A Vegan in China - Part 2

By Yasmin Radbod

Again, let me introduce myself briefly; I am a college student who interned with The Vegetarian Resource Group. Recently, I studied abroad at Nanjing University. I have had absolutely incredible experiences as a vegan in China, as well as some terrible situations. I will start with some pleasant stories that I hope will offer insight for you or someone you know who is interested in studying abroad in China or simply visiting the country.

One of my most positive experiences in Nanjing was stumbling upon a bean stand. When I say stand, I mean a small outdoor shop on the side of the street that is convenient to stop at for a snack while on a walk. In Chinese these stores are just known as xiao chi 小吃, which literally means 'little eat' or 'snack.' At this particular stand pictured, the beans and nuts are Nanjing techan 南京特产, which means 'specialty Nanjing food.' There are no other products sold here besides various types of beans and nuts, and soybean oil is used to roast the beans. One bag of beans, the size of a large handful, is only five kuai, less than one U.S. dollar. This vendor offers candou 蚕豆 which are fava beans fried in oil, made crispy on the outside and they are bitter, salty, and crunchy. In addition, there is huangdou 黄豆 which are soybeans. The vender roasts the soybeans lightly in oil so that they are crunchy. Fried green edamame beans are available, too, called xiangsu dou 香酥豆 meaning 'crispy' or 'cooked bean,' and these are salty and taste similar to the ones sold in the U.S. He also sells chestnuts, which are common around Nanjing. I consider the boss of this stand my shushu 叔叔, uncle, because I went to his shop so frequently and he and I became close friends.

There are some other vegan havens in China. Nanjing is also blessed with many Buddhist temples that were my go-to. Jimingsi 鸡鸣寺 Jiming Temple is the most famous temple in Nanjing. I went to their wonderful vegetarian restaurant so often that I became very close with the ladies who work there. They all are vegan. Through getting to know them and other Buddhists at various other temples in Nanjing, I discovered many vegetarian options that were available right in Nanjing. In fact, Nanjing has three completely vegan restaurants, one of which is at Jiming Temple. Jiming Temple is unique because it has two separate dining areas offering different atmospheres. If you enter the temple and walk through the worshipping halls, you can enter the second floor of the restaurant and gaze out at a great view of the ancient Ming Dynasty wall. On the second floor the menu is limited; they have dishes such as 'Noodles with Mock Chicken,' 'Noodles with Mixed Vegetables,' fried rice dishes, and shaomai, delicious sticky rice balls. They also serve baozi, which are similar to dumplings but are steamed buns with a vegetable in the middle. If you walk directly around the temple to the back you will find the first floor of the restaurant, which offers an extensive menu of mock meat dishes, hot pot, stir-fry, noodles, fried rice, cold dishes, and more. It is also more expensive, and the ambiance is much more upscale. Many temples in China have either a humble, quiet noodle restaurant open to the public, or a larger, more expensive and decorated vegetarian restaurant. The larger restaurants pay more attention to the way the food is prepared; i.e., the colors of the vegetables used, their placement on the plate, and which styles of cooking are more appealing to the eye.

Above all, my most pleasant experience as a vegan in China was stumbling upon Gaozuo Temple 高座寺, which is located within the famous Yuhuatai 雨花台 Martyr Cemetery in Nanjing. The day I found this temple, the head monk happened to be walking around and noticed me. We started talking, he invited me to his office to drink tea, and we became lifelong friends. He, and all the other monks and volunteers at this temple, are strictly vegan. He often invited me to the temple to eat vegan hot pot with him and other monks and talk about why I am vegan compared to why they are vegan. The hot pot consists of a large table with seating for about 10 people, one giant pot in the middle, and several bowls of vegetables placed around the pot. Vegetables usually included are various types of mushrooms, cabbage, spinach, lotus, tofu skin, broccoli, and bamboo. Sauces are served on the side; you choose which sauces to put in your bowl, and everyone uses their chopsticks to pick out food from the giant pot to put in their individual bowl. The sauces usually vary between a spicy chili sauce, a peanut sauce, and plain soy sauce. I celebrated my 20th birthday at this temple with my monk-friend.

Living in Nanjing was quite convenient as a vegan. Across the street from the foreign students dormitory is a Turkish restaurant which offers Turkish lavas (similar to pita bread), hummus, and vegan salads. Right up the street is an Indian restaurant that has a large selection of vegetarian dishes, as well as vegan pakoras, samosas, and the like. About a five minute walk from the dorm is a Middle Eastern restaurant selling hummus, pita bread, falafel, tabouli, and grilled eggplant. Fruit is in abundance and is found on almost every street corner; local convenience stores also sell all natural juices (no added ingredients). Unfortunately, it is impossible to find restaurants that serve whole grains; white rice and white flour are always used in place of whole grains. However, there are several markets in Chinese cities which do sell various types of grains — but a kitchen is required for cooking. In Nanjing I had easy access to many international foods, as well as Chinese vegetable stir-fry dishes, vegan vegetable boiled dumplings, and much more.

The study abroad program I went on is strictly for American students and we were required to participate in group activities and take a week-long trip together every semester. During my first semester in China, we went to Sichuan Province for a week and it was very difficult to be vegan. There are two things about participating in a traditional Chinese meal that can be irritating. First, if eating at a restaurant in a large group, it is very common to use a lazy susan and rotate multiple dishes around the table. This can be troublesome for vegans because all the vegetable dishes are shared by everyone, often leaving little left for the vegan to eat. Secondly, in sharing dishes, everyone uses their own chopsticks, but everyone's chopsticks touch all the food. Many times I noticed meat or the oil from another dish accidentally left on a vegetable dish by someone else's chopsticks. Learn from my experiences, and if you are traveling in China with friends or you are a guest at a Chinese meal, make sure that they are aware of your vegan diet in advance.

When traveling in rural Chinese areas (especially in Yunnan Province and Sichuan Province), I have found the treatment of animals to be especially cruel. It is easy to find animal furs for sale made from all types of wild animals, as well as street markets that strictly sell animal products used in traditional Chinese medicine. Animals are also sold as pets. The condition of animals in these markets is horrendous. For example, in Nanjing there is a famous animal market within Fuzimiao, the Confucius Temple, where you can bargain and buy birds, cats, dogs, rabbits, fish, and turtles. It is also common in China to see migrant workers selling live animals on the street, usually kept in bags or makeshift cages. When I was in Kunming, a city in Yunnan Province, I stumbled upon a street entirely dedicated to selling animals.

My Chinese friends were mostly very accepting of my diet and did not question why I choose to be vegan. However, I also had many experiences in which I ordered a vegetable dish and the oil was not vegan, or I discovered that a tofu dish had tiny bits of meat. Duck blood is sometimes used in many tofu dishes as well. Make sure to always be very clear about your vegan diet and ask what all the ingredients are in the dish you are ordering. As I said earlier, I always felt most safe when eating at a Buddhist temple because those restaurants are vegetarian.

Unless you are traveling in a distant province such as Yunnan, butter, cream, and the like are very rarely used. However, eggs are popular in some vegetable dishes and are commonly used in pancakes. During my stay in China I avoided almost all street food because I did not trust the oil being used. It is absolutely essential to ask the owner of a street stand or family restaurant the type of oil they are using and exactly what ingredients are in food you are ordering. If you are still hesitant, stand by the street stand while they prepare food for other people so you can directly watch what ingredients are included. This is particularly important in distinguishing which pancakes have eggs and which do not.