Vegetarian Backpacking for 1 Month
I will be spending one month backpacking in China this summer. As the backpacking may imply, I will be doing mostly budget eating. I am not sure exactly where I will end up, but I plan to hit the main spots: Beijing, Xi'an, Shanghai, and Hong Kong, as well as some off the beaten track destinations.
How difficult will it be for me to keep a strict vegetarian diet? Any particular dishes I should ask for? Stay away from? I imagine the cities will be more accommodating.
I live in Beijing and recently had vegetarian friends from London visit. They said that, surprisingly, it's not too hard to keep vegetarian in China. They order a lot of vegetarian dumplings, and noodles and rice with eggs and tomato. They also seek out Buddhist restaurants, of which there are quite a few in China.
In Beijing, you can try Pure Lotus Vegetarian or Still Thoughts. Mirch Masala on Nanluoguxiang (a hip hutong with tons of restaurants and cafes) is an Indian restaurant with a big vegetarian and vegan menu. You can also search this site: http://www.beijingveg.com/ for other vegetarian spots.
Also be aware that many Chinese cooks like to cook vegetables in lard (pig fat ).
There is also a tendency to think that certain meats are not really meat. I've been told this about both chicken and ham. It took a long time in one restaurant to explain that stir fried rice with lumps of ham sausage in it wasn't vegetatrian.They were convinced it was.
Klyeoh, how did your friends do it? I am thinking it would be tough without at least carrying a message in Chinese explaining your diet.
figg, I am an advocate of street food since you can see it when it's made and know exactly what goes into it. You will also be travelling in summer, and the grocery stores will be full of amazing (uncooked) marinated salads and ready made cold dishes that are often vegetable and tofu based.
Breakfast: If you eat eggs the 煎饼 jiānbĭngs are not to be missed; they are most common in Beijing but are also found in other areas of China. A few 素菜包子 sùcàibāozi (vegetable steamed buns) or a 由条 yoútiáo (the long, not-sweet doghnut) are always great with a warm bowl of soy milk (豆浆 doùjiāng or 逗奶 doùnăi).
China has amazing vegetable dishes due to plentiful good local produce,a staggering variety of pickles and preserved vegetables, and many types of spicy and fermented veg based condiments and sauces. It's a little complicated since a dish with a certain name in one part of the country will be made differently than a dish with the same name in another part and many may or may not include meat. Another caveat is that I live in Sichuan which is not on your itinerary, but here are my favourite budget veg only dishes:
蕃茄炒蛋 fānqiéchăodàn (scrambled eggs and tomatoes)
土豆尼 tŭdoù ní (potato "mud" - Chinese mashed potatoes)
鱼香茄子 yúxiāngqiézi (fish fragrant eggplant)
金沙玉米 jīnshā yùmĭ (deep fried corn kernels)
家常豆腐 jiācháng doùfu (homestyle tofu, sometimes includes meat but it can easily be left out)
蛋炒饭 dànchăofàn (egg fried rice)
豆花 doùhuā (this is a style of dish; soft tofu with many condiments. I usually get beef but you can stick with preserved vegetables)
Many Buddhist temples have a vegetarian restaurant attached or nearby as well. And if you are hostelling, the hostel restaurants are always veg friendly. In Xian, as mentioned, you can get pomegranate cakes, slices of a big steamed cake with osmanthus sauce, and 江米糕 jiang1 mi3 gao1 as well as a great variety of dried fruits and nuts. And everywhere in convenience stores you can buy pressed flavoured tofu snacks (豆腐干 doùfu gan).
You'll be okay - I have a couple of close friends, Germans/lifelong vegetarians who, like you, backpacked in China for a month, places included Xinjiang (Urumqi & tinyoutback villages/towns). They can't speak a word of Mandarin, but could find folks there who are accomodative enough to prepare vegetarian meals for them. But they are okay with wheat noodles (which may contain eggs) - so do look out for that if you're not.
Just make sure all the vegetables you eat are cooked, try to stay away from raw salads.
Thanks! I am lacto-ovo vegetarian, meaning I do eat eggs and dairy but no fish, meat or poultry. I had problems in southeast asia where everything was cooked in fish sauce and am worried I would encounter similar problems in China.
Glad to know I can live on noodles and tofu (which sounds excellent). Thanks for the heads up on Xi'an. I usually pack some food with me just in case but want to be able to enjoy local cuisine as much as possible.
What exactly do you mean by strict? It's pretty easy if you eat eggs, tougher but still doable if you don't (tons of tofu options). In general, it will be toughest in Xian where the Muslim cuisine is very meat based. For chowish options there you may want to stick to sweet stuff.