I’m sick of the misinformation about how easy it is to be a vegan in China.
Let me give it to you straight – if you don’t know how to speak or read Chinese, being 100% vegan in China is hard.
Most people who say it’s easy can either understand the language or have lived in China for a long time, or both.
Veganism hasn’t caught on in China, and I personally can’t see that changing anytime soon.
But the point of this blog is not to prove a point.
My aim is to make it a bit easier for those who are traveling to China for a week or two and want some simple strategies to remain vegan.
While I’m not vegan myself, I know how important it is to stay true to your values (and your health) when you travel overseas.
You shouldn’t have to start gnawing on chicken bones just because you’re in China!
So, here are my tips to help you stay a vegan in China.
1. Plan ahead
This tip might be a bit boring if you’re a spontaneous kind of person.
But, with a little planning, you should be able to maintain a plant-based diet and travel across China guilt-free.
If you’re on a package tour, food on most days will probably be included. So make your dietary requirements known to your tour guide ASAP.
They may not know the word ‘vegan’, so tell them you can’t eat meat or seafood, and you can’t eat anything that comes from an animal, including eggs.
You have to be really explicit and clear about this – even give them a list.
If you have any free days on your tour where you can choose where you eat, you’ll need to be prepared.
Have a list of dishes on your phone that you can eat (I’ll provide some good ones further down) or use a translation app like Google Translate.
And, if you have any long travel days on buses or trains, plan ahead by buying snacks (like nuts and dried fruit) the day before.
It’s better having something you can nibble on than nothing at all!
2. Eat similar meals each day
It might take a few days to get into the groove, but once you’ve found a few vegan dishes that you really like, stick to them.
If you don’t, you take the risk of choosing something from a menu that you think is vegan but turns out it’s not.
You’ll have to throw away the animal-based dish, which is wasteful and sad. Plus, you’ll need to order another dish while the others in your group are already halfway through meals.
My all-time favorite vegan dish in China is stir-fried eggplant (aubergine). It’s a vegetable that’s known and available all over China, and cooked in a multitude of ways.
When I was teaching English in China, I was pretty much addicted to fried eggplant on steamed rice. I had it for dinner at least three times a week!
My point is, I found a winning dish so I stuck to it.
3. Try to be flexible
Practically every dish in Chinese restaurants has meat or animal by-products in it.
In China, meat is a class thing. Basically, if you’re well off, you can afford to eat meat. So, you’ll often find the vegetarian or vegan dish you’ve ordered is served up with a meat garnish or has been cooked in animal fats or sauces.
The chef isn’t having a laugh – it’s quite the opposite actually. They honestly think they’re enhancing the dish and making it more appealing.
If you can, try to be flexible by eating the vegetable skewers that were cooked up on the same grill as the meat ones, or by drinking the soup that possibly has meat broth in it.
As I mentioned earlier, I’m not vegan. I’m 90% vegetarian (sorry about the silly percentage – that’s a story for another day).
So, I’m probably very different to you in terms of what food I can put up with.
Some of you won’t be able to stomach a vegetable soup that tastes like it may have a meat broth – I get it.
But if you can be as flexible as possible in China, it’s going to make life a lot easier for you.
4. Eat street food
Chinese street food is tasty, simple and available everywhere.
(Check out this blog for the best Chinese street food.)
And, if you’re traveling China on a budget, you’ll be pleased to know it’s cheap.
Most street food vendors sell only one thing, so it doesn’t matter if you don’t know a word of Chinese. Just point and hold up one or two fingers to show how many you want.
You’ll need to be careful with certain pre-cooked foods which may have animal products in them, especially egg.
But if you can see the ingredients go in, that’ll put your mind at rest.
The easiest choices, and some of the most nutritious, are roasted corn and sweet potato.
5. Keep drinking coffee
Chinese people aren’t into dairy at all. You won’t see cheese, milk or cream anywhere in China, unless you were to hunt it down in an international supermarket.
However, you’ll find coffee shops all over China, which is good news.
Even better news is, they all stock a non-dairy alternative to real milk, like soy milk.
I personally think Chinese coffee is below-average, and very expensive in the scheme of things (if you disagree with me – let me know in the comments!).
But just knowing you can get a coffee in China and stick to your vegan ways is worth its weight in gold.
Well-known coffee shops across China include Luckin Coffee, Pacific Coffee, and good old Starbucks.
6. Cook for yourself
This is probably impossible if you’re staying in hotels.
But, if you’re staying in an Airbnb in China there will definitely be cooking facilities available.
Similarly, you might have access to a cooktop or microwave if you’re staying in a hostel, depending on the place.
Cooking for yourself in China is the only way you can be guaranteed of eating 100% vegan food.
I guess the only annoying thing is having to find a supermarket!
When you are shopping for vegan food in a supermarket in China, just remember that certain foods, like lentils and chick peas, can be really hard to find.
7. Use HappyCow
HappyCow is a website and app that makes vegan food easy to find when you’re traveling.
For China, there are over 1,300 restaurants that have a listing. You can see them here.
Again, it might be hard if you’re on a package tour to leave the group and head to the other side of town to find a vegan restaurant that takes your fancy.
But at least you have the option.
