Posted from: Beijing
Before we get around to the veggie walking tour, a breaking news update: Rumor has it there are weasels in the hutongs. Kyle says he saw one, and the thought of furtive hutong weasels hiding in the drain pipes and making legends of themselves pleases me. I spent at least four seconds brainstorming how to feed them whole coffee berries then harvest the digested beans from their poop like they do in Vietnam. SARS, SHMARS, that coffee is ah-may-zing.
Lately, as I watch my girlfriends merge effortlessly into self-possessed womanhood, sprouting high-level domestic skills I’ve never seen them practice, I wonder what I was doing when they all learned to commandeer a kitchen with such no-bullshit competence. Certain men do this gracefully too, but they do it by seducing their kitchen counters. They crack some wine and rock a masculine butcher’s apron and grate orange rind like they’re whittling a longbow. I cook like I’m playing whack-a-mole on the stove, I think miserably, holding a ladle covered in the mortal remains of what was supposed to be a pot of lentils, face flecked with sour mango chutney. I wondered for the eightieth time if I shouldn’t just stick to mixing basic cocktails; ‘lime or no lime’ is a culinary decision tree I can deal with.
I came down with a 3-day flu and when I woke up on Sunday morning, the snow was back in force. Having yet again forgotten I can’t cook and desperate for a view of anything but my eastern bedroom wall, I went over to check out the miniature foreign grocery in one of the alleys behind Confucius Temple. I bought a pile of ambitious ingredients and wandered back towards the house, through a sea of winter revelry near YongheGong. That’s when I saw the teashop.
Which brings us to the vegetarian stuff. But before I go there, let’s be clear: I don’t really wave the V-flag anymore. Not cuz I’m not into it – I am. But this is an “enjoy your religion but kindly shut up about it” issue. I’m no health guru or organic goddess, so I eat my quinoa and keep my mouth shut. But I just got the third email in a row from a poor lost veg traveler (apparently none of whom have access to Google) asking for help, so, here comes the lightly armored cavalry.
(Tip: use Google Translate’s pronunciation tools for help pronouncing Chinese characters)
Vegetarian Grocery Stores and Healthy Supermarkets
The cheap winter avocados I was toting home was about all the excitement I was prepared to handle today, until I walked past this teashop with a sign in the window reading “vegetarian food”. Neh? I backed up, stopped, kept going, then backed up again and went inside.
Holy crap. This place sells an awesome and insanely cheap collection of Chinese vegetarian meat substitutes. Vegetarian Peking Duck, vegetarian 肉丝 (meat strips), meatballs, cumin lamb – and all the mock meat is about 6 kuai ($1.00). They’ve also got an awesome selection of delicious veggie soup stocks in jars and sauces to flavor your dishes with, even vegetarian shrimp and fish sauces. As is typical here, there’s no address on the door, so go to the northwest exist of the 北新桥 (Bexinqiao) subway station and walk north – it’s about 300 meters up, west side of the street. If you hit 方家胡同 (FangJia Hutong) you’ve gone too far. If you hit Lama Temple on the opposite side of the road, you’ve really gone too far.
Another fine establishment: 乐活成 – LoHao City
LoHao City is an organic supermarket / health food store with several locations across Beijing. You can get some interesting stuff here, including fancy juicers, nutritional yeast flakes, vitamin supplements, super fresh tofu and organic snacks. LoHao also grows its own brown rice, millet, barley and other grains at a local organic farm for sale at their stores.
Life as a Plant-Based Eater in Beijing: What’s the Sitch?
People seem to expect China to be some kind of vegetarian promised land because they sell tofu here. And yes, they do: at least forty kinds available at any deli counter. But while westerners approach tofu as a meat substitute, here it’s often used in conjunction with meat as a flavoring in various dishes (or vice versa: meat flavors the tofu dish). Ordering a plate of bean curd is no guarantee you’re getting something meatless. So, like your average North Dakotan, most Chinese people are largely baffled by the idea of vegetarianism and think anyone who’d turn down a hotdog is liable to self-immolate in the name of bovine-kind at any moment.
