August 1, 2013, by Tony Hong

The challenges of being a vegetarian in China

By Rahil Davda,

Studying Finance, Accounting and Management at the University of Nottingham UK.

Having been a vegetarian since birth, I decided it would be interesting to write a blog on my time in China as a vegetarian. Before coming, I had previously read that China was the founder of Taoism – a religion that promotes vegetarianism. Along with Taoism China also has a large Buddhist population and therefore I thought it would be a country that welcomes and caters for vegetarians. Little did I know the challenges I would face to obtain 3 meat free meals a day. 

China is now the largest producer and consumer of meats. Their consumption of meat extends beyond the standard meats found in the UK. A walk through a local food market, as a group of us did during our stay in Shanghai, shows some of the whacky things Chinese people are willing to eat.  Examples include dog, water turtles, frog, crab and duck. There could certainly be no questioning how fresh the meat was with many markets keeping the animals alive until a customer wanted to purchase it. I had never experienced such an interesting food market before and it was certainly a cultural experience. However such practises are likely to cause global debate the more China develops and strives to become a superpower, especially as previous concerns still remain over the hygiene of China’s meat with another breakout of bird flu earlier this year.

The Shanghai food market experience certainly showed the extent to which Chinese people love their meat and this can be seen simply by picking up a menu in any local Chinese restaurant (ideally one that has an English menu) or by paying a visit to the University canteen. Even take a look at the crisps aisle in a Chinese supermarket and you’ll see the majority are meat filled flavours such as numb and spicy hot pot and seafood barbeque. Many students have taken to Chinese cuisine discovering delicacies such as seasoned cow tongue, cooked frog and 1000 year-old egg.

Finding Chinese vegetarian delicacies has been not so easy. What makes the challenge even more difficult is the language barrier. China is the first country I have been to where a large majority of citizens cannot understand any English. As a vegetarian, this makes it difficult to request any special dishes to be made or to ask for dishes without meat and it has often been the case that I have had to choose the only vegetarian dishes that exist on the menu (sometimes only a handful). Dishes include cucumber salad, stir fried broccoli and cabbage and boiled rice. However even many of these simple dishes can be filled with pieces of meat to add flavour as has often been the case with the rice for breakfast at the University canteen. Despite these drawbacks, when I have come across vegetarian friendly dishes, they have been some of the best dishes I have tried abroad. For example a dumpling restaurant we visited in shanghai catered extensively for vegetarians, serving a variety of dumplings as well as other specialities such as aubergine in spicy garlic sauce.

Taking all things into account, China could be a very tempting destination for vegetarians as when they do produce vegetarian dishes, they can be superb. However it seems that many people have yet to come to turns with the idea of vegetarianism and with communication problems currently makes it very difficult to get by on a vegetarian diet. As more tourists flurry to see this rapidly developing country, it is likely local citizens will gain a better understanding of the concept and thus be able to cater better for us. The challenge of finding food has certainly not put me off and I would undoubtedly return as it is difficult to match the cultural experience one gains from visiting this extraordinary country.

Posted in Uncategorized