Vegan in China: Experiences and Lessons Learned
When travelling to China, excitement doesn’t quite cover how I was feeling; I couldn’t wait to experience a completely new culture and just have the best of times. Along with the excitement though, there was a little apprehension. I had no idea what to expect. What if there was something wrong with my visa? What if we struggled to get by with the language barrier? How can I survive as a vegan in China?
I quickly realised any nervousness was completely misplaced and we had an unforgettable time. Whether rock climbing and bamboo rafting in the breath-taking mountain ranges of Yangshuo, biking around the beautifully scenic Taiwanese island of Kinmen, or hiking the Dragon’s Back mountain trail overlooking Hong Kong, it was the most incredible trip.
Being Vegan in China: Expectations
The same could be said for the food we ate. As someone who has recently become vegan, I was very conscious that it may have been difficult to cope in China; a country where meat, egg and fish feature so heavily in the diet. I was half expecting the trip to be filled with white rice and plain noodles.
I was partly right, as there were plenty of these, but they were accompanied by some of the most delicious food I’ve ever eaten. Again, any apprehension about being vegan in China was not necessary in the slightest.
Vegan Discoveries in China
We started our trip in Guilin, in southern China. We arrived at the hostel at around 2am, but we were determined to beat the inevitable jet lag. Consequently, we were up at 7.30am to see the Longji rice terraces. Following a long walk up to the summit, we were treated to the stunning views of the rice terraces. Later on that evening, we were further treated to the delights of Tian Fu Lou, a vegetarian restaurant with an all you can eat buffet. It offered all the tofu, mushrooms and sweet potato you could ask for.
We then moved onto Yangshuo, just south of Guilin, grabbing a Guilin speciality, Mifen, on the way. It was certainly unusual having spicy noodles with peanuts and pickled vegetables for breakfast, but given how delicious it was, I could really get used to it.
The whole city of Yangshuo was centred around one street and as we explored, there didn’t seem to be much going on. But as night came around, the city burst into life with tourists and locals alike bustling through the streets. Everywhere we looked there was a different food stall and we definitely made the most of it.
We feasted on spicy fried potatoes, a mugwort cake and stinky tofu (chòudòufu). The mugwort cake is a quite bizarre (but equally delicious) green, peanut-filled dough and probably my favourite food of the trip. The stench the tofu gave off was far from pleasant, but the taste was the exact opposite. The sauce it was swimming in gave an explosion of flavour as you chewed. My only regret is not going back for more.
From East to ‘West’
Hong Kong followed. It was immediately obvious how much more Western it felt compared to the previous places we had been to. For starters, almost everyone we spoke to could understand English. They even had buses that looked the same as our London ones!
This didn’t extend to the food however, and a trip to Hong Kong isn’t complete without a trip to a local dim sum restaurant. We chose Dim Dim Sum and the dim sum you get in England pales in comparison. We tucked into boa buns filled with mushrooms, spinach and onions, steamed vegetarian dumplings and Cheung Fun rice rolls. It was the perfect start to the day and certainly helped recovery from the night out the day before.
Stomachs full of as many dumplings as we could possibly consume, we explored the city for a few hours. Following that, we made our way to Victoria Peak. This iconic viewpoint overlooking Hong Kong was the perfect way to end our brief detour away from mainland China.
The penultimate destination of our travels was the coastal city of Xiamen – a short ferry ride from the Taiwanese Island of Kinmen (Jīnmén). Here came probably the best day of the trip. Once we arrived (after the short panic of Taiwanese ATMs not accepting foreign cards), we hired bikes for the day. Our cruise around the small but scenic island allowed us to explore the remains of its military past and abandoned beaches, with the skyline of mainland China just in sight off the coast.
The highlights of the day didn’t stop after we arrived back in China. We sought out Haidilao, a renowned hot pot restaurant. A large hole in the middle of the table is filled with various broths of your choice (we opted for spicy sichuan and mushroom). You then have the raw ingredients spread across the table to add to the broths as you please. Topped off with a peanut, sesame and chilli sauce, this brought a fantastic end to a fantastic day.
Attitude is Everything When You’re a Vegan in China
Not only was it an amazing trip with an almost endless list of wonderful experiences and food to die for, I’m also going to take away a lot that’ll serve me well as someone who has only recently become vegan.
The best attitude to have when starting out with veganism is to not be afraid to try new things. As you remove meat, dairy and eggs from your diet, you’re going to have to find new ingredients that make your meals an exciting experience. From the stinky tofu to the cold spicy noodles or rice porridge for breakfast, we absolutely did this in China. I’m going to continue trying new things and getting the most out of my vegan cooking.
Cuisines and Creativity
Not least of all is the courage to try new cuisines. I had never really eaten Chinese food before travelling out there and I was seriously missing out. Now I know how good that cuisine is, I’d be foolish not to venture out and try as many as I can.
There were a few occasions where everything on the menu either had egg, meat or dairy, so we had to be creative. When biking through the karst mountain range of Yangshuo, we stopped at a bridge going across the River Li to take in the breathtaking views. A food cart was selling shou zhua bing: a street food similar to crepes, typically made with egg and served with meat and vegetables. We had it made for us without the egg and replaced the meat with tofu, although apparently this is not the done thing at all. We went from thinking we wouldn’t be able to try a classic Chinese delicacy, which we were desperate to do, to having one of the nicest meals of the trip.
Mixing and matching ingredients can often lead to some unexpected, but delightful culinary creations. I am definitely going to give this a go if I ever have ingredients in the kitchen which may not obviously work together, to keep my vegan diet exciting.
Be Kind to Yourselves
Although making compassionate choices with my diet is something I am very passionate about, I can’t claim that I was a perfect vegan throughout my time in China. One of the broths in the hot pot at Haidilao had some fish hiding in there and there were a couple of supposedly vegetable dishes with a hidden meaty surprise. The important thing was not that we ate animal products on very rare occasions, but to remember that it was an honest mistake. As long as we learned from it, we’d continue to make the world a kinder place through what we eat.
Memories That Last Forever
The trip came to an end with a couple of days in Shanghai and then a long flight back to London. The food here definitely did not live up to the incredibly high standards of the previous few weeks. And, even though I can’t deny an excitement to get back onto English soil, the experiences I had in China will stay with me forever. As will (I hope) some of the lessons I learned.