Top that off: there’s no surefire way to tell anyone you’d rather not eat meat – to a Chinese person, saying you don’t want meat in your food means only that you don’t want a dish that features large chunks of beef or poultry as a major ingredient. Most Chinese feel that the words “no meat” don’t apply to small bits of meat, like bacon flecks, used as condiments, ham strips used as flavoring, sauces made from meat or seafood, seafood paste, fish of any kind, tiny shrimp floating in soup, you get the idea. So you actually have to go down the list of meat questions whenever you order a meal, which for a non-Chinese speaker is a radical pain in the ass:
- Does this have meat in it? I don’t eat meat.这个有肉吗？ 我不吃肉。
- What about ham or pork? 有火腿或猪肉吗？
- Does it have any meat flecks? 有肉膜吗？
- Does it have shrimp? 有虾吗？
- What about other seafood? 有别的海鲜吗？
- Are you prepared to pinky swear to all of these things? 一点肉都没有?
At last years’ temple fair, a steamed bun vendor answered all the above correctly and then sold me – ta da – steamed buns stuffed with nothing but pork. So let me re-iterate: asking these questions only reduces the chances of you getting something with meat in it. You still may end up with a meat-based sauce, or soup boiled from bones, or a steak. Asking just means you’re now justified in demanding your order to be replaced when you bit into what turns out to be just a big duck leg. If you do get a meat dish despite your best efforts, do try to be as patient as possible with everyone involved: the idea that waitresses have a duty to preserve the sanctity of your moral, religious or dietary principles is very alien here.
As the nuclear option, Kyle also swears by the Buddhist phrase, “我不吃荤的”, which means “I don’t eat anything that came from a living creature”, but he’s busted this out several times over the last 7 years at various restaurants and the reply is usually, “You don’t eat what?” So I’m not convinced that 荤的 is a word that’s well-known outside of veggie circles. Still, you may as well put it on the interrogatory restaurant questions list as yet another cross-check safety net.
On the issue of meat quarantining in restaurant kitchens, let me be the first to disappoint you: if you have issues with your food being cooked with the same implements or in the same oil or on the same grill as meat dishes, you’ll need to only dine out at vegetarian restaurants, cook at home, or leave the country. Or you can do what I do and not think about it. You can insist, you can complain, you can spin your head in 360 degree circles demanding clean knives in the name of Raptor Jesus, but you absolutely will be lied to about this, and it’s not because anyone hates you. It’s because, as far as your waitress who makes like, $250.00 a month is concerned, you’re the crazy person that just asked if the forks were all properly washed in the tears of vestal virgins. Being vegetarian is weird enough, contact issues with meat puts you squarely in insane rock diva territory.
My picks for best vegan and vegetarian restaurants in Beijing
Problem with Beijing vegetarian restaurants? There’s a ton of them, but as they’re considered organic specialty food most of them are overpriced, making it difficult to afford to eat there daily (with only two exceptions that I know of). That said, there’s always something cheap on every menu, so if you order a basic dish and bowl of rice, you should be all set.
大千艺素 – Da Qian Yi Su – The World Of Vegetarian Food
Da Qian Yi Su serves vegetarian versions of Chinese dishes with terrifyingly convincing fake meat made of seitan and mushrooms, and is the best value for your vegan buck in the city (never thought you’d have Pineapple pork again, did you?). This place is a couple of subway stops from GuoMao (it’s closest to the SiHui 思慧 subway stop, not SiHui East, on line 1). If you’re in the neighborhood during lunch, drop in here for the killer 18元 ($3.00) vegetarian lunch buffet. Dinner, on the other hand, runs about 70-100元 for 2 people. If you live in walking distance, they deliver for free when they have the staff available.
Pics of the Food
净心莲 – Pure Lotus
Let’s get this one out of the way: Run by Buddhist monks, Pure Lotus is the most famous, priciest, prettiest, and most elaborate veggie restaurant in Beijing. It’s a dazzling impress-the-guests, you-need-reservations extravaganza and involves costumed wait staff and a series of dining halls that look like the harem in a Manchurian porno period-piece. Also guaranteed: dishes decorated with billowing dry ice. There are two locations, I recommend the one near Chaoyang park. Blah blah blah, Pure Lotus, blah blah.
More info here, and there and everywhere online.
Vegetarian international (non-Chinese) food. This vegan place serves up two kinds of veggie burgers, vegan mayo, organic beers and wines, vegan cakes and desserts, and little mezze plates.
