Being a veggie in Beijing

By Tabitha Messick
Updated: 2007-06-04 12:29

Being a foreigner and vegetarian in Beijing can be difficult even though there's lots of rice and vegetables available. To many in China, vegetarianism remains a strange phenomenon imported from the West, where it is very popular.

Beijing, a city that caters to many culinary delights, does not have a lot of vegetarian restaurants. The ones that are vegetarian, are usually more expensive and not so appetizing for meat-eating companions.

Not speaking Chinese and unable to ask the wait staff about certain dishes can be frustrating. There are not many English menus and even the ones with pictures are still hard to tell if it has meat or not.

The word vegetarian does not exist in the Chinese language. There is no simple way to say, "I eat no meat or seafood of any kind," especially since some restaurants stir-fry everything, even vegetable dishes, in animal-based oils.

Also, there are many definitions of vegetarian. Some people eat strictly vegetables, fruit, nuts and grains excluding anything derived from animal body parts. Others eat seafood but some do not. The most extreme case is vegan, someone who does not eat meat, fish, dairy products or eggs.

When you ask for dishes with no meat, some restaurants simply lie and say that the dish does not have meat even when it does. Even more common is when the restaurants simply take some of the meat out and then serve it to you with a puzzled look. Sometimes restaurants think that a 'little' meat is the same as 'no meat.'

Hot pots restaurants are one of the most difficult to enjoy as a vegetarian, as you are eating with a lot of people sharing from the same pot full - usually full of meat. A salad, some fruit and a side of vegetables is the probably the best thing to do in this case.

Here are some other tips to use when eating out at a regular restaurant in the Chinese capital:

Communication with the wait staff is key. "Vegetarian" in Mandarin Chinese is pronounced "Chi-su," which translates to "eat vegetables." This will help get the message across more effectively than just saying "I am vegetarian." Some other good phrases to know are:                  

I don't eat fish: Wo bu chi yu
I don't eat meat:
Wo bu chi rou
I don't eat seafood: 
 Wo bu chi hai xian

There are plenty of other dishes for you to get the nutrients you need. The good thing about eating in China is that there area wide variety of vegetables with every meal. You can order cucumbers, broccoli, tomatoes or a sprout salad. Eggplant dishes are great and tofu and other soy-based foods are also widely available.

Finally, be patient. In China, meat is a symbol of health and wealth. For many Chinese who grew up in the latter part of the 21st century, a vegetarian diet was not by choice. Now that people can easily afford to buy meat, voluntarily not eating meat is a bizarre concept.

Though vegetarianism is rare in China, there are many options available for those who practices this lifestyle.


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