A Vegan's Guide to Surviving China: Xian and Chengdu Edition

Open-air restaurants in Shidai residential block, Chengdu. Photo credit: Rick's Photo Thing (RPT)

Around a year and a half ago, I read a Guardian article with the provocative title 'Free range is a con. There’s no such thing as an ethical egg'. As a long-term vegetarian, while I was aware of some of the issues with factory farming, I had been somewhat reassured by labels such as 'free range' and 'organic'. The article confirmed what I think, deep down, I had already suspected but hadn't known how to address given that so many veggie alternatives are heavily reliant on egg and cheese ingredients. It made for an eye-opening, unsettling read. I shared it with my partner, proclaiming, 'I can't eat another egg again in good conscience.' We decided to trial a vegan diet almost immediately.

This was before the vegan movement had taken off in the UK to the extent it has today, and our first food shop was an agonised, plodding affair of ingredient scanning and backtracking, as well as small, revelatory moments of euphoria -- Walkers prawn and cocktail crisps don't contain milk! McVitie's fruit shortcake biscuits are egg-free! Over time, of course, this became routine, and, despite a few dismal spots, the British high street has become much more welcoming to vegans overall.

Travelling, on the other hand, can be like reliving the precarious experience of starting all over again. In the case of China, this is intensified by a culture where English is often sketchy at best and vegetarianism alone is an alien concept to many. This, of course, is one of the beautiful, infuriating challenges of travel -- seeing life from a completely fresh perspective and appreciating your privilege.

In that spirit, the following is a repository of some of the best vegan food locations and lifesaving discoveries we found while travelling in Xian (Shaanxi Province) and Chengdu (Sichuan Province).


Muslim Quarter

This vibrant area is overflowing with street food stalls, mosques and marketplace curiosities. Taking in the sights, sounds and (occasionally quite ripe) smells is an experience in itself, although the food the area is renowned for tends towards the extremely meaty (a plethora of meat options on sticks, steamed meat sandwiches, mutton stews, dumplings etc.).

One of the region's most famous dishes, however, also happens to be vegan in its essential form. Biang biang noodles, known as one of the 'eight strange wonders of Shaanxi', are broad, hand-stretched, ribbon-like noodles topped with red-hot peppers (originally meant as fiery fuel for the province's harsh winters). We got our fix of biang biang and spinach noodles from a nondescript restaurant in the quarter and weren't disappointed, though there's sure to be several other eateries that offer their own interpretations nearby.

For light bites, other local delights include the spiced fried potatoes and crispy fried liangfen (green bean jelly) flogged by street food vendors.

First Noodle Under the Sun

An oddity by British standards, this is a 'family-style' restaurant that resembles an expansive food hall of tables shared by all manner of guests. While this meant we were bookended by an older lady and a young couple who spent the entirety of the meal staring at us agape and silently glued to their phones, respectively, this also offers opportunities for chitchat with locals (though it seems popular with tourists, too).

I went for the biang biang noodles, which this restaurant is renowned for, and was rewarded with a huge, seemingly bottomless bowl of Rapunzel-like noodles. They also serve a 4-metre-long noodle dish for maximum slurping potential (considered a sign of enjoyment by some).

Three Sisters Dumplings

A homely little kitchen-style restaurant with modest decor and teenagers playing mobile games obnoxiously loudly, this was a deceptively impressive find. Three Sisters specialises in dumplings, and the veggie peanut dumplings are exceptional (so much so, in fact, that we visited three times across our four-day stay in Xian -- even though the waitresses seemed to think we were a new set of 'white' people each time and had a very unfortunate mispronunciation for 'peanut').

The veggie platters, such as the wok-fried eggplant, green beans and chilli, while simple-sounding, are also delectable. For all its meat-centricity, China certainly knows how to cook vegetables well. Incidentally, variations on this dish are available throughout both Chengdu and Xian and make for a simple, safe vegan option if you're swamped by choice, as was often the case for us.


ChengDu Wen Shu Fang (Wenshu Monastery)

China has the largest population of Buddhists in the world, many of whom are vegetarian. This makes the meat-free monastery restaurants some of the best places to avoid having to play Russian roulette with meat/non-meat food (even though my partner, a Chinese language grad, could translate the menus, restaurants in China have a pesky habit of sneaking meat into meals anyway, even in tofu dishes. Mapo tofu, for example, typically contains ground pork, so it's important to ask for this to be removed if you want to try a veganised alternative -- something we learned the hard way).

This doesn't, however, protect against eye-watering spice levels; at ChengDu Wen Shu Fang (connected to Wenshu Monastery), the menus we were given weren't translated (though extensive and accompanied by photos), so approach with caution even if you enjoy hot food, particularly if you're in a region renowned for its spicy dishes, like Sichuan. We were both reduced to tears by surprise spiciness in a dish that was high quality, but about 70% chillis (eating around them was like playing a game of minesweeper).

The food here was nevertheless beautifully presented in an authentic temple environment. This was, however, reflected in the price; so, while monastery food is a unique experience, it wasn't an everyday option for us.

Dongzi Kouzhang Lao'er Liangfen

Photo credit: RPT

It's worth checking out the restaurants in the vicinity of monasteries, as vegetarian/vegan options are sure to be lurking nearby (see also the Buddhist-frequented vegan restaurants around Jinli Pedestrian Street, near Wuhou Temple). Dongzi Kouzhang Lao'er Liangfen, near Wenshu Monastery, is one such gem -- a bustling lunchtime venue where cold liangfen noodle dishes are stacked high and can be swiped almost instantly after taking your receipt to the window.

