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Vegetarians and dim sum?

I'm just throwing this out as a general discussion: what do you vegetarians out there (or people who often dine out with vegetarians) do about dim sum? Barring finding a restaurant that caters especially to vegetarians, what can I expect if I invite a veg. friend to a typical dim sum restaurant?

Do people have go to dishes, or is it just a type of food best avoided? All I can think of are:

-most dessert items
-ordering chow mein or fried rice off the menu
-bamboo wrapped in tofu skin
-one of the chang fen (rice wrapper) dishes are plain

Almost everything has pork or dried shrimp strewn in it. What to do?

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  1. Another problem is, even with vegetable items, they could use lard or animal broth, or most likely do. You can't tell what does have animal products and what doesn't. Many almond cookie recipes use lard (which make the most flaky cookies, good). If someone is strictly vegetarian, I don't see how they can eat dim sum at most traditional restaurants. You'd have to go to a special vegetarian place (none near me but I wouldn't be surprised if there were some on the west coast).

    1. It's possible in certain places in Manhattan where you order from a menu - Dim Sum Go Go and Chinatown Brasserie come immediately to mind. But in a cart place, I think it would be tough, and your vegetarian friend might have a long wait for something s/he could eat. Here's the menus for the places I mentioned, to give you ideas about what you might find:


      1. I often go to dim sum with a vegetarian who is very happy ordering vegetable fried rice, no egg. Other times she will order vegetable spring rolls, scallion pancakes, chive or spinach dumplings or plain cheung fun.

        5 Replies
        1. re: JungMann

          Scallion Pancakes use solid lard as the foundation of the flaky pastry.

          1. re: Blueicus

            I don't know if I'm willing to tell her that! No wonder I love splitting those damned things!

          2. re: JungMann

            There is often lard used in those dishes. I was told when I was a vegetarian that the rice noodle dough is often made with lard. It could contain oyster sauce. Plus, depending on how strict she is, I'm sure they're not washing out the woks and tins between meat and vegetable dishes.

            1. re: chowser

              How on earth does on manage to get lard into rice noodles? I suppose that's the type of porky excess that endears Chinese food to me (unbeknownst to me). I have written down on a piece of paper, "I am a Buddhist vegetarian" or something along those lines in Chinese to alert waiters of her strict vegetarianism and have not been dissuaded from cheung fun, although most of the sauces are verboten. The worcestershire and oyster both have seafood.

              1. re: JungMann

                Rice noodle dough is made with rice flour and oil, among other things. I've never made it but was told that some people use lard in it. Being asian and knowing how people I know respond to things like that, I was always cautious when I was told things didn't have meat. It's even worst now that my daughter has nut allergies. They think it's in her head and as long as she doesn't see it, it's not a problem.

          3. There's a Kosher-Vegeterian Dim Sum place in Chinatown in New York, but the food was hideously awful. It dripped of grease and tasted like nothing.

            1. My SIL's husband is a vegetarian and he really doesn't like to go out to dim sum with us. It's really difficult for him because in addition to the obvious items with meat and fish, there's a lot of hidden animal stuff in the form of broths, fats and sauces. I think that even something innocuous looking as a dan tat can have lard in it (depending on the place). What he ends up doing is ordering a vegetable/tofu dish from the regular menu (not the dim sum rice/noodles menu) after asking if there's any meat stock, etc.

              If somebody in your group is fluent in Chinese, I suppose you can ask the waitstaff and dim sum ladies. But I find that some Chinese people have a different view of "vegetarian" than most Americans. To some, it's vegetarian if there are no obvious meat products in the dish. I've got a recipe for Buddha's Delight in one of my authentic Chinese cookbooks. The author goes on to describe how monks don't eat meat and how she devised the recipe for vegetarians. However, it calls for chicken stock! And my FIL is a Chinese chef but doesn't quite understand my SIL's husband's vegetarian needs, making noodle and vegetable soup with meat broth. It's just a different perspective, probably not coinciding with your vegetarian friend's view.

              So I think the safest thing to do is to probably order off the menu and ask questions like crazy (even though that may not guarantee that the dish is vegetarian).

