Not very surprisingly, a lot of my Chinese colleagues or friends who have visited China advised me about the limitations of Chinese cuisine to satisfy a vegetarian’s appetite. But my eternal optimism didn’t fail me as I discovered a trick or two with a lot of help.
Considering I don’t even eat eggs, the first few days were a little hard not because I couldn’t find veggies but because most of the dishes would invariably contain ingredients in sauce or gravy that are not vegetarian. Prof. Lin, however, lent me a little tip and a takeout container. I made a sandwich every morning from the hotel’s breakfast buffet, consisting the basics- bread, cheese, lettuce, etc. with some salt and pepper. When I didn’t find a vegetarian meal, I would happily gobble it down. On other days, I had quite a few choices especially in halal restaurants. I also had no qualms finding fruits, yogurt and snacks to fill my mid-day hunger pangs!
[Above: rice noodles with fresh vegetables in a tangy soy sauce at a halal restaurant]
All this was going okay (way better than I imagined) until one day when something magical happened! Thanks to Dean Collins for sponsoring a class lunch and to Prof. Lin for choosing the place, we went to Foo Yau Yuan, a Buddhist vegetarian restaurant in Guangzhou. My cravings and their menu were a match made in heaven. You might think I am exaggerating but I leave it to the pictures (below) to speak louder.
I understand that one of the Buddhist schools of thought prescribes that its followers not eat the flesh of any sentient beings and hence, the strictly vegetarian menu. Apart from a large variety of dishes both in terms of spices and vegetables used, what I enjoyed the most about eating at this restaurant is also how charmingly they dressed the tofu to look like a fish or a meat dish presumably to allure more people to try them out. For example, we hit upon tofu shaped like grilled fish and tofu chops. Whatever be the intention, from spicy lotus stem cooked with okra to eggplant won-tons to steamed buns filled with creamy lotus seed paste, there was something for everyone.
At the end of the day, if you are a vegetarian visiting China, there is plenty of hope! Here are a few handy suggestions:
- Since the local language matters a lot, learn to explicitly specify what you can eat or not. For example, “I can eat only vegetables.” or “I cannot eat pork.”.
- Stock up on fresh fruits, veggies like carrots or grape tomatoes, bread and yogurt.
- Make sandwiches or salads when a buffet is available!
- Find Buddhist (vegetarian) restaurants.
- When all else fails, there is always pizza or desserts!