Vegetarian Chinese food is some of the most amazing and under-rated on the planet. Yet, most of it isn’t labeled as such, and asking for “vegetarian” entrees will rarely get you what you want. Here’s why:
Historically, China has had three main “vegetarian” cuisines, and they all mean something different. Only one of the three is actually meat-free.
For most Chinese people, “vegetarian” is just another word for vegetable foods — a tofu stir fry with a little minced pork; pan-fried turnovers filled with chive, egg, and little dried shrimp; Chinese broccoli, stir fried in pork lard and served with oyster sauce to dip.
Popular vegetarianism, or minjian sushi, is different from flexitarianism, which seeks to reduce meat consumption. Rather, people eat less meat because it’s expensive.
Imagine the case of a migrant construction worker. He’s working in a big city, is on the job 11 hours a day, 6.5 days a week. He takes home a salary of $600 a month, but much of that goes to rent. For his work lunch, he has the option of a $1 bowl of noodles, or a $3 meat or vegetable stir fry.
Eating meat three meals a day? It’s simply not feasible.
Popular vegetarianism is just flexible, budget eating.
This is a far cry from the days of the emperors, when vegetarian cooking was more sought after than meat itself. Qing Dynasty-era Kangxi was said to be so enthralled with vegetables that he commissioned lavish banquets of them. His cooks did all they could to create plant dishes that looked, felt, and tasted like meat. Pork ribs made from bamboo, goose that was actually tofu skin… The food was so realistic, so delicious, that it became its own branch of Chinese vegetarian food — Imperial style (gongting sushi).
Yet, like Popular vegetarianism, Imperial style was not 100% meat-free. It often relied on bone stock and other animal ingredients. Perhaps in part because of this, the cuisine has fallen out of favor. Those who can afford meat simply eat meat. Those who prefer not eating meat don’t want to be reminded of flesh.
These latter folks, for the most part, ascribe to Buddhism and Buddhist vegetarianism (suzhai). They don’t eat meat or seafood and aren’t even supposed to crave them. But, beyond being meatless, Chinese Buddhists eschew other spices as well. Certain alliums, like garlic, onion, and chives, are forbidden. They are said to be to “excitatory” (read aphrodisiacs). Other spices, like coriander seed, are prohibited not for religious reasons but rather to distinguish Chinese Buddhists from other ethnic groups, namely Hindus living just across the Himalayas.
If you’re visiting China and want to follow a strict plant-based diet, Buddhist restaurants are your safest bet. That said, you would be giving up a lot more than just meat. Since Buddhist cuisine uses no alliums, which underpin 90% of traditional stir fries, soups, and stews, their food is not only blander, it tastes less traditional. Because they cut out these spices, Buddhist cuisine is more monotonous, with minimal regional variation.
Plant-based Chinese food is truly incredible. Yet, it rarely labels itself as “vegetarian.”
The most amazing vegetarian Chinese foods are the unsung classics of local subcuisines — like the breakfast foods of Wuyuan that are, just by tradition, 90% vegan. Or the delectable chive and pickled green soups of Ningxia, known otherwise as the mutton capital of China. They are the tofu’s that have been made for centuries in tiny, remote villages, like Bijie Dafang, who’s products have never left their province.
They are so diverse, so numerous that you could eat a new one each day and die before you are halfway done. Yet, they are hidden out of plain sight. The only way to try them is to go out, get off the beaten path, eat as much as you can in omni restaurants, and simply do your best to explain to the waiter what you can and cannot eat.