              11 Replies
              1. re: Miss Needle

                Vegetarian doesn't translate well into traditional Chinese cookery, which is based on balance of elements (hot, cold, neutral - not defined the Western way), tastes and textures. A purely vegetable dish, like a purely meat dish, would be very unbalanced unless it was being eaten to counteract some specific medicinal ailment.

                1. re: Karl S

                  "A purely vegetable dish, like a purely meat dish, would be very unbalanced unless it was being eaten to counteract some specific medicinal ailment."

                  Ha ha. When my SIL's husband orders a vegetarian dish, the waiters all say, "I hope you feel better," without any provocation.

                  1. re: Miss Needle

                    Yeah, that would be an unbalanced "cold" meal.

                    European medicine, btw, long had not so violently different ideas about diet under the four-humors theory.

                  2. re: Karl S

                    I'd disagree with you here Karl. There is a long and rich tradition of vegetarian cuisine in China since Buddhism entered from India in the 3rd century. There are some fantastic vegetarian Chinese restaurants in Taipei. Some charge by the total weight of your plate and one place years ago had an honor pay system! For protein they use various soy products. Miss N, in general Chinese believe that one is a vegetarian for religious reasons, not health. This may have to do with the fact animal protein is not the overwhelming centerpiece of a Chinese meal but a complimentary part of the dish.

                    1. re: scoopG

                      I am aware of that, but I have to say what I've observed and read indicates that the diminished Buddhist presence in China since Buddhism was the subject of persecution in the later Tang era has reduced its profile, at least in terms of commonality among the emigre population in the USA....

                      Animal protein of course has a different role in Chinese cuisine, but I find a lot of American vegetarians think that what they think of a vegetarianism is something familiar to many Chinese when in fact it's not really. I think this comes from a misconception about that "different role".

                      1. re: Karl S

                        Not really. The Tang capital of Xian was a center of Buddhism. Yes, there was one emperor who was anti-Buddhist but we are talking 9th century. By the time of the Ming Dynasty, 500 years later Buddhism was well established. Along with the Tao and Confucism it forms an underpinning of Chinese social, cultural and philosophical thought. I agree with you about American misconceptions though!

                      2. re: scoopG

                        I agree with scoopG. The balance of "hot, cold, and neutral" isn't defined by meat and vegetables but the properties of them. A completely vegetarian dish can be balanced by "hot" and "cold" vegetables and with spices and condiments. Same applies to a purely meat dish.

                        1. re: kobetobiko

                          Yes I am aware of that but a lot of the ways to do that are not things that average Americans necessarily would find to meet their expectations.

                    2. re: Miss Needle

                      That reminds me when my mother made the dan tat dish (basically a custard tart) at home and I saw a pound of lard go into making it! I can't remember how many it made since it was so long ago, but still...

                      1. re: chocolateman

                        Well, I don't think desserts are necessary vegetarian, western or eastern alike.

                    3. I really enjoy the Vegetarian Dim Sum House on Pell Street in Chinatown. I went with a meat eater and he's definitely a fan this place. The veggie pork buns are awesome.

                      2 Replies
                      1. re: moniquelavie

                        That might not be convenient for the OP, who I think is in San Francisco.

                        1. re: small h

                          Yank Sing in SF does have a decent selection of vegetarian items. But it's very pricey there compared to other dim sum parlors.

                      2. There aren't too many ideas I can add to yours:

                        1. Cheung fen wrapped around fried dough.
                        2. Boiled Chinese broccoli (no oyster sauce).

                        It is highly unlikely that they will use different utensils, woks/pots, or cutting surfaces to prepare vegetarian dishes.

                        I think it's best for vegetarians to avoid dim sum.

                        1. Thanks, everyone. The situation is pretty much as dire as I'd imagined. I think he's going to want to sit this meal out, or pack his own veggie burrito and stealthily eat it (j/k, j/k).

                          11 Replies
                          1. re: Pei


                            There's lots to eat for vegetarians at dim sum, incl:

                            1. Water
                            2. Boiled peanuts with pickled mustard greens
                            3. Fruit jello
                            4. Red bean buns
                            5. Pudding
                            6. Taro cakes
                            7. Tea

                            1. re: ipsedixit

                              Not so sure about the red bean buns. I believe some use lard in the dough.

                              And are you referring to the taro cakes that are similar to turnip cakes? If so, don't they have Chinese sausage in it?

