Lately, plant-based protein has been all the rage. Companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods have been eyeing the lucrative China market for a while now.
Partnerships between meat substitute companies and Starbucks, KFC, other fast-food chains, and supermarkets have taken meat substitutes to the mainstream. Chinese domestic plant-based meat companies such as Zhen Meat are similarly growing.
Health is one of the main concerns for Chinese food consumers, exacerbated by COVID-19 and the African Swine Fever. As we know, China is the world’s largest meat consumer and importer.
However, will the Chinese consumers, open their tastebuds to highly processed, Western fake meats? That is one of the hurdles that Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods have to face.
But in reality, China is the birthplace of fake meats. It has been for more than a thousand years.
Days of “temporary vegetarianism” were observed during the Zhou Dynasty (1046–256 BC). These often came after the deaths of important people in the state or within the family.
For instance, if there is a death of a loved one, it is customary of my family to not consume meat for 49 days as a sign of respect. Despite this and the invention of tofu (the foundation of fake meat), vegetarianism did not take off in China until the introduction of Buddhism.
Even then, the Chinese people of Tang Dynasty (618–907 AD) were still mainly meat-eaters. It wasn’t until the Song Dynasty (960–1279 AD) that elaborate vegetarian cuisine, in the form of fake meats, was developed. Ingredients included wheat gluten, soybeans, lotus roots, mushrooms, and more.
I live in Beijing, and I love vegetarian food. Plenty of restaurants around the Lama Temple (雍和宫) serve pure veggie meals. There are even vegetarian buffets and delicious vegetarian hotpot.
It might take a some digging around, but vegetarians and vegans need not worry about a lack of delectable foods.
Vegetarian cuisines also vary across China. If you want something sweeter, less oily, and less heavy, head to southern Chinese cities like Shanghai or Hong Kong. Prefer northern style? There are a plethora of vegetarian options not just in Beijing but in cities like Xi’an and Taiyuan,!
Here is a list of some amazing vegetarian/vegan foods that you can sample.
1 The Chinese Hamburger 菜夹馍
This is a very common Xi’an street food that dates back to the Qin Dynasty (221–206 BC). The hamburger is normally served with pork, but there are also halal alternatives.
My first burger in Xi’an, however, was with veggies. It was customizable, and I had it with julienned cucumbers, carrots, egg, pickles, potatoes, kelp, and wood ear mushrooms.
Simple, but so healthy and palatable!
2 Veggieballs 素丸子
A very iconic Beijing dish that is typically made with pork. This vegetarian version is made of flour and your choice of vegetables and deep-fried.
My preferred combination is green radishes and carrots.
3 Vegetarian Goose/Duck 素鹅/素鸭
There are many variations of this goose or duck dish across China. Essentially, the “meat” is made of various veggies wrapped in bean curd, pan-fried, and eaten with a savory or sweet sauce.
The reason why it’s called “goose” or “duck” is due to the similar texture and color of the roasted animal skin. The process of making this dish is laborious.
While it tastes nothing like the actual fowl itself, it remains a delightful deception to the senses.
4 Xinjiang Pumpkin Bun 新疆薄皮南瓜包子
This is more akin to a dumpling than a bun, but it is one of my favorites. You might ask, “Xinjiang? Really? Isn’t that place a mutton paradise?”
Yes, but you can find vegetarian options too. What more can I say? Pumpkin, onions, salt, and pepper. It’s sweetness all in one wrap.
Remember to double-check if it's solely pumpkin filling! Restaurants in Xinjiang may mix meat in it.
5 Cold Skin Noodles 涼皮
This is another specialty of Shaanxi province. Making this dish is no easy task. It requires the right amount of water and several rounds of starch and gluten separation from the dough.
Finish it off with sesame paste, black vinegar, chili oil, salt, the leftover gluten, cucumbers, and voila! A hearty dish at your table.
6 Jianbing 煎饼
This amazing Chinese breakfast crepe has its origin in Shandong, but the Tianjin version is the most well-known. The crepe is traditionally made from a batter of wheat and grain flour (or in the case of Tianjin: mung bean flour).
It includes has eggs (optional), lettuce, Chinese fried cracker or dough stick, pickles, scallions, coriander, sesame seeds, and a mix of sauces.
This street food snack is so popular that it can be found in most Chinatowns.
How about it? Hungry yet?