Traditional Chinese food was never as meat-heavy as it is today. Dishes used to include a lot of vegetables, beans and tofu with rice as the central fare. Unfortunately China recently “achieved” the record of consuming half the world’s pork. Like most countries in the world, increased wealth has been synonymous with increased consumption of meat, once a luxury item. So, in this respect, expect to see and smell a lot of pork cooking all around China, especially in cities, where the smell of roasting meat is pervasive.
This being said, recent health worries around poultry and other meats as well as environmental concerns have woken people up to vegan and organic food agendas. To claim that it’s easy to be vegan in China would not be completely true, but with a few precautions and a willingness to be flexible with an occasional bad surprise, one can enjoy the best of vegan food China has to offer and never go hungry or get bored.
China has almost 1.4 billion population with 56 ethnic groups (though most people are Han) It boasts 8 major culinary areas, each providing different tastes and food cultures:
Sichuan – Known for its peppery and spicy foods.
Cantonese – Commonly serve steamed dishes and stir fries.
Jiangsu – Incorporates a lot of fish-based sauces and foods due to its proximity to the sea.
Fujian – Best known for its tasty soups.
Shandong – Famous for its baos (bread steamed buns with different filling).
Hunan – Known for spicy stews.
Zhejiang – Prefers mild and non-greasy foods.
Anhui Specializes in braised dishes with lots of wild herbs.
Each one of these culinary approaches include lots of traditional dishes made only with vegetables, always cooked to perfection, bright green or crispy and yet again melting in your mouth as some veggies like eggplants should do.
Precaution: when ordering food in a restaurant in China, do not assume that a “vegetarian” dish is actually just that. Many times it will contain fish, eggs or even animal fats. Make sure to ask. Fake meats are not always completely fake. Beef or pork powders are added for taste. Only the ones served in vegetarian and of course vegan restaurants or Buddhist temples are trustworthy. Dairy is not an issue if you stick to traditional Chinese food since dairy items were never used in the past for humans over the age of 4 and are still quite uncommon today. Make sure to check our Chinese Vegan Local Food tab, to get at least a basic understanding of your vegan and veganizable food options.
As you can imagine, finding vegan snacks and foods can be quite a challenge in China, since most of the products packaging and ingredient lists are only written in Chinese. Check our Snacks & Stores tab to better know your options.
We warmly suggest to anyone traveling outside of major cities to both learn and print out our Chinese vegan Vocabulary tab, due to the extremely high language barrier you will certainly experience.
Your best bets for finding vegan food outside of major cities are Buddhist temples/monasteries or their surroundings. Chinese Buddhist cuisine is mostly vegan, typically containing home-made mock meats made from seitan and soya beans or shiitake mushrooms. As a 2000-year-old tradition, it has had a long time to perfect delicious vegan dishes that will leave you delighted. Indeed, some vegans organize their trip to China on the trail of monasteries just for the pleasure of the food. Nevertheless, menus are usually hung near the kitchen and do not include pictures, as opposed to regular restaurants. You might need to point at some customers’ plates to get what you want.
Still have questions? Visit our China Forum tab to get all the answers.
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