8. Use a food delivery app
Eleme and Meituan are China’s largest food delivery apps.
There are countless options available, and you can search by dish to make things easier.
However, you’ll need a Chinese person to help as the apps aren’t in English. You’ll also need to pay via a Chinese payment platform, like Alipay.
Now can you see why I’m saying it’s hard being a vegan in China?
If you do want to use Eleme or Meituan, read my blog on China apps which includes a brief overview of how Alipay for foreigners works.
When all else fails, you could try a Western fast-food app and order a vegan dish (if there is one) off their English menu.
If their successful trial of plant-based chicken nuggets in Shanghai is anything to go by, KFC should have meat-free alternatives across China soon.
9. Find a Buddhist temple
This one also requires a bit of planning, but is worth it if you have the time and you’re a strict vegan.
Monastery-run restaurants in China can be a great place to get delicious vegetarian and vegan meals. They’re experts at serving up non-meat dishes.
I personally haven’t eaten at a Buddhist temple in China, but I’m sure I will one day.
Ask your tour guide for directions to your nearest temple eatery.
10. Bring food from home
I always bring snacks from home, regardless of which country I’m traveling to.
After a long flight, it’s nice knowing you can rely on some tasty snacks that you’ve eaten before and know all the ingredients.
While you won’t be able to cook a three-course meal with the things you bring with you, the convenience can still be a blessing as you find your ‘food feet’ in China.
There are some foods you can’t bring into China however, and I’ve written a blog dedicated to that.
Common vegan dishes in China
Each province of China specializes in various dishes. And sometimes individual towns will have their own specialties.
But as different as each corner of China is, there are a few trusty dishes that are known by pretty much everyone.
Here are some common vegan dishes you’ll find in many places across China:
- Stir fried eggplant (Yúxiāng qiézi 鱼香茄子)
- Fried shredded potato with peppers (Qīngjiāo tǔdòu sī 青椒土豆丝)
- Steamed bread (Mántou 馒头)
- Cold cucumber and garlic salad (Pāi huángguā 拍黄瓜)
- Sautéed cabbage with mushrooms (Xiānggū yóucài 香菇油菜)
- Vegetable fried rice (Shūcài chǎofàn 蔬菜炒饭)
- Tofu soup (Dòufu tāng 豆腐汤).
Just check with your tour guide or waiter that there are no hidden animal products.
For example, the sautéed cabbage could be cooked in oyster sauce.
The Chinese name of my favorite, the stir fried eggplant, literally means ‘fish fragrant eggplant’.
But don’t panic – it doesn’t contain fish. It gets its name from the combination of hot, sour, and sweet flavors that are typically served with fish in its native Sichuan province.
I’d be more worried about the possibility that it’ll be served up with pork!
Helpful links for vegans in China
For pictures of vegan snacks, plant-based milk, and meat substitutes to help you navigate your way around a Chinese supermarket, I think this page on The Veganary is pretty awesome.
Dog isn’t on the menu
You’ll be pleased to know that dog will no longer be on the list of animals for human consumption. If you want to know which animals are on the list, check this page.
And, a silver lining to the coronavirus pandemic – China is phasing out farming of 45 wild animal species by the end of 2020. That’s good news!
Want to know how to say “I’m a vegan” or “I don’t eat meat” in Chinese? For these expressions and others, check out this helpful blog by LTL Mandarin School.
An interesting video
If you have 20 minutes up your sleeve, it’s worth watching the video below. Amy Lyons, aka Blondie in China, goes vegan for a week after chatting with her vegan friend, Elliott.
A word of warning though – both Amy and Elliott say it’s easy being a vegan in China.
For foreign travelers, it’s not! Amy and Elliott can speak fluent Chinese.
But, Elliott is on the money when he says “Be vegan to the extent you can be”. I like that saying.
Being a vegetarian in China
Check out this page on The Helpful Panda to find out how to survive China as a vegetarian (it’s similar to this article).
A final travel tip
Do you plan on using Wi-Fi internet in your hotel in China?
If so, you’ll need a virtual private network (VPN) to be able to access all the major foreign websites and apps like Facebook, Instagram, Google, YouTube, WhatsApp and so many more.
If you don’t have a VPN, all your favorite sites and apps will be blocked by China’s internet censorship. This will make it hard to look up vegan stuff online.
Please check out my review of the best VPNs in China here.
Just make sure you download the VPN before you arrive in China, because you won’t be able to do it once you get there.
Do you think you can stick to veganism in China?
I hope I haven’t scared you too much. I just wanted to be completely honest and clear up some of the misconceptions about how easy it is to be vegan in China.
If you scanned past that part and missed it, it is easy to be vegan in China if you can speak and read Chinese.
But if you’re like most travelers who have no knowledge of Chinese, you’ll have to use some of the strategies above to survive China as a vegan.
With the help of things like apps and technology, being flexible, and thinking outside the square, you should be able to continue eating vegan food while you’re traveling in China.
If you have any extra ideas or feedback, I’d love to hear about them in the comments section.
Have a great time eating in China!
I hope you liked my blog on whether it’s possible being a vegan in China. If you’re planning a trip soon, you may also like the one I wrote about when is the best time to visit Beijing and Shanghai.