Guest Article By Remy
When you imagine being vegan in Shanghai, you might assume that it is more difficult to maintain the lifestyle and diet than in other countries, but it is definitely doable, and becoming easier to do so!
No dairy, no problem?
One of the first things that comes to mind is the lack of dairy here. Dairy is rarely used in traditional Chinese cooking, and even now, there are very few modern Chinese dishes that call for dairy. In contrast, countries like Korea have jumped on the dairy train, with popularized dishes made modern or fusion with the addition of cheese (e.g. cheese on top of ramen, kimchi
with cheese, ddokbokki with cheese on top).
Chinese food often traditionally vegan
Traditional Chinese dishes are based primarily on rice, noodles and vegetables (you can read more about this in The China Study) and meat is often an addition or a luxury item. This is because for the majority of farmers back in the day, or those who were unable to afford it, meat was really inaccessible. If used, small pieces and bones would often be used for the purpose of making soups and stocks. These days, meat is not only becoming more abundant, but is also becoming something of a symbol of wealth and health. Here, having meat
kind of equates to having “made it”, in that being able to afford it means you are well off. It is seen as something that, if affordable, is a luxury addition to your meal. Still, it is easy to eat vegan in China, especially in one of its major cities–Shanghai.
Growing vegan food scene
First, let’s talk about the Western style vegan food scene. Oftentimes, in foreign countries, vegan restaurants and cafes tend to have western style menus, and are often run by foreigners, too. In Shanghai specifically, there are a growing number of these western style vegan restaurants. To name a few, Sprout Lifestyle (a cafe offering desserts, kombucha and small bites), Happy Buddha (serves western classics like mozzarella sticks and vegan cheese as well as meat substitutes), Pure & Whole (salads and veggie centric juices, smoothies etc.) and D’Lish (fusion dishes, run by a lovely Taiwanese woman). Each time I come back to Shanghai, it seems that this realm of western vegan food in Shanghai is evolving and becoming more and more common. Vegan in Shanghai is becoming easier! In terms of purchasing vegan specialty ingredients, it is a little more difficult to find things that are available in the United States and Europe like vegan yogurt, vegan chicken strips, vegan cheeses, and other specialty items. There aren’t very many imported items here in China, however the basics like soy milk and some non-name brand meat substitutes are easily accessible.
Hi! My name is Remy Park and I am a NYC born and internationally raised yoga addict. I have moved several times in my life and now love to travel, especially as a vegan because try ing new foods and veganizing cuisines are so much fun. I share quick recipes, travel photos and general healthy lifestyle content on my blog: veggiekins!
It is fun to come to China as a vegan
Soy milk and meat substitutes are actually very common in Chinese cuisine. Soy milk is enjoyed as a classic breakfast beverage in China, and mock meats are very easy to find as well, from things like pork, to chicken,
fish and even specific things like duck or chicken’s feet! To my understanding, this is largely due to Bhuddist Vegetarians, and China has an impressive selection of mock meats that are very realistic in texture! As mentioned earlier, veggies and rice are of course big staples and widely available. So, it can be fun coming to China as a vegan because there are a lot of veggies that are available in abundance in China that may be harder to find elsewhere. Some examples are veggies like botchy, winter melon, Chinese broccoli, Chinese cabbage, fungus (or earwig?), lotus root, varieties of mushrooms, okra, radish, long beans etc. There are also fruits that are found more easily in China than elsewhere like sweet, small mandarins, wolfberries (or goji berries), kumquat, jujubes, Chinese dates, pomelo, lychee, longan and more. And of course, tofu and soy products like bean curd, and both silken and firm tofu are also available in abundance. So the easiest way to be vegan in China is to go for the local availabilities and enjoy a change of products, rather than look to eat western style vegan food or substitutes and vegan junk food.
Where to eat out?
Some notable Chinese vegan restaurants are Gong De Lin (chinese style food, lots of mock meats), Jen Dow (a Taiwanese vegan/vegetarian buffet with lots of mock meats), and even the famous Din Tai Fung chain restaurant (order the veggie steamed dumplings, scallion oil noodles and taro dessert xiao long bao). Almost all Chinese restaurants also offer vegetable side dishes, so a safe bet is going for veggies and rice, worst case scenario. What else can you snack on here easily and for cheap? Some of the things I love snacking on here for less than $1 USD are roasted sweet potatoes (sold on the streets and in some local supermarkets–they roast them on machines that rotate kind of like hot dog machines in the US convenience stores), roasted chestnuts (available all year round), veggie and tofu filled steam buns, and bubble tea (order plain tea with bubbles, or a fruit juice base and bubbles).
Here, there are vegans or vegetarians who eat this way for religious beliefs, but I am not really sure that veganism is considered quite as “trendy” or health oriented as in other parts of the world. So where can
you go for support? In most other countries I have been to, there are communities established mostly on social media platforms like Facebook or Instagram. Because both aren’t accessible in China, most of the support
groups and communities are found on WeChat! In one Shanghai WeChat group, there are over 600 members of vegetarians and vegans alike.
Watch out for animals stocks and milk additions!
A few things to watch out for while you’re in China are the use of animal stocks in cooking, and also milk additions in soymilk. I believe that western influence has made milk something of a luxury item in China, in
addition to the fact that it is also less common than soymilk. So make sure you read the ingredients in soymilk, as sometimes there are small amounts of milk or milk powder added.
I come back to Shanghai twice a year, and I have definitely noticed an increase in accessibility to vegan food as well as an increased awareness. If you tell someone you’re vegan here they will likely assume it is for weight loss, but they are generally quite understanding about it and wiling to accommodate. Of course, it can be a little intimidating to turn down food as it is considered very rude in Chinese culture to reject
hospitality (often food), so you might want to use allergies as an excuse in this situation 😉
Watch this short vid on cheap vegan street snacks in China!
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All photos by Remy Park
Featured Image by Li Yang @unsplash