits China and tries it.
11. Garlic Broccoli (蒜蓉西蓝花 Suanrong Xilanhua)
Broccoli is very popular in China, both tasty and nutritious. One popular Chinese dish involves mixing broccoli with garlic, an excellent vegetarian option.
12. Hot Pot (素火锅 Huoguo)
Hot pot is one of the most famous dishes in China, and can be found all over the country. The best places to try hot pot are Chengdu and Chongqing.
Hot pot is famous for being hot and spicy. If that's not to your taste, a less challenging option is a ‘Mandarin duck’ hot pot, (鸳鸯火锅 yuanyang huoguo), which is half spicy soup, half mild. The pot has a divider in between.
Soups vary. Some contain meat gravy, while others are acceptable for vegetarians and based upon vegetable oil. With bok choy, glass noodles, mushroom, potatoes, lotus root, broccoli and many more options, hot pot can be the perfect vegetarian meal.
13. Vegetable Dumplings (素饺子 Sujiaozi)
Dumplings are very popular in northern China. Anyone visiting China should try its dumplings for an authentic taste of the nation. These are generally made with a wheat flour dough wrapping meat, vegetables and salt sesame oil, but there are also a variety of vegetarian options. Don't miss dumplings filled with eggs, Chinese chives and carrots, available at many restaurants and a particularly tasty treat.
14. Toffee Sweet Potatoes (拔丝红薯 Basi Hongshu)
Toffee sweet potatoes are a signature dish of Shandong province. However, you can find it all across China. The dish is simple and unusual for foreign visitors, being composed of sweet potato, sugar, and vegetable oil.
It is served with a dish of water given that the melted sugar on the potato can burn your mouth. Dip the toffee sweet potato in the water to make the sugar-coating crisp. For those with a sweet tooth this dish can be found as an entrée or a dessert, but will also commonly appear with other dishes in the main course.
Feast on Veggie Food with China Highlights
Above is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to vegetarian food in China due to the sheer number of unique vegetables available. Each province of China has its own unique cuisine so ask your guide for local vegetarian specialities in each region.
For specific foodie-themed tours take a look at these itineraries for inspiration:
- 13 Day Chinese Cuisine tour of Beijing - Xi-an - Chengdu - Guilin - Hong Kong - Explore China's top tourist spots whilst filling up on delectable vegetarian Chinese food
- 8 Day Culinary Adventure tour of Beijing - Chengdu - Guangzhou - These are the top three foodie cities in China and a must-visit for anyone interested in Chinese food