It wasn’t until I went away to school that I began to like Chinese food, but once I did, I practically lived on it. All the Chinese takeout restaurants knew me so well, they would start cooking my order the second I walked in the door, before I even ordered anything. When I called for delivery, they knew my name and apartment number by heart. When I became vegan, it didn’t seem so difficult to keep enjoying Chinese food. All I had to do was order vegetable-based dishes and stay away from the meat, right? Wrong.
I made a lot of mistakes and too many assumptions. The good news is that there are plenty of vegan dishes you can order in a Chinese restaurant. You just have to know what to ask about and what to watch out for. Once you do, you can go out to eat Chinese with all your friends and concentrate on having a good time and enjoying a delicious meal. Here are my tips for selecting the best veggie items on the menu in a Chinese restaurant.
1. Watch Out for Hidden Animal Products
When you order food in a Chinese restaurant, you can’t just assume that the General Tso’s Tofu or Vegetable Lo Mein is vegan. Many restaurants use chicken broth or fish broth in most of their sauces and soups, even the tofu and veggie dishes and vegetable soups. Restaurants may have one homemade stock that they use and it often contains animal products. Some Chinese dishes, like lo mein, often have egg in them. I ate steamed veggie dumplings a lot before I realized I should ask about the dumpling wrappers and to my despair, they did have egg in them. Most wrappers for dumplings and spring rolls do. Another time, I ordered a vegetable dish only to receive shrimp. Many cuisines consider seafood vegetarian or “non-meat.” If you want to order a fried dish, you need to know the food is not being cooked in lard or in the same oil that meat dishes are fried in. It became apparent to me that I had to ask about everything and make my wants and needs very clear.
2. How to Order
While more and more people are familiar with plant-based diets, don’t assume your server knows what it means to be vegetarian or vegan. Rather than asking if a dish is vegan, smile and politely ask what the ingredients are in any particular dish you are interested in. For instance:
- What is in the stock or broth of the soup?
- Is there chicken broth or fish sauce in the sauce?
- Is there egg in the dish, including any noodles, breading or wrappers?
- What kind of oil is the food fried in? Are meat and fish cooked in the same oil as the tofu?
- If they serve any type of mock meat, ask what ingredients are in it.
Once you have an idea of what is in the food, let your server know which foods you do not eat. I always explain that I do not eat any meat, including chicken and fish, milk, cheese, butter, eggs, honey, chicken stock or broth, fish stock or broth, fish sauce or lard. I know it’s a long list but if I just say that I’m vegan, I leave it open to the server’s interpretation which may not be accurate. It is better to be clear and specific.
Usually, a restaurant will be accommodating and tailor dishes to your needs. One Chinese restaurant made it clear that their sauces, such as General Tso’s and garlic sauce, were made with chicken broth but they offered to make me a special dish using clear, vegetable broth. It was delicious. If you don’t feel a server or restaurant is taking your requests seriously, you might want to say you have allergies to these foods. It’s not a tactic I prefer to use but while businesses may not take customer preferences seriously, they all take liability risks seriously. Always smile and be polite; people are more willing to help someone who is friendly and respectful than someone who is rude and demanding.
3. Chinese Veggie Dishes
Now that you know what to look out for and how to order, let’s get to the food. Chinese restaurants have lots of veggie-centric dishes on the menu. An increasing number of establishments are offering vegetarian and vegan options that are clearly marked on the menu while some places have whole separate menus for vegan dishes. Many places are willing to let you replace the meat in any dish with tofu or seitan, but again, you need to check the ingredients in the rest of the dish including the sauce. Here are some veggie-friendly possibilities you can order. Remember that the following suggestions may be cooked differently from restaurant to restaurant, so you do need to ask about the ingredients to determine if they meet your vegetarian or vegan requirements.
Veggie Spring Roll, Steamed Vegetable Dumplings, Pickled Cabbage and Cucumber, Cold Noodles with Sesame Sauce, Chinese Scallion Pancakes, Fried Tofu Nuggets, Salad with Ginger Dressing.
Vegetarian Hot and Sour, Tofu Vegetable, Vegetable
Rice and Noodles
Vegetable Fried Rice (specify no eggs), Steamed Rice, Vegetable Lo Mein (specify no eggs)
Steamed Vegetables, Sauteed Green Beans, Sauteed Snow Peas, Fresh Asparagus, Mixed Greens, Sauteed Broccoli, Chinese Bean Curd, Tofu with Black Mushrooms and Bean Sprouts, Chinese Eggplant, Szechuan Tofu or Seitan, General Tso’s Tofu, Moo Shu Vegetables, Sweet and Sour Tofu, Orange Tofu, Kung Pao Tofu, Veggie Chow Mein, Buddha’s Delight
4. Make Your Own Chinese Food
While it’s possible to eat a delicious meal at a Chinese restaurant, you may decide that you would rather make your own Chinese food at home. It isn’t hard to make a feast for your friends and family that includes all your favorite dishes like General Tso’s Tofu, Dim Sum Soy Sauce Chow Mein Noodles, Vegetable Fried Rice with Tofu, Orange Cauliflower, Steamed Vegetables with Garlic Sauce, Kung Pao Tofu, Pomegranate Sweet and Sour Tempeh, Peanut Butter Spicy Noodles, Spring Rolls with Spicy Peanut Dipping Sauce, and Perfect Fried or Steamed Veggie Dumplings.
To get you started, read How to Make Your Own Vegan Chinese Dishes at Home and if you are gluten-free, check out How to Make Great Vegan and Gluten-Free Chinese Food. Learn the Secrets to Sautéing and Stir-Frying Chinese-Style, how to Spike Up Your Meals with Chinese Spices and Sauces, and even how to make your own Vegan “Fish” Sauce.
Eating a plant-based diet doesn’t mean you have to give up going out to eat at all your favorite restaurants. As long as you know where to look for hidden animal ingredients and can communicate your needs clearly and politely to your server, you can enjoy amazing meals in restaurants with all your friends and family. It’s also an opportunity to kindly educate people about vegetarianism and veganism – because the more veg people there are in the world, the easier it will be to eat anywhere we want!
Lead image source: Perfect Fried or Steamed Veggie Dumplings