This is no place to linger. In quintessential Chinese style, guests are often sandwiched between each other at shared tables and move fast, appearing to inhale their noodles. They barely register newcomers to their tables, so while I can find crowds overwhelming, there's an oddly liberating anonymity in this.

The bowls are small and affordable, presenting a perfect opportunity to mix and match various dishes. The noodles are chunky, with an unusual jelly-like texture, and the sweet and sour variety is a must-try. I don't think I've ever tried anything quite like them. While the offerings are generally spicy, they're so delicious even my spice-challenged partner enjoyed them; we didn't feel like we were missing out by forgoing meat at all.

Yu Su Ge Vegan Cafeteria

A restaurant we ended up revisiting throughout our stay was also one of the most low key (and one of the best value). Yu Su Ge Vegan Cafeteria is all-you-can-eat and boasts an impressive line-up of choices, including diverse vegetable and mock meat dishes, soups, desserts, fruit, juice and soy milk. It also offers an elusive vegan hotpot; before discovering this place, we'd resigned ourselves to a hotpot-free trip, as this dish generally centres around meat ingredients (like much of Chinese cuisine). As hotpot is a Chinese institution, particularly in Sichuan, this was hugely disappointing, so Yu Su Ge was a revelation.

Yu Su Ge also has a really inclusive, utopian atmosphere; monks, tourists and locals alike eat there, and staff were always welcoming and accommodating, going as far as bringing us plates of fruit when we came in too late to enjoy the sweet options. Customers are even given money off their next meal if they finish all their food to encourage minimum waste.

In fact, the food was so varied and affordable I'd strongly recommend it to travellers regardless of where they fall on the meat-eater--vegan spectrum. Just make sure to go early for the best selection!

Mi Xun Teahouse

Set in a Zen temple house hotel, this was one of the most beautiful yet expensive places we visited, so we limited ourselves to starters and complimentary jasmine tea like the shameless penny pinchers we are (despite the all-vegan menu). The staff here were the most attentive we encountered and happy to give recommendations (to our slightly heightened shame).

My delicate heart-shaped cashew and spinach starter was exquisite, and the tea selection was incredible, though eye-wateringly expensive, even by British standards; this is a true tea connoisseur's paradise.

Zaozishu Vegetarian Restaurant

Nestled on the top floor of a seemingly deserted mall, this was an unlikely oasis of vegetarian sophistication at moderate cost. This was also one of the rare few places we found that served vegetarian dumplings, alongside a broad range of other veggie-friendly takes on Szechuan cuisine, so it made for a welcome change of pace after a diet composed predominantly of noodles and rice.

The restaurant is airy, modern and relaxed, offering a bird's-eye view over the surrounding streets -- ideal for a contemplative afternoon spent people watching.

Sichuan Cuisine Museum

Photo credit: RPT

While more of an experience than a habitual food hangout, this is not to be missed. This is a museum where a guide takes you on a gastronomical tour of a variety of local dishes. In other words, my kind of museum.

The cookery classes accommodate vegan palates (simply inform your guide at the start of your visit) without compromising on the authenticity of the Sichuan specialties visitors can attempt: panda-shaped sweet bean dumplings, spicy mapo tofu and Kung Pao chicken (sans the chicken, still delicious). We were also treated to hair-fine noodles sliced by a blindfolded chef who had trained in the technique for over two years.

Photo credit: RPT

As well as the satisfaction of creating your own Sichuanese dishes (and the jaunty chef's hat and apron you get to take home), all the ingredients are sourced from the vegetable gardens and chilli fermentation vats on site, making the resulting meal truly special.

Western-style venues: Mike's Pizza Kitchen and Munchwich

While we didn't travel 5,000-odd miles to sample pizza and sandwiches, after tofu fatigue, sometimes you simply have to answer the call for something a little more homely. There's an additional benefit to this as a vegan -- fully English menus and English-speaking staff for weeding out contraband ingredients.

Neither of these places has extensive vegetarian/vegan options, and both are less economically priced than standard Chinese fare. But, while it would be easy to assume the food at such places might be second rate, the marinara pizza and dough balls at Mike's Pizza Kitchen were worth the 50-minute bus ride alone, while the American-style sandwiches at Muchwich put Subway to shame.

Fɪɴᴀʟ ᴛʜᴏᴜɢʜᴛs

Unfortunately, if you stay in China long enough, it's likely only a matter of time before some meat (or, in the case of an acquaintance, a rat claw) finds its way into your meal unless you stick to Buddhist and all-vegetarian eateries. This is a liability even if you translate the menu and ask the waiter -- whether through confusion, cross-contamination or complacency. Don't be surprised if people interpret your query of 'Is this dish vegetarian?' as 'Does this dish include vegetables?'

Apart from trial and error, you can minimise the risk of non-vegan 'surprises' by doing your research, learning a few key Chinese phrases (meat, dairy, eggplant, tofu) and inspecting your food carefully... although we prefer not to send back food that contains meat/dairy if it's already been prepared to avoid waste, but that's just us.

If you get it right, you can live large for scandalously low prices, rendering cooking redundant -- you don't need to go anywhere fancy to find wholesome vegan food. The open-air eateries scattered below our apartment might've looked a bit rough, but it was hard to argue with their tasty two-person spreads for the equivalent of under a fiver (peanuts boiled in spices, fried eggplant, crushed cucumber with garlic and chilli, rice, a complimentary fruit/jelly dessert concoction and jasmine tea).

Màn màn chī (enjoy your meal)!


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