For many vegetarians planning a trip to China, getting by on a no-meat diet whilst being able to enjoy the best of local cuisine can be a concern. Though vegetarianism is becoming increasingly popular in large Chinese cities, this choice of diet is still not widely understood – sometimes even uttering ‘I don’t eat meat’ in perfect Chinese may still lead to confusion. That shouldn’t be enough to put you off however; while it’s true that you need to be more meticulous about what you’re eating here than in other countries, following a strict vegetarian diet is certainly not impossible. In fact, many of the nicest, most popular Chinese dishes contain no meat at all, and can be found on almost any restaurant’s menu. To help you identify which you can trust, we’ve put together a list of our favourite Chinese vegetarian dishes*.
1. Tomato and Egg (fān qié chǎo dàn)
It might sound (and look) strange but trust us; this simple dish somehow works. Well-seasoned scrambled eggs are added at the last moment to a sweet tomato sauce and served with a mound of steamed white rice to form a healthy and nutritious meal. Variations of the dish can be found in the form of noodle soups, and stir-fried noodles with the tasty mixture piled on top. It’s an extremely popular dish that appears on menus across the country, and it’s one you can count on coming without any kind of meat!
2. Mapo Tofu (má pó dòu fǔ)
If you can handle spice, you can’t go wrong with this beloved Sichuan tofu dish. Originating from the province best known for its cuisine, má pó dòu fǔhas swept the nation with its mouth-numbing yet delicious taste. Tofu forms the base of the dish and is covered in a deep red mala sauce to top, putting it at the top of both vegetarian and meat-eaters’ lists of best Chinese dishes. If you’re not a fan of spice don’t worry; many restaurants offer a more taste-bud friendly alternative.
3. Dumplings (jiăozi)
Do you really know Chinese food if you haven’t tried jiăozi? Without a doubt the most popular type of Chinese dumpling, jiăozi feature on the menu of restaurants across the nation, and often warrant a shop of their own. Come midday in cities across China, you’ll find modest jiǎo zi guǎn overflowing with patrons expertly shovelling dumplings into their mouths. Formed of a thin doughy skin containing all kinds of fillings, they’re quick to make, cook and eat. Vegetable fillings are just as popular as meat, making for a quick and easy lunch, dinner or snack that you can guarantee will be good!
4. Spinach and Peanut (Bōcài huāshēng)
If there’s one thing Chinese cuisine does well, it’s flavouring vegetables. In fact, we’d bet even the most stubborn of children would enjoy eating this Beijing style spinach dish. Often served as an appetizer or a side dish, this makes for a great light lunch or a tasty accompaniment to rice or tofu dishes.
5. Potatoes, green peppers & eggplant (dìsānxiān)
Aubergine, or Eggplant as it’s commonly referred to on Chinese menus, is a popular vegetable that forms the base of many dishes in China. Dìsānxiān is one of these. Orginating from the northern Dongbei area, this is made from potatoes, green peppers and eggplant and covered in a kind of sticky, sweet sauce. It’s great for sharing, or as an individual meal.
6. Broccoli & Garlic
Simple yet effective, this dish is made of nothing more than stir-fried broccoli and garlic covered with a sauce made from sesame oil, soy sauce and salt. This easy-to-make dish is one you can quickly prepare at home or buy in a restaurant for less than 30 RMB.
7. Shredded Potato (tǔdòu sī)
Another simple yet delicious dish favourite from Sichuan Province, you can’t go wrong with a plate of tǔdòu sī. Literally translated as ‘shredded potatoes’, the dish is (you’ve guessed it) made from long strips of potato, which are stir fried with chilis in a sour sauce to form a crunchy, tangy, spicy flavour that leaves you wanting more.
8. Cucumber salad
One of the most popular cold dishes in China, this is simple to make or cheap to buy. Smashed cucumber is combined with a dressing made from sesame paste, rice vinegar, sesame oil and garlic to form a healthy, refreshing snack. Best eaten as an appetizer or a side dish, this is the perfect accompaniment to rich, potato-based dishes.
9. Stir-fried rice (chǎo fàn)
Last but not least; if in doubt, stir-fried rice is almost always a safe bet. It’s easy to find, cheap to buy and never a disappointment. Vegetable fried rice (shūcài chǎofàn) is very popular, but if you’re looking for a bit more substance, go for the tofu option. This makes for a great quick lunch or dinner, and it’s the perfect go-to for anyone who’s just arrived.
*Please note; though these dishes often contain no meat, some restaurants may serve variations, so it’s advisable to always double check with your waiter or waitress before ordering.