七宝池素食斋(远洋天地店) – Seven Treasures Pond, YuanYang Location
Personally I think this QiBaoChi has the highest-quality veg food in the city, and with their incredibly warming soups, I recommend you make a blanket fort out of the table clothes and settle in for winter. The dishes aren’t cheap (about USD $10 / dish), but the fake meat stuff is so, so good. And do get their meatball soup – it’s 88元 (about $13.00), absolutely massive, (they bring you a pitcher of broth to refill the soup bowl when it starts getting low) and is big enough for two people to eat just that and be totally full. The lady who owns this restaurant also owns a cheaper fast-food vegetarian lunch restaurant nearby, and she also sells boxed vegetarian lunches that she keeps in the fridge cabinets by the door.
Read the City Weekend Review
Where to find regularly-updated lists of Beijing’s veggie-friendly restaurants
City Weekend’s vegetarian food listings – Local English-language expat rag City Weekend keeps a pretty good list of vegetarian locals, and does a fab job reviewing them.
Happy Cow Beijing listings – International vegetarian restaurant listing site Happy Cow does a pretty good job of unearthing the places that City Weekend hasn’t found.
Search LumDimSum’s blog for keyword ‘vegetarian’ – I kinda love LumDimSum. Not only does she update all the damn time, she’s very veggie-friendly and she’s always got the goods on interesting stuff happening in the city.
Easily palatable vegetarian Chinese food that almost all restaurants have:
Keep this list in your pocket in case you ever get stuck at a restaurant with no pictures on the menu. These are all easy-on-the-stomach Beijing dishes that are traditionally meat-free and don’t have anything weird in them. (All are vegan except where noted).
松仁玉米 – Corn and ginko seeds
荷兰豆 – Plain snow peas, sometimes with carrots
清炒西兰花 – Lightly fried broccoli, sometimes with garlic
香辣土豆丝 – Deep Fried tower of super-thin cut potato shreds with dried chili (not very spicy)
蛋炒饭 – Egg-fried rice (not vegan)
素炒饼 – Stir-fried bread strips with cabbage (the bread is chewy, like noodles)
西红柿鸡蛋面 – Egg and Tomato Noodles (not vegan)
毛豆 – Edamame (soft soy beans in the pod, like the Japanese appetizer)
油泼面 – If you happen to be eating at a Sha’an Xi noodle restaurant, order these, but they probably won’t have them many other places. They’re inch-thick noodles with a splash of oil, pepper, vinegar, bean sprouts and bok choi.
General tips for finding vegetarian food anywhere
Go where the Buddhists go： Asian Buddhists, though not nearly as common in China as in, say, Thailand, are almost all vegetarian. Most cities have at least one temple, and Buddhist temples very frequently have a vegetarian restaurant where the monks provide food to anyone who comes (if you eat there, leave an appropriate donation. Many monks are not allowed to ask for money, they can only take what’s offered to them). If the temple doesn’t have a restaurant itself, veggie restaurants always collect around the temples. So if you see a Buddhist temple, it’s a good idea to ask the monks or temple staff if they know of any 素食 (vegetarian food) in the area. Bonus: though the monks can be very serious, your average Chinese Buddhist is everything you ever wanted in a sterotype: advanced middle age, jolly as Santa, and laid back about everything.
Go out for 麻辣烫 (malatang): In Beijing you’re almost always within walking distance of a malang restaurant, they’re everywhere. Find your local place, it will save your veggie ass.
Malatang is like a cheap individual DIY veggie bowl thing. When you get there, grab a basket (there should be a pile of baskets or plates somewhere), pick your vegetable kabobs from the big cabinet and put them in the basket (get whatever you like), hand the basket to whoever is at the counter, and wait by the counter until someone waves your cooked food at you (they actually do this by calling out your number, but if you’re not up to understanding numbers yet, don’t wander off). Some malatang places let you pick which broth your veggies are boiled in, so if you have a problem with any kind of spice, you’d better find a place that lets you boil it 清水 (in pure water), because usually they add a little spice oil to the boiling pot.
When it’s all done, which should take less than five minutes, someone standing in front of a bunch of condiments is going to ask you what you want on your vegetables. Point at the stuff that looks like light brown sludge (it’s sesame sauce). Do not allow them to put anything else on it, there’s this crazy numbing spice they add that takes some getting used to and which is wholly overpowering if they add too much. And there you go – totally veggie, super healthy, very filling and yummy. Malatang usually runs between 10 kuai and 18 kuai per bowl. Prices are charged by the kabob (some kabobs cost more than others), and the obvious benefit is that you pick all your own ingredients. I ate this every day for lunch for 2 years.
Hope that’s enough of a jumping-off point to keep your belly filled. ’till next time.