Why is it so Difficult to be Vegetarian in China?

Word of the week: sù de

In China, if you stick to just ordering vegetable dishes you might still be eating food that is far from vegetarian. This is because Chinese people like to mix up bits of pork or pork fat with their vegetables (which is why they taste so good!)

In China the word for vegetable cài 菜 is also the word for “dish” as in “plate of food” (not the actual plate) and that includes meat dishes. This means saying you just want to eat cài might not get you very far if you’re a vegetarian. Your Chinese friends will probably understand it to mean you don’t want a bowl of rice with your (meat) dishes. wǒ men diǎn le jǐ pán cài 我们点了几盘菜 (we ordered several dishes).

So if you’re a vegetarian what should you say? There are two useful adjectives that are used when referring to food or diet. hūn de 荤的 means meat and sù de 素的 means vegetable/ vegetarian. But if you think saying wǒ zhǐ yào chī sù de 我只要吃素的 (I only want to eat vegetarian food) will solve your problems you might be in for a not so nice surprise.

This is because most Chinese don’t really get the concept of vegetarian and, as mentioned above, they will be quite happy to mix small bits of meat/ meat fat in with a pile of green leafy vegetables. This is one thing I really like about China; it is perfectly normal for non-vegetarian people to go to a restaurant and order things like tofu, cabbage and all sorts of other vegetables I’ve never seen in Britain. Saying you want to eat vegetables won’t be interpreted as meaning you’re vegetarian, they will probably assume you’re a meat-eater who just wants to eat a vegetable dish today. The result is that it’s normal to find small bits of pork or animal fat in vegetable dishes that don’t even mention meat in the description.

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gān guō huā cài (dry pan cauliflower) is one of my favourite vegetable dishes. Unfortunately for vegetarians, it’s full of little bits of pork.

What’s worse is that saying someone eats sù de is a colloquial way of calling them a weakling or a wimp. If you’re at the bar and say you can’t drink any more after two beers, don’t be surprised to hear your Chinese friends ask nǐ shì chī sù de ma? 你是吃素的吗 (are you vegetarian?/ are you a wimp?)

It’s therefore difficult to even tell someone you’re vegetarian. You could say wǒ bù chī ròu yīn wèi wǒ shì chī sù de 我不吃肉因为我是吃素的 (I don’t eat meat because I’m vegetarian) but that sentence could just as easily translate as “I’m not going to eat meat because I’m a wuss”.

A better alternative is to say wǒ shì sù shí zhǔ yì zhě 我是素食主义者 (I am a vegetarian food ideologist) which is a bit of a mouthful but still one up from calling yourself a big girls blouse. Personally, I’ve never heard a Chinese person call themselves a sù shí zhǔ yì zhě and I’m not entirely convinced that it will always be taken as a serious 100% abstinence from meat.

The best bet is to find a vegetarian restaurant if you can, although they’re not too common and might not be the easiest places to find with limited Chinese ability. But do not despair, if you’re vegetarian in China you can be thankful for this guy:

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That’s right, the average Chinese person might not understand the concept of vegetarianism for the sake of vegetarianism, but they do have a long history of Buddhism. And Buddhists don’t eat meat. So quite possibly the fastest and easiest way to find your non-meat-eating credentials taken seriously is simply say wǒ shì fó jiào de. bù néng chī ròu 我是佛教的。不能吃肉 (I’m Buddhist. Can’t eat meat). Even if you’re not Buddhist, just say it anyway. It’s something most Chinese people will have no problem understanding.

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