Pumpkin, Cabbage and Tofu for Lunch in Yulong Village, Yangshuo, China

This guest post was written by Dan Friedman, a guy who lives in New York, misses China, and can order vegan meals in a lot of languages. He also runs More Than Salad, a worldwide directory of vegetarian and vegan restaurants.

I am vegan, and I traveled in China for six months. Such a journey is not without its trials.

Certainly, there are vegetarian restaurants in China. In bigger cities like Shanghai or Beijing, there are many, and out in the sticks or suburbs, you will find one at a Buddhist temple here or there (sometimes a really good one).

Bus Time Table in Beijing, China

But realistically, even in the big cities, vegetarian restaurants are spread thin and it won’t always be possible or practical to get to one before you pass out while trying to figure out the local buses.

Breakfast Noodles Enjoyed in Ping An, Guangxi, China

Besides, wouldn’t it be fun to go into the crazy/awesome-looking noodle shop that you’ve spent the last 10 minutes standing in front of, trying to take the perfect picture of the guy pulling noodles while the rest of the patrons stared at you?

Crispy Rice Cakes with Crazy Sauce from Pure Lotus in Yangshuo, China

Broccoli Dish from Pure Lotus in Yangshuo, China

Pure Lotus on More Than Salad

Now’s your chance to have them stare at you while you try to order in Chinese! Don’t worry, after a few weeks you get used to the staring. If you don’t, you can try traveling with someone who is more unusual looking than you and let them get stared at instead. Whoever they decide to stare at, you’re still going to have to explain to the restaurant staff what it is you are doing there and what you’d like to eat. If you’re vegan, you’ve got a challenge ahead.

Spicy Soy Meat and Vegetables from Jue Yuan Su Zhai in Guiyang, China

Jue Yuan Su Zhai on More Than Salad

So I figured I’d learn Chinese. That’s probably inaccurate. It’d be better to say, I was really hungry and thus really motivated, and knew learning Chinese would open up all kinds of new options for me. When I was in Hong Kong and Macau, things were a breeze. There were vegetarian restaurants and English speakers everywhere. Well, maybe not *everywhere*, but still an awful lot of them. Plus in those cities you’re going to find Indian food, falafel, western restaurants, and all kinds of interesting vegetarian restaurants. That changes pretty quickly once you cross the border and find yourself in the suburbs of Guangdong province for instance, and the situation doesn’t really improve the farther you wander. Now you’re faced with zero English and zero helpful English-speakers.

Meal at Neng Ren in Guilin, China

Neng Ren on More Than Salad

Most people have heard at least at one time or another that “immersion” is the preferred way to acquire a language quickly. Well, I’m not an expert but I can attest to the fact that when you are hungry enough, you will definitely no longer worry about making mistakes and looking like a fool in front of a native speaker. In fact, you will be pretty darned excited about getting your point across. Also, you’re going to have plenty of chances to speak, because every time you walk into a restaurant, you’re going to have an awful lot of explaining to do. Sure, you can hand them your copy of the “Vegan Passport” and hope for the best, but wouldn’t it be nice to discuss things in a bit more detail? You can also guarantee that anybody to whom you speak is going to be really impressed and excited, and it will probably lead to a lot more conversation as a result.

Broccoli, Carrots, Mushrooms & Soy Thingy from Ci Sheng in Guangzhou, China

Ci Sheng on More Than Salad

Tips for Learning Foreign Languages

Learning the local language, or at least a little chunk of it, is going to make your traveling life, especially your vegetarian and vegan traveling life, a lot more interesting and probably a lot easier, and it’s not as hard as everybody thinks it is. Here are a few ways to make it happen:

  1. Before you leave, get audio lessons of any kind and put them on your ipod or mp3 player so you can listen to them as often as possible. There are a variety of companies who produce audio language lessons. For the resourceful and lacking in funds, these can be sampled for quality before buying. However, if you are planning to really use them, I’d highly recommend paying for them and rewarding the company for producing a good product. Audio lessons will help you learn how to pronounce words. Books can’t help you with this, so audio lessons are a must. Also try searching for free language lessons and podcasts which are definitely available in many languages.
  2. Alternatively or in addition, use to meet a few people from the country you’re visiting. Chat with them and ask them questions about where they live and the language. You will probably strike up a few friendships, have a chance to chat either typing or with voice, and add more than a few words to your vocabulary. It’s free too. If you’re really motivated, try meeting up with foreign language speakers who live in your city. Some cities have language specific groups that organize get togethers using
  3. Get a phrasebook or dictionary, but make sure it has some kind of grammar section. You can also check Wikitravel, which has increasingly useful introductions to languages. Phrases are useful, but if you spend an hour on a plane reading the grammar section of your book, there’s a better chance you’ll be able to form your own sentences, not just parrot the ones they put in there for you.
  4. Bring a notebook. Every time you learn a new word or think of a new word you want to learn, write it down in English and in the other language, using whatever system you want to invent for remembering how to say it correctly. If you meet people who can speak English and the local language, ask them how to say and pronounce things. A lot of times, phrasebooks and dictionaries give very formal versions of phrases that won’t be easily understood. It also helps to hear a native speaker pronounce it.
  5. Finally, just accept that you’re going to make lots of mistakes and not be understood initially. Keep in mind that people will be incredibly grateful for your efforts and ultimately you will have far more interesting and deeper interactions with locals by trying to speak their language. Plus, every time you speak a word, it will be easier to remember next time. If you’re learning the local language just to help procure vegan or vegetarian food as you travel, you will be speaking certain words A LOT. You’ll get the hang of it pretty quick. Also, remember that you don’t have to get everything exactly right. When you’re in situations where no English is available, every word you can get out there in the local language is gonna make a huge difference.

