I have had several requests to write about what it’s like to be vegan in China. In the first week, I felt as though my writing would be more of a whine and less informed, less patient and certainly less complete on the subject. Why? Because I was starving!
After all, stepping off the plane in Beijing without having ever had any immersion in this language, you can imagine how I’d find it hard to ascertain where the whole foods were sold, what restaurants were good to eat in, how to order without making a mistake and receiving something I couldn’t (and wouldn’t want to) eat, how to read packages in Chinese, etc. Now, after more than two weeks here, my honest first impression is this:
It sucks to be a vegan in China.
Many of you are probably thinking, “How is that possible? It’s a country of rice, vegetables and tofu?” Well, that’s true, in a way. . .
I could definitely eat rice many times a day and it only costs pennies a bowl (literally: one bowl of rice is 5 mao in the university canteen which equals about $0.05 Canadian.)
I can also order vegetable plates in most restaurants but the food here is exceptionally oily and is always prepared in the same woks as the meat dishes. It’s not unusual to receive a plate of vegetables with the occasional chunk of stray beef from a previously cooked dish. Eggs are also used in everything here. Bits of egg seem to show up in the most unlikely places.
And tofu? It is often prepared in the juices of meat. It is not designed as a meat replacement for the vegetarian diner, but more as an alternate taste and/or texture in an already diverse meal. Many people eat tofu here, but not because they don’t eat meat. It’s simply a common legume-derived product that is part of the Chinese culinary palette.
I have partially been living on snacks like fresh yam chips, all natural compacted fruit snacks, lots of soy milk and sesame snacks. Thanks to some forward thinking on my part too, I had about ten Larabars with me that kept me going during my first week.
In the land of Buddhism, where is the food?
On my fourth day here after eating lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, white rice and some terrifying though apparently vegetarian restaurant dishes that I shudder to re-visit in my mind (and stomach), I decided to make the long and uncharted journey to a vegetarian restaurant just south of the university.
With map in hand, some Chinese currency and a determined appetite, I braved the subway for the first time (hunger motivates!) and then also navigated several unmarked streets and eventually, after about an hour of combined travel and walking, came upon a pair of locked gates. Beyond the gates was my restaurant, Beihe Vegetarian, closed and inaccessible.
The guard at the gates said “bu kaimen” over and over, which only means “not open” and when I asked why, he answered me but I had no idea what he said. I looked at him blankly, blurred by hunger. My vocabulary is growing daily but it’s definitely challenged whenever I ask someone “why” about nearly anything. On day #4, my vocabulary was seriously impaired, not just by the culture shock and unfamiliarity with this language, but also by my empty stomach!
Dejected, I walked slowly back to the subway. It was now 1:30 in the afternoon.
I stopped in a corner store and bought a cold bottle of sweetened green tea. The sugar hit helped. It reignited my commitment to finding a place to eat – my one mission for that day – and so I decided to seek out another location of the same restaurant, this one downtown.
I made my way to the second subway line, got out at the right stop, walked the forty-five minutes or so into the northeast edge of the city core and happily discovered a snack vendor selling fresh peanuts. I ate them ravenously as I continued to search for the street that I needed. Another half an hour of walking and getting lost (though with more of a sense of humour thanks to the peanuts), I found the little street that housed the downtown location of the Bei He Vegetarian Restaurant.
This time, it was open.
It was now 4:30 in the afternoon and I was more than ready for a meal.
I proceeded to have a brilliant lunch that was spontaneously shared with an American woman who was also eating alone. Altogether, the meal cost each of us about $3.50 Canadian.
This was an example of an oasis in a carnivorous desert. At least, that’s how I felt at the time. But, there had to be more options! I refused to have to launch a pilgrimage to a downtown restaurant every time I needed to eat.
That’s where my Aussie friend Sarah came in. She had a Lonely Planet guidebook to Beijing and it actually listed a vegetarian restaurant in Wudaokou, the suburb I live in. She came to visit me last week and together we set out on foot in search of food. Twenty minutes later, I arrived at my new best friend: The Happiness Restaurant.
Oh, what a happy day!
Not only is this restaurant vegetarian, but it’s also egg-free, dairy-free, smoke-free and alcohol-free. Did I mention it’s also delicious? I have now eaten there three times. Last night, they greeted me like I was an extended member of their family. I may just wear path between my house and this restaurant after three months.
Finally, I’ve taken to cooking in my dorm. I bought a cute little pot that has a lid and a bowl that all fit together. I have found that this contraption works as a steamer as well. I can put rice noodles in the bottom of the pot, pour boiling water over them, put veggies in the bowl and place this over the cooking noodles. Then, I can cover it and let it sit for about five minutes and everything is cooked perfectly. I finally bought tofu that isn’t flavoured or smoked, as well, and some almonds and Bragg top off the meal nicely.
Bragg is my travelling companion. I don’t leave home without it. It’s a low-sodium, wheat-free, non-GMO, liquid soy product that is touted as “liquid amino acids.” It’s tasty and lighter than Chinese soy sauce and I’m so glad that I brought a big bottle with me. I hope it lasts me three months!
All in all, please don’t worry. I’m eating. I’m learning. I’m finding more and more options every day. I do believe I will have more to say on this topic and so stay tuned for Part 2. I hear there’s even a Vegetarian Association of Beijing. I’ll be looking into that for sure.
Until then, I’m being innovative.