One of the best things about living in China is the abundance of amazing Chinese food. But what if you're a vegetarian? Is there such thing as vegetarian Chinese food? The simple answer is yes. Most Chinese people do eat meat, but if you know where to look and you do a little bit of searching, you will find some great restaurants.
Being an on-and-off vegetarian who has lived and studied abroad in several Western and Asian countries, I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that China can be heaven for vegetarians teaching English in China.
True, in its history of struggle and survival, Chinese has developed the habit of eating all kinds of animals from head to toe— duck neck, pork intestines, frog legs, chicken feet, to name a few—coming up with unique ways to turn these undesirable parts into delicacies.
However, thanks to their long history of agriculture and deep Buddhist roots, Chinese cuisine also utilizes a tremendous variety of vegetables, prepared in equally ingenious ways. Those who are bold and adventurous and looking to expand their palette are in for a real treat.
Unlike the West, Chinese do not like to eat their vegetables raw. The most common Chinese way of stir-frying works magic to turn seemingly bland vegetables into sumptuous dishes. I often find it satisfying just ordering a dish of stir-fried vegetables and have them over a bowl of white rice, which soaks up all the wonderful sauce and flavour from the dish.
Some of my favorite vegetables used in Chinese cuisine that are not commonly seen in the West are lotus roots, mountain yams, lily bulbs, bitter melon, white radish, taro, bamboo shoots, luffa (yes, they are not only used for exfoliation. When cooked, their flesh is extremely tender and soaks up all flavorings, sort of like eggplant), to name just a few. Look out for these ingredients when you go to any local restaurant.
In Shanghai, there are several brands of Chinese vegetarian restaurants. The most traditional one is Godly, a Shanghainese vegetarian restaurant that has been around for many years. At Godly, aside from the regular vegetarian noodles and stir-fries, you can also find mock spare ribs made of lotus, vegetarian duck made with layers of tofu skin, mock sea bass made with mashed tofu, potato and mushrooms, etc. Some of these dishes tend to be greasy and heavily flavoured in order to make up for the lack of meat. They are like the vegetarian equivalent of fried chicken and fries and are good for those who are craving for some comfort food.
Zaozishu (which means jujube tree) is another Chinese vegetarian chain in Shanghai. They offer very filling and reasonably priced lunch sets that consist of soup, appetizer, main dish and fruit. Some of their dishes, such as mashed pea which tastes like textured matcha green tea mousse, are quite innovative.
On the other end of the spectrum are fusion or Western vegetarian restaurants. Right next to one of Shanghai's most prominent landmarks, the Jing'An Temple Jendow Vegetarian restaurant, which is several stories high. On the first floor is their bakery and spacious food court, where they serve lunch and dinner sets throughout the day at extremely reasonable prices and filling portions.
If you are looking for a more refined dining experience, you can order a la carte upstairs. For those with a big appetite, their buffet on the third floor is a must-try. They offer a great variety of Vegetarian dishes, ranging from tasty Western salads to traditional Chinese stir-fries, mock Japanese sashimi, and delicious desserts.
For those wishing to enjoy a more Western environment and food, I recommend Green Vege, a vegan restaurant located on the third floor of the Super Brand mall in the Xuhui district. Its signature avocado salad with quinoa and kale tastes superb, so does its beetroot burger. They offer a mini buffet with salad, fruit and dessert during lunch time on work days. I highly recommend its orange chocolate mousse for dessert.
Just as Chinese food tends to be more expensive in other countries, Western food tends to be pricier than Chinese restaurants here, so for those who are on a budget, they may wish to save these for special occasions. And as a final word of caution, sometimes salads can be sprinkled with meat. If you're dining with none vegetarians in a non-vegetarians restaurant, be careful!