How to Survive China Without Meat by Xènia

The struggles of being a foreign vegetarian

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vegetables in a supermarket

“What? You don’t eat meat? Why?!” All those who follow a plant-based diet have heard this question more than once, usually paired with a confused look and the feeling of not even getting near to understand why would someone stop eating meat. However, when you add Chinese people to the mix things get more interesting.

I’m not a vegetarian or a vegan myself, but I know the struggles it carries first hand as I live with a vegan and I’m the one in charge of the cooking at home. For foreigners, used to a specific style of cuisine, it can be hard to find all the ingredients for some recipes, but if on top of that your diet restricts some of them, it can be even harder to create new dishes that taste home-like and are not boring. Feel like eating vegan pizza? Here, take this vegetable pizza and try to make them understand you don’t want cheese on it, it’s your only choice, and in many cases that won’t even be possible. In any supermarket you’ll find vegan cheese or other kinds of substitutes, so you’ll have to be creative and find another way or risk it and look for it in Taobao or other websites that will send it to your door so you can cook your own version at home.

Going out to eat is an even harder adventure than cooking at home. Even if Chinese cuisine doesn´t truly rely on meat, as it’s always used as a complementary side of the dish, Chinese people love meat, all of it, they don’t even care which animal it comes from or which part it is. Meat is meat. I have not yet found a single non-specialized restaurant with more than 10 dishes of purely vegetables (and I’m being generous with the number). They are not used at all with the terms “vegetarian” or “vegan” and don’t fully understand them either when you try to explain. To avoid this problem there are apps like the Happy Cow, that tell you which no-meat restaurants are around you, but they are usually too expensive to afford if you’re a student here, so the other way to eat out is go to any restaurant and try to find something you can actually eat. There’s always one choice or two, but they are usually boring like a sad salad or some rice or noodles with a simple vegetable.

They think it’s a weird western treat, once a Chinese man asked me if all Westerners were vegans

Luckily enough, though, Wuhan’s markets offer a great range of vegetables that can spice up your meatless dishes while giving a break to your food budget. A plant-based diet consists mainly in vegetables and fruits, and these are not hard to find here if they are not very specific. For other more refined products we’ll always have this “macro markets” that have a broad offer in foreign products, like Metro or Chicony. You won’t find fancy substitutes there like vegan cheese or butter, but you can still find other products that can make your cooking a bit easier and comforting, like maple syrup or vegan chocolate and soups. Eating at home is usually easier for a person who follows this lifestyle, as they can make sure that they’re not eating anything they don’t want to eat.

Woman picking fruits in supermarket
Woman picking fruits

Vegetarianism and veganism have become increasingly popular in Europe due to a new “healthy lifestyle” trend, but can this be possible in China? I don’t think so. If you take a tour around the deep sides of Youtube you’ll find thousands of videos and bloggers that talk about this and give you insights and different points of view, but since this kind of channel is not allowed here this kind of lifestyle is difficult to export. However, there are some people amongst the Chinese population that are aware of this situation so, who knows? Maybe China can surprise us again in a few years with a change of diet!