Being Vegetarian in China

by Evan Williams - HCE Mentor

I’ve been a vegetarian for over 6 years, so I was a bit nervous about not being able to eat much in China. That was decidedly not the case, and the first two phrases I learned when I got to China were 我饱了 (wo kou le) and 太饱了(tai kou le)—“I’m full” and “I’m stuffed!”

Food is a huge part of Chinese culture, and is served and eaten differently than in America. In China, a variety of Chinese dishes tend to be placed on a rotating turntable in the center of the dining table. Everyone helps themselves to the whatever they want, transferring it to their own plates or bowls with chopsticks. It’s also very normal to serve others at the same time as yourself, without asking them whether they want what you’re serving. If you didn’t want it, you wouldn’t be at the table, right?

It took some time to accurately convey to host family what I considered “meat” and what I considered “vegetarian.” My host mother prepared seafood for me on my first day, which I required some explaining on my part. After a few days, they understood my eating choices and have been amazingly accommodating ever since. My host mother always prepares at least two dishes with some combination of vegetables and eggs, and I always feel welcome at the table.

The first two phrases I learned when I got to China were 我饱了 and 太饱了—“I’m full” and “I’m stuffed!”

Eating out can be a bit more complicated. I know my host mother understands what I’m comfortable with when she cooks dinner, but almost every time I go to a traditional Chinese restaurant it’s necessary to mention that I don’t eat meat, so that they don’t put any in the vegetable dishes. It’s easier at many of the newer, Western, and pan-Asian or multicultural fusion restaurants, which have picture menus and English descriptions of each dish.

Unexpectedly, the quality of vegetarian food here is excellent. They cook everything in China, often in olive oil or sesame oil, so I haven’t had a salad in a long time. I think one of the strangest and most exciting parts of China for me has been trying so many new (or slightly different) fruits and vegetables. Chinese oranges are half the size of American oranges, and Chinese grapefruits are the size of basketballs! I’ve eaten so many fruits here that I’d never even seen before. Two days ago I had some fantastic lotus root, and I’ve also been eating a lot of rice, pumpkin, mushrooms, and purple sweet potatoes. I’ve tried tons of new vegetarian foods here and it’s been quite an amazing experience. I’m getting hungry just writing about it!

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