                              1. re: Miss Needle

                                Most red bean buns don't have lard. Dough for the buns do not have lard. If lard is to be found anywhere it would be in the red bean filling.

                                No, not like the turnip cakes. Not at all like turnip cakes. And definitely no sausage.

                                1. re: ipsedixit

                                  Ipsedixit, do you mind describing the taro cake? The only taro cakes I'm aware of are those that look like turnip cakes and those that are deep fried and fluffy on top and filled with pork inside.

                                  1. re: Miss Needle

                                    RE: Taro cakes.

                                    Mashed, steamed, and topped (or garnished) with precut fruit and nuts. Yum.

                                2. re: Miss Needle

                                  My mom uses lard in her red bean buns. Or she used to until she tried to go healthier and use vegetable oil. They haven't been as good since. But maybe bolo bao would work.

                                  Taro cakes often have oyster sauce. I've only had taro fillings wrapped around meat and deep fried, or like MIss Needle said, similar to turnip cakes w/ sausage and dried shrimp. Fruit jello can have gelatin (Knox, or it might use agar agar which would be okay) in it which isn't vegetarian. Almond jello is the same. Doesn't mango pudding also have gelatin? There's always that hot tofu dessert. I'd go just for that.

                                  There's always white rice.

                                  1. re: chowser

                                    I agree that the normal taro cakes will definitely have bits of chinese sausages or dried shrimps in it, unless they specify it as vegetarian version.

                                    Good call on the hot tofu dessert. I love that.

                                3. re: ipsedixit

                                  Don't forget the mustard and chile sauces!

                                  1. re: ipsedixit

                                    Most jellos use gelatin extracted from animals.... agar agar and other similar gelling agents are otherwise vegetarian.

                                    1. re: ipsedixit

                                      ipsedixit, unforutnately, you have to take off #3 from your list.
                                      Jello isn't vegetarian, it's made with Gelatin.

                                    2. re: Pei

                                      I think there are a lot of dumplings that are purely with vegetarian fillings, especially if you go to the more contemporary dim sum places.

                                    3. dishes that aren't typical dim sum items, but often readily available:

                                      1. vegetarian mock duck is fantastic (basically tofu skin wrapped around chinese mushrooms). actually pretty healthy, filling and high protein.

                                      2. taiwanese influenced places might have fresh tofu served with a wee drizzle of soy sauce, sesame oil and chives. (i love this... so simple and yet soo good.)

                                      3. plain congee with crullers (not made with lard in my family, at least -- though you'll want to avoid the shao bing, which are often made with lard)

                                      4. if your vegetarian in question eats eggs, tea eggs -- or the restaurant might be willing to whip up a batch of eggs and scallions.

                                      5. soy milk

                                      2 Replies
                                      1. re: cimui

                                        Congee is made with broth, normally from carcass. Po veh is made with water but I've never seen it at dim sum.

                                        1. re: chowser

                                          we call it all "shi (or is it xi?) fan", whether it's made with broth or water. the stuff made with water is commonly listed as "white congee" on menus. it isn't a dim sum food, of course, as i did note, but it's often on breakfast menus and available around the same time as when many people go for dim sum.

                                          but you're right that a vegetarian will probably want to inquire just to make sure!

                                      2. When I went to dim sum w/my veg sister, she suggested a place she knew had vegetable dumplings. She also had the sesame balls and some plain rice ... that might be about it.
                                        If it's not obvious that meat products are used in something, she has a don't-ask-don't tell policy.

                                        1. Hi Pei,

                                          Not sure what kind of offerings your local dim sum restaurants offer, so it's hard to tell what your friend can order. I just came back from a trip to Hong Kong and there were a lot of vegetarian dishes in dim sum restaurants these days to cater to vegetarians. Besides pure vegetarian dumplings (I am talking about steamed ones with the skin like "har gao", not the dumpling in soup) or vegetarian spring rolls/cheong fun, there are dishes like:
                                          - steamed/fried eggplants with garlic sauce
                                          - salt and peppter tofu
                                          - fried peppers with thousand year eggs (well, that's a tough one for non-Asian)
                                          - scallion pancake (not with lard)
                                          - baked taro buns (no lard)

                                          A lot of the desserts, like red bean cake, mango sago sweet soup with pomelo, etc. are fine too.