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Chinese Vegetarian Food — a Vegetarians Guide to China

Most Chinese vegetarians are vegetarian because of their religion: they are Buddhists, following the Buddhist teachings about minimizing suffering. In addition, many Yoga enthusiasts in China are vegetarians or vegans. In the same way that vegetarianism is popular with people who are very health-conscious in the West, in order to keep healthy and fit, more and more Chinese people who are not vegetarians or vegans tend to eat vegetarian food from time to time.

Can I survive in China as a Vegan or Vegetarian?

A Changing Land, a Changing DietVegans and vegetarians can find some difficulty in new and unfamiliar countries. China may seem a challenge in this regard. However, it may be far easier than most people realize.

Given food shortages, the China of the past saw meat as a rarity and ate it at every opportunity. Given the shortage, restaurants in those days tended to have a wide variety of vegetable rather than meat dishes. That changed with China's development, but recently there has been a reversion as standards of living have risen and people are seeking healthier lifestyles.

As a consequence, all-meat dishes are no longer deemed as acceptable. Indeed, where once people may have complained about an absence of meat, now complaints are more likely to come if a meal has a shortage of vegetables.

China Today

As of 2018, China had around 576 million people living in the countryside, some 40% of the population. China's cities are surrounded by farming towns and villages which serve the urban communities.

With improved roads and other means of travel, food can be transported from these rural surroundings and into the cities far more rapidly. As a consequence, locally-sourced foodstuffs arrive fresh in the cities, much of it vegetable produce.

and vegans, then, will find they are well catered-for in today's modernizing and rapidly-developing Chinese urban environment.Some Popular Vegetarian or Vegan dishes in China.

  • Broad Beans with Lily Bulbs
  • Lily Bulbs with Pakchoi
  • Soybean Sprouts
  • Braised Eggplant in Brown Sauce
  • Fried Lettuce
  • Stir-fried mushrooms
  • Oyster Sauce with Pakchoi and Mushrooms
  • Lotus Root with Green Pepper
  • Fried Tofu with Peanuts and Red Pepper
  • Dried Beancurd Sticks

Vegetarian Food is Widely Available in China

Soybean and Tofu

Vegetarian food is common and readily available in China, though vegetarianism is only practiced by a relatively small fraction of the population. Especially in the countryside, an emphasis on fresh vegetables makes Chinese cuisine perfect for vegetarians. The mainstays of Chinese cuisine, noodles, rice, tofu, and vegetables, are all fine for vegetarians.

Ingredients of Chinese Vegetarian Food

Besides a large variety of vegetables, Chinese vegetarian food often uses tofu (soft or dried bean curd), nuts, mushrooms, fungi, and water plants as its ingredients.

Interestingly, you will frequently find dishes resembling meat or seafood (as in the second photo, which shows a completely vegetarian dish, believe it or not). For example, in fried mock oyster, mashed tofu pieces are shaped like an oyster. 

Besides good taste, Chinese vegetarian food emphasizes appearance, displaying a harmonious balance of colors and textures as well as flavors. This is especially true for the vegetarian restaurants that are associated with Buddhist temples or institutions, and may surprise a Western vegetarian.

How to Order 

Chinese food

Although it is not hard to find vegetarian food in China on a menu if you speak the language, the language barrier may cause some confusion. 

Many dishes that have meat in them can also be prepared without the meat. All you have to tell the waiter is what exactly you don't eat. The better restaurants, especially, will have no problem leaving the meat out of your dish to suit your preferences.

You should be clear and specific when telling the waiter what you don't eat, as their understanding of vegetarian dishes may not be the same as yours. For example they may think you only don't eat meat but things like eggs or honey are okay.

If you travel with us, our guides will be able to help you with this (as will the table below).

Useful English/Chinese Phrases to Help You Order

Chinese Vegetarian Dishes Menu

Here is a list of common Chinese vegetarian dishes and/or street food, with names in English, pinyin, English-style pronunciation, and Chinese characters.

