It was challenging to travel around for three months in China as vegetarians. We do eat fish, but that didn’t seem to make it any easier. We’re not complaining, but just giving our experience. The last thing we want to be are travelers that whine about not being able to get the same food as home while in a foreign country. Food is one of the main reasons we love to travel, we try to sample as many local dishes as we can. Generally we are only slightly limited because of being vegetarians. However we found China to be quite different from anywhere else we have traveled. Even hardcore meat eaters might find themselves shocked at menu choices such as fried beef penis, snake and barbecued rat.
Getting The Message Across That You Don’t Eat Meat Can Be Difficult
An understanding of the recent history of China would explain the strange looks we got when trying to communicate that we don’t eat meat. It was not that long ago that many Chinese people were too poor to afford the luxury of eating meat. People had to eat whatever they could get their hands on. There is a saying in China that if it swims, crawls, or flies it will be eaten. There is a stigma of poverty that is associated with not eating meat. It’s difficult for people to understand why someone who could afford to eat meat would choose not to.
Meat seems to be in everything! Even though vegetarianism has been practiced for almost 2000 years in China for religious purposes, we found our options limited. You’ll find it even more difficult if you are a strict vegetarian or vegan. There is no term for the word vegetarian in Mandarin, the only thing you can say is I only eat vegetables. We had someone write in Chinese characters that we wanted to order dishes of vegetables with no meat. I don’t know exactly what got translated but the best we usually got was a plate of some soggy greens sitting in a plate oil. Don’t be surprised to receive dishes with meat stock or small pieces of beef, pork or chicken although you thought you clearly got the message across that you don’t eat meat. Even dishes that read as tofu on the menu are often mixed with meat.
Help, We’re Starving!
We thought we would at least find something to snack on in a bakery. After wandering around looking at the various cases we could see that everything we looked at had meat on it or incorporated into it. The only other option was very sweet bread, which is more like cake. We came across one container of buns that looked like they had something different on top of them. It turned out to be dry shredded pork. After 3 months of travel we discovered this stuff is put on a lot of food items.
The problem wasn’t just that we were vegetarians, our diet consists of a lot of fresh salads, greens, vegetables and fruits. We don’t eat deep fried food, or any dishes with a lot of grease or cooked oils. Most of the dishes we were coming across in China didn’t fit any of this bill.
The strange thing was that every time we passed by an outdoor market we would see a huge variety of vegetables, some we recognized and others we didn’t, but they looked very fresh and appetizing. None of our accommodation had self catering kitchens so we couldn’t buy them to cook for ourselves. We wondered where are all these vegetables were being used. They didn’t appear to be in any of the dishes we saw in the restaurants.
For three months we ate a lot of rice dishes. We seemed to be able to get spaghetti in a number of places, but there was no such thing as pasta sauce. Sometimes the noodles came completely plain or with a something on them that tasted like a very sweet ketchup.
We had to seek out establishments serving western style food in many of the places we visited. Surprisingly some of the smaller places had the most options for us. Probably because they had a large amount of western visitors, these included places like Yangshou, Dali and Lijiang.
In Yangshou there was practically more western style food than there was local cuisine. We did manage to find a few cafes making some delicious meals. One of our dishes was a soup baked right in the pumpkin. The same cafe also served a delicious cold rose petal ice tea.
We darn near starved to death in Longshen where we accessed the rice terraces. Once again all we could manage to get served with our lack of communication was rice and greens slathered in a plate of oil. We were starting to get down right grouchy at this point. I thought Jack might start to gnaw his own arm off! It took us a while of searching through the streets before we finally came across some bananas. We shoved as many of them in our face as possible. I don’t know if we were just looking in the wrong places, but there seemed to be nothing in this town for us to eat.
We came across night markets in many of the areas we visited, most of them had vendors cooking up fresh food. It looked very fresh and appetizing, but unfortunately most of it was meat. Occasionally we came across a restaurant that would have bins of vegetables on display. We could point to various ones and ask to have them cooked for us. We came across several vendors cooking pots of thick black substance. We think it was made with black sesame seeds. We should have tried some, but it looked like something you should tar a roof with rather than eat.
We had high hopes when we arrived in Beijing. There certainly were more options, but not as much as we expected. We did find an amazing upscale Buddhist restaurant that served vegetable entrees and some pretty interesting mock meat dishes. In some cities you can find Buddhist Temples that have vegetarian restaurants attached to them. In most cases they will serve to the non worshipers.
Aisles And Aisles Of Grocery Shelves With Nothing For Us To Eat
When we came across a large grocery store we got excited. We thought we would be able to find at least a few things to eat. More than half the aisles in the stores are full of packages of various dried food products. Aisle after aisle of them! We couldn’t recognize what most of it was, a lot of it was different forms of dried fish and seafood. None of it looked very appetizing. Then there were usually at least one or two entire aisles of oil that filled the shelves from floor to ceiling. We have never seen so much oil in our lives. As we would make our way through the stores we would sadly reach the check out with little in our basket. At best it would be a few boxes of crackers or cookie type products and a bit of fruit. Otherwise unless we wanted to live off different types of candies, things that resembled ding dongs, twinkies and other marshmellow type gooey treats, we were pretty much out of luck. In larger cities we were able to find a bit more selection if there was a Walmart or Carrefour store.
Having To Resort To McDonald’s
Neither one of us had been in a McDonald’s in over a decade. We broke down and ended up eating there on several occasions during the trip. A filet of fish and fries ended up being our saving grace. If you’re just looking for some fries to help fill you up you can always look for a nearby KFC as well, you might even be able to get a salad.
Our Pizza Hut Experience
In Beijing we frequented the Pizza Hut, but not just for the pizza. It was the salad bar that we were after. The menu had a lot of different options than what we were used to seeing at home. I don’t recall that there was a specific vegetarian pizza, but we were able to make our own out of a few items on the menu.
The price for the salad bar was fixed, I think it worked out to $8 Canadian. You only get one trip with the bowl provided to you, and it is not very big. On our first visit to the Pizza Hut we were salad bar virgins, but we soon learned from the masters. We saw locals that had the filling of their salad bowl down to an art. It was truly impressive how much they got into these bowls.
We saw one lady that should have won a prize. She started by lining carrot sticks around the edge of the bowl, they extended out from it like a fan. This immediately doubled the bowls capacity. She held the ends in the bowl down with some heavy chopped pineapple bits. She had strategic methods for placing as much lettuce, fruit and vegetables as she could possibly fit on top of that. By our second visit we were pros at packing a full meal into our bowls.