Tips on Finding Vegan Food in China

The hustle and bustle, the endless swarms of people, the smog, the traffic. Yes the big cities of America have much in common with populous China. And both are certainly not lacking in culture and cuisine. However, Americans have been graciously spoiled with a veritable treasure trove of vegan restaurants throughout the country, something that the Middle Kingdom, and Shanghai, have yet to proliferate. But before you can your vacation plans to the Far East just yet, there is hope for the fellow vegetarian and vegan. It just takes a little courageous searching.

With its comparable population sizes, unprecedented global influence, and cosmopolitan lifestyle, Shanghai is considered by many to be the New York City of China. It is the busiest port in the world, attracting a diverse and rich culture for many years. Simply put, Shanghai has become a melting pot. But it is still very much loyal to tradition, wherein lies the problem for many veg travelers. Although fewer Chinese eat meat on a daily basis, there are definitely less options for strictly no meat or dairy. Here are some tips for the weary Westerner setting out for the Middle Kingdom.


Key phrases when on the exploration

Ok, time to brush on your Mandarin and Cantonese. Even if you can’t explain to the bus driver which stop is yours, the following phrases are necessary to learn for staying cruelty free:

“I’m / We’re vegetarian.”
“wǒ / wǒ men chī sù” ( /  吃素)

“I / We don’t eat meat.”
“wǒ / wǒ men bù chī ròu” ( /  不吃肉)


“I don’t eat eggs.”
“wǒ bù chī jī dàn” (我不吃鸡蛋)

“I don’t drink milk.”
(wǒ bù hē niú nǎi” (我不喝牛奶)

“I don’t eat cheese.”
“wǒ bù chī nǎi lào” (我不吃奶酪)

“Do you have any vegetarian food?”
“yǒu sù shí ma?” (有素食? )


“It’s not made with meat is it?”
“nà shì yòng ròu zuò de ma?” (那是用肉做的?)

“Can you make it without meat?”
“méi yǒu ròu kě yǐ ma?” (没有肉可以?)


“What kind of sauce is on that tofu?”
“nà shì shén me jiàng?” (那是什么?)

Also, if you have a smart phone don’t hesitate to download a translator app – they can do wonders when traveling abroad!

Things to watch out for

As mentioned before, typically less meat is consumed in China, but that doesn’t mean you can let your culinary guard down. Be vigilant:


  • If enjoying some of the street food, be extra careful of fish sauce. Most places will cook with this ubiquitously as per tradition. Often times you can see how everything is prepared and what spices and oils are being used.
  • When dining in restaurants, simply ask politely (see above) if the kitchen is using any animal-based ingredients in the dish. Also watch out for bread when eating out at restaurants, as it tends to be covered in butter.
  • And don’t forget, keep an eye out for fish and chicken broth in soups. They are extremely pervasive in China.

One local pick for cheap restaurant dining

One gem to be found in Shanghai is Vegetarian Lifestyle. Reasonably priced, many vegan options, and plenty of fresh food. Try these tasty dishes:

  • Deep-fried shiitake mushroom w/spicy sweet sour sauce
  • Stir-fried purple yam, water chestnut & sugar snap peas
  • Lightly salted pine mushrooms with assorted vegetables
  • Sliced pancake & vegetables, hebei style
  • Steamed organic brown rice & plain rice x3
  • Kiwi fruit and pear juice

One appetizer, three entrees, three sides of rice, and a fresh smoothie = 198 rmb, or about only $31!

Vegetarian Lifestyle can be found at: 258 Fengxian Rd, Shanghai, China

Must try local foods

You will not go hungry roaming the alleyways and streets! Some of the delights to find on foot include:

  • Sweet or salted breakfast buns (make sure to specify vegetarian)
  • Sour spicy cabbage/stir fried cabbage
  • Tiger salad
  • Green chili and potato shreds
  • The myriad varieties of tofu (try with hot pepper if available)
  • And the infamous hot pot (all ingredients are added by the consumer, just make sure you specify hot water or veggie broth!)

Safe snack ideas when all else fails

  • Instant noodles (watch for beef, chicken, or fish seasoning)
  • A host of fresh or packaged nuts (peanuts, cashews, and pistachios)
  • Tofu puffs
  • Vegetable wontons
  • And the always reliable source of fresh fruits (watermelon, kumquats, apricots, and peaches tend to be the juiciest)

Taking a trip to China can be an incredible and enlightening experience, and one that’s awash with unfamiliar far eastern aromas and flavors. For many this can be an adventure of a lifetime, both spiritually and gastronomically. So take to the seas. Eat boldly. Your appetite will thank you.

Dylan Mandel -- Contributor, One Green PlanetDylan Mandel is a born and bred Alaskan living in New York City, where he professionally performs and teaches percussion. He has appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live, MTVU’s The Dean’s List, and the MTV Campus Invasion Tour. He has also collaborated with Our Hen House, Olsenhaus, and PETA2, and was highlighted in Planet Verge’s series “Going Vegan” which garnered national acclaim. Dylan is an avid vegan, often taking his passion on the road in search of cruelty free living in the most unlikely places.

Image Source: Brian Jefferey Beggerly/Flickr