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Feb 6, 2012 02:42 PM

Vegetarianism in China...

Specifically in Shanghai. I will be spending the next four months studying at East China Normal University, and I've heard mixed things about maintaining strict vegetarianism in China. I know there are vegetarian restaurants in Shanghai, but if I go out to eat at a "normal" restaurant, will they understand and respect it? That means using different utensils and pots to prepare my food, and certainly not sneaking any meat stock or slivers into any of it. Is there a lot of vegetarian-friendly street food? I have spent time in Taiwan and had no problem at all being veg. there, and people were very open to it, so i'm also wondering why China might be less understanding about a strict vegetarian diet.

I would appreciate any recommendations about specific places to eat that serve reliably good veg. Chinese (or really any cuisine) food, and any tips about navigating the whole situation.

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  1. I doubt that many kitchens will really use diferent utensils and pots for Vegetarian anywhere in the world. Most cooks will not see a problem using the same pan they used for meat when they prepare a vegetarian meal, as it has been washed (or should have been). Most will just say "yes, of course" and still use the same utensils.

    But regarding the ingredients I think that all restaurants will respect your wish to not have meat in your meal if you talk to them in a serious and nice way.

    1. The issue that you are going to face in China is neither the ingredience nor the potsand pans - it's the oil. Your best bet in China will be those outlets especially catering to Buddhists. Just tell them that you are observing some fasting ritual (吃斋) and people will direct you accordingly.

      1 Reply
      1. re: Ting Ting

        I think that is good advice, the religious angel will work, the food choice/avoidance won't.

        The Chinese eat a whole variety of food, maybe because it is a food culture still rooted in necesity rather than choice, thus the concept of not eating meat/fish is slightly odd to many Chinese. My partner has a colleague who is Veggie in HK, the team have given up trying to get her veggie food, it is far simpler for them to be naive and pretend the food is veggie. Most stocks are meat based so most soups are nor vegetarian. Most steamed dumplings have pork as a base ingredient even if they are advertised as a vegetable dumpling. And we have even turnip cakes came studded with ham.

        So sorry to say it is a far from veggie friendly in any mainstream restaurant, if you want o be safe go specialist and best is Buddhist.

      2. alas, it seems it will be as I feared. for me, any food that's cooked in pork fat or any animal fat or that contains stock or little bits of meat or fish is off limits. I guess i'll be mostly restricted to vegetarian restaurants, and if that's not possible, then just say "wo chi su" and point to the jade buddha on my necklace and hope they respect that.

        what about street food, though? surely there are some xiao chi that are vegetarian?
        and can anyone comment on why vegetarianism is quite common in taiwan but not china?

        3 Replies
        1. re: sourgirl

          Unfortunately, as others have stated, it is pretty much impossible to practice such strict vegetarian standards in China outside of eating in temples and at religious restaurants. Sadly, this will really screw with your ability to eat interestingly and cheaply in China. Most vegetarians I know here learn to deal with at least the same utensils (forget ever trusting anyone who tells you they will use different ones, they won't have them). Many also 'pick around' meat and eat vegetables from main dishes so they can actually dine out with friends (as food is so cheap here, most foreigners seem to do this at least 4 or 5 times a week, at least on first arrival). Having said that, I do live in Wuhan, which is not as developed and modern as Shanghai, and where people seem genuinely baffled when a vegetarian friend asks if something like a vegetable dish has meat, they say no, it does, and they just shrug their shoulders and walk away (the customer is always right is not a philosophy embraced in this city, at least).

          As you and others have already pointed out, oils may be contaminated, and many vegetable dishes are cooked with meat stock or slivers of meat. To be honest, I would not even recommend someone who wants to keep up such standards to come here for an extended period, as eating will quickly become an irritating hassle. As you are studying, you will also want to make sure you are living in accommodation with cooking facilities (as most Chinese university dorms for students don't have them). Cooking at home will most likely be what you do the majority of the time.

          While there is a strong history of vegetarianism in China (in the religious context) and meat was often a luxury good so eaten rarely, the Chinese today expect it (or fish) to form part of their everyday diet, and mix it in with everything (including, as I said, vegetable and tofu dishes). Unfortunately, you are going to have the same problem with street food, and most average Chinese probably won't take your requests or concerns very seriously, as it will just seem very unusual to them (especially those selling street food and running family style restaurants). There are plenty of vegetarian options for streetfood (dumplings, vegetable bbq, noodles, rice, buns, rolls, breads, ma la tang etc., but cross contamination is always going to be a problem when someone has a little cart or wok and sells both meat and meat free options).

          Get on the Shanghai expat forums if you have not already done so, as I imagine they will have some advice, ideas etc. At least in a city in Shanghai you will have more choice in terms of places catering to these kinds of lifestyles and habits. I am sure there are a variety of vegetarian restaurants selling all different sorts of cuisine (western, Indian, SE Asian etc.) though they may be a bit more expensive.

          A last question, just out of curiosity: at home, do you usually eat in strict vegetarian places, or do you trust that a request not to use the same cooking utensils in a place that serves meat would actually be honoured (I would just not think many restaurants would be in any way set up to guarantee such a thing)? Or is a fully washed utensil ok even if it did serve meat?

          1. re: ayanamidreamsequence

            thanks for this post. I will have access to a kitchen, so i'm planning on cooking a lot of vegetables and improvised ramen and some other stuff. I know i can count on getting a meat-free breakfast and will start scouting out veg friendly places when I get there on sunday. going out to eat with friends seems like it might pose a problem, but I'm sure i'll figure something out. I'll definitely check out the shanghai expat website when I have a minute. it's too bad that my dietary preferences will limit what i'm able to eat - my favorite chinese dishes are mapo tofu, yu hsiang qie zi, dumplings of all kind, and cong zhua bing. all those dishes have meat in them in their original versions but at home i cook them without meat or order them in a restaurant, where they're often featured on the vegetarian menu.
            I have heard of a number of fair-weather vegetarians who just abandon it in china because it gets too hard, but for me, it's non-negotiable. i suppose it might be for the best, though, because when I spent a year in taiwan 3 years ago I gained about 6 kilos!

            at home in the US, when I go out to eat, I don't have a problem eating something that was prepared in a pot that at one point cooked meat. It's just that often when a pan or whatever was used to cook meat and then it's not washed I can taste the meat, which renders the meal inedible. I feel quite certain that when I eat in restaurants and I order a pasta dish or some kind of vegetable thing that are marked as vegetarian they probably haven't been cooked in a "contaminated" vessel.

            1. re: sourgirl

              Thanks for your reply on the final question. Good luck in Shanghai. Another useful site in terms of knowing Chinese foods (in restaurants or at the market) is: