As warned by other bloggers in our research before the trip, there are 2 options for eating vegan in China – either be very flexible and ultimately don’t worry about what you are eating, or prepare your own food.
We mostly opted for the first option. We were in India last year and relaxed into the dairy factor, sometimes ingesting it if was given. So, we can be flexible in China too.
I guess we thought that would mean a bit of fish sauce here or a chunk of beef on the side there. But it was that and a bit more, I think, although we really can’t be sure – we are relying on taste buds which have not tasted many an animal product for 9 years here.
I may have detected oyster sauce in the spinach and could it be chicken oil in the mushrooms? The dish that looked just like tofu in the picture was layered with bacon. The vegetarian dumpling had something remarkably egg-looking. Who knows if there was milk powder in the soymilk? Or egg in the noodles? Or minced shrimp in the kimchi?
Holy Brahmin Cow!
So, apart from taking out obvious meat pieces, we ate and gave thanks and wished our bodies as much sustenance from these unusual sources as they like to absorb.
For ‘safe’ vegan options in China the fruit was great – food carts or stalls on the streets provide seasonal fruits, usually for a cheap price except in remote areas. Little corner shops have a range of greens and mushrooms, some of which you have likely never seen before, along with herbs like garlic, ginger, chili, chives and coriander. We didn’t have a kitchen but there is always hot water available, so we just chopped them up with the swiss army knife, put them into a bowl with noodles, added some soy bean paste and hey presto, one of the best meals that we had (the best for peace of mind!), also one of the cheapest at about $3.
To order vegan food in China we were very lucky to have a handwritten note which our Air B&B host in Beijing wrote up for us at the start of our trip. This was warmly received, as opposed to the long list of phrases on google translate which sometimes seemed to produce confusion – there’s no way of knowing how it was really being translated. I started in google translate with a full list of requests – no chicken, beef, pork, fish, shrimp, egg, milk, cheese, dairy, fish sauce, oyster sauce. Sometimes including what we do eat – vegetables, tofu, soy milk. But over the weeks it was whitled down to “vegetables” or “vegetarian”, sometimes adding, no chicken, no meat, no egg. It sufficed to get us as vegan a meal as one can reasonable expect to get.
I did learn to say one phrase “meiyou jidan” – no egg – which helped a handful of times. Give me a few months and I’d probably have my vegan phrases mastered. And a body made of creatures that I’d rather let live!
I also took the time to learn the Chinese characters for beef, pork, chicken, egg, fish, milk and dairy. It didn’t take much effort, only half of a train ride of looking at the characters on google translate, and writing them repeatedly on the tablet with a sketching app, and they were memorized. The Chinese train passengers were highly amused to see me sitting there on the floor writing Chinese characters on my device. Only shrimp didn’t get lodged into the memory bank before I lots the tablet at a streetfood stall, and I didn’t take up the learning task again, so I don’t know if shrimp wriggled it’s way into our diet. Otherwise, this was really helpful for checking non-vegan ingredients on the packets of snacks and instant noodles, and also for identifying non-vegan ingredients on menus. Although obviously bacon has a different character to pork – I didn’t see that one coming!
So I wish you well if you are journeying through China and avoiding animal products…and would love to hear what works best for you!
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