English Chinese Pinyin Pronunciation Characters
fried spicy vegetarian beef xiāng là sù niúròu sshyang laa soo nyoh-roh 香辣素牛肉
vegetarian sweet and sour spare ribs sù chǎo tángcù páigǔ soo chaoww tung-tsoo peye-goo 素炒糖醋排骨
vegetarian ham sù huǒtuǐ soo hwor-tway 素火腿
vegetarian ants climb tree (vermicelli with spicy silk noodles) sù mǎyǐ shàng shù soo maa-ee shung shoo 素蚂蚁上树
vegetarian drumstick with Western gravy xizhī sù jītuǐ sshee-jrr soo jee tway 西汁素鸡腿
crispy roast duck cuì pí shāoyā tsway pee kaoww-yaa 脆皮烧鸭
Luojiang fried bean duck luōjiāng dòu yā lwor-jyang doh yaa 罗江豆鸭
fried vegetarian crab meat chǎo sù xièfěn chaoww soo sshyeah-fnn 炒素蟹粉
seven-color shitake mushrooms qícái xiānggū chee tseye sshyang-goo 七彩香菇
fried pickled cabbage and bean sprouts xuěcài chǎo dòuyá sshwair-tseye chaoww doh-yaa 雪菜炒豆芽
cucumber and crushed garlic Pāi huángguā peye-hwung-gwaa 拍黄瓜
crispy tofu skin cuìpí dòufu tsway-pee doh-foo 脆皮豆腐
mixed salad with Chinese dressing dàbàncài aaa-ban-tseye 大拌菜
home-style tofu jācháng dòufu Jjaa-chaang doh-foo 家常豆腐
spicy tofu málà dòufu maa-laa doh-foo 麻辣豆腐
eggpant with peppers and potato dìsānxiān dee-san-sshyen 地三鲜
hand-torn fried cabbage with chili shǒusī yuánbáicài shoh-srr ywen-beye-tseye 手撕圆白菜
stir-fried celery and lily bulbs xīqín bǎihé sshee-chin beye-her 西芹百合
flash-fried broccoli báizhuó xīlánhuā beye-jwor sshee-lan-hwaa 白灼西兰花
needle mushrooms with cucumber jīnzhēngū huángguā jin-jnng-goo hwung-gwa 金针菇黄瓜
spinach fried with garlic suànní bōcài swann-nee bor-tseye 蒜泥菠菜
sauteed cabbage with mushrooms xiānggū yóucài sshyang-goo yoh-tseye 香菇油菜
fried egg with tomato xīhóngshì chǎodàn sshyee-hong-shrr chaow-dan 西红柿炒蛋
Eating vegetarian food with China Highlights

Everyone in China Eat Meat?

Vegetarianism and veganism is still developing as a trend in China. With older and more traditional people, meat dishes continue to be to the fore as they take advantage of this new luxury modernization affords them.

However, China is exceptionally varied and not limited to only one tradition.

In particular, China's long association with Buddhism means vegetarianism itself reaches far back into the nation's history. Today, most Chinese Buddhists avoid meat and eat only vegetables on the first and fifteenth days of each month by the lunar calendar, while some Chinese Buddhists avoid meat altogether.

New Trend Built on an Ancient Tradition

Eating Chinese food in a local restaurantEnjoying Chinese food in a local restaurant

This tradition has served as a source of inspiration for modern Chinese vegetarians and vegans motivated by concern for their health and for the well-being of animals.

China now hosts some 50 million vegetarians. Most of these are young and from the middle class. The number is growing, but even now there is a sufficient market for restaurants to deem them worth catering for.

So it is that vegetarian and vegan travelers need feel no concern when arriving in China. You will find your tastes catered for with a wide variety of both modern and traditional meat-free dishes, and this can only expand as the market continues to grow.

Vegetarian Restaurants in China's Biggest Cities

We have compiled directories of China's most popular tourist destinations' vegetarian restaurants to help you find your way around. Many of the restaurants listed in the articles linked below are specifically Buddhist, but not all of them.

Tour Veggie/Vegan With China Highlights

We can help make your trip a lot easier. Our tours are tailored to your needs.

If you are vegetarian/vegan we will ensure that our tour guides order only the best vegetarian dishes for you during your holiday. See our most popular tours below:

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