After a few days of effort and living on less food than normal, I swear you can order vegan meals in most restaurants and even figure out if street food is vegan or not. Now, in the words of Conan the Barbarian, enough talk!

Ordering Vegan Food in China

Here are things I said and things I heard a lot. I included English and Pinyin which is the standard transliteration of Chinese and the first thing you’d use if you decide to learn Chinese. Any book or website will explain the basics of the pronunciation. Don’t be intimidated, just go for it!

[ nǐ hǎo / 你好! ]

Smile when you say this, since it is friendly, and also it lets them know that hey, I’m about to try and speak your language, this is gonna be funny so brace yourself.

I’m / We’re vegetarian.
[ wǒ / wǒ men chī sù / 我 / 我们 吃素 ]

I / We don’t eat meat.
[ wǒ / wǒ men bù chī ròu / 我 / 我们 不吃肉 ]

There isn’t really a good word for “vegan” in Chinese. You’re really going to have to explain it a bit more. It’s best to start with these first two phrases.

Do you have any vegetarian food?
[ yǒu sù shí ma? / 有素食吗 ]

Are those noodles?
[ nà shì miàn ma? / 那是面吗 ]

It’s not made with meat is it?
[ nà shì yòng ròu zuò de ma? / 那是用肉做的吗? ]

I / We would like noodles.
[ wǒ / wǒ men yào miàn / 我 / 我们 要面 ]


Street Noodles with Tofu and Broccoli in Guilin, China

Is that tofu?
[ nà shì dòu fu ma? / 那是豆腐吗? ]

It looks awesome.
[ kàn qǐ lái hěn hǎo chī / 看起来很好吃! ]

Two pieces of tofu, two bowls of noodles.
[ liǎng kuāi dòu fu, liǎng wǎn miàn / 两快豆腐,两碗面 ]

[ xiè xie! xiè xie nǐ! / 谢谢!谢谢你! ]

The food is great!
[ hěn hǎo chī ā / 很好吃阿 ]

What kind of sauce is on that tofu?
[ nà shì shén me jiàng? / 那是什么酱 ]


Grilled Greens and Dry Tofu (dòu gān / 豆干) on the Street in Jinghong, Yunnan, China

What kind of oil are you using? Vegetable oil? Sweet.
[ nà shì shén me yóu? cài yóu ma? hěn hǎo~ / 那是什么油? 菜油吗?很好~ ]

Guilin Noodles in Yangshuo, China - Cooked w/ Vegetable Oil Upon Request

Is that lard? I don’t want lard. I don’t eat lard.
[ nà shì zhū yóu ma? wǒ bù yào zhū yóu. wǒ bù chī zhū yóu. / 那是猪油吗?我不要猪油。我不吃猪油 ]

A Nice Thing About Eating Street Food: You Can Watch Them Make It!

That’s potato right?
[ nà shì tǔ dòu, duì bù duì? / 那是土豆,对不对? ]

Do you want it spicy? Alright, but just a little.
[ yào bù yào là jiāo? hǎo, yī diǎn diǎn. / 要不要辣椒? 好,一点点... ]


Rice, Potatoes & Cabbage from the Streets of Guiyang, China. 1 RMB / $0.15 USD!

That’s a little? Wow.
[ nà shì yī diǎn diǎn ma? Wow. / 那是一点点吗? ]

Mapo Doufu in Xingping, China

Does the Mapo Tofu have meat in it?
[ má pó dòu fǔ yǒu ròu ma? / 麻婆豆腐有肉吗 ]

Can you make it without meat?
[ méi yǒu ròu kě yǐ ma? / 没有肉可以吗? ]

Is there a vegetarian restaurant around here?
[ zài zhè lǐ fù jìn yǒu sù shí cān tīng ma? / 在这里附近有素食餐厅吗 ]

What’s it called?
[ tā jiào shén me míng zi? / 它叫什么名字? ]

Excuse me, is “Jue Yuan Su Zhai” around here?
[ qǐng wèn yī xià, "jué yuán sù zhāi" zài zhè lǐ fù jìn ma? / 请问一下,'覺園素齋' 在这里附近吗 ]

Where? That way? That way? That way? (Follow the pointing fingers)
[ zài nǎ? nèi biān ma? nèi biān ma? / 在哪?那边吗?那边吗 ]

Sure, any vegetables are good.
[ hǎo, qīng cài dōu kě yǐ / 好,青菜都可以 ]

What do you call this one?
[ zhè gè jiào shén me? / 这个叫什么? ]

In China, they don’t really use dairy products all that much in cooking, though eggs are more common. In most cases it will be obvious if what you’re ordering might contain those things. The only time I ever said these things was buying stuff at a bakery, but just in case, you’ll probably want to know:

I don’t eat eggs.
[ wǒ bù chī jī dàn / 我不吃鸡蛋 ]

No eggs, or I don’t want eggs.
[ bù yào jī dàn / 不要鸡蛋 ]

I don’t drink milk.
[ wǒ bù hē niú nǎi / 我不喝牛奶 ]

I don’t eat cheese.
[ wǒ bù chī nǎi lào / 我不吃奶酪 ]

No milk, no butter/cream, no cheese.
[ bù yào niú nǎi, bù yào nǎi yóu, bù yào nǎi lào / 不要牛奶,不要奶油,不要奶酪 ]

Sure, becoming fluent in a language can take a lifetime, but learning what you need to order meals like these just takes a little bit of effort which repays itself in vegetables and satisfied stomachs more quickly than you’d ever believe!