Avoiding Meat in China (video)

Annie and the Shanghai Veggie Club have created a new video alerting vegetarians to some of the challenges you’ll face trying to eat vegetarian in China. It includes the language you’ll need to ask for what you really want:

(Yes, I know, for a vegan-friendly club, you’d expect a video with less cheese!)

The video is on YouTube, Youku, and Tudou.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. that’s great! There are also vegan cheese available in the West now… but in China it’s rare and the only available brand is too expensive. Hopefully with more demand one day we will have more variety there in the market!

  2. John, thanks for sharing this video. I’ve tried surviving in China without meat and just sort of gave up. I didn’t go out of my way to order meat dishes, but if there was meat in my food, I wasn’t going to let it go to waste.

    It has been said that the best way to maintain your vegetarian diet while in China is cook yourself. Even if you ask for meatless dishes at a restaurant or school cafeteria, you are still not 100% sure which ingredients were used; moreover, there is a strong chance of cross contamination (i.e. at a school cafeteria using one serving spoon for all the dishes).

    In my experience, it always helps to add something after 不要放肉, which is 一点都不行. In my experience, meat is added to a dish even if I ask it not to be so. It helps to add that little something for a little emphasis. I think I learnt that phrase from ChinesePod.

    What else seemed to work for me is that instead of saying 我吃素, I said 我吃斋 (zhāi). This means (John, please correct me if I am wrong) that you are a vegetarian for religious reasons. I find that people generally understand why you don’t want to eat meat when you provide some clear rational for doing so. As the video indicated, vegetarianism for health and/or moral reasons is still just catching on.

  3. While the point about 素 not necessarily meaning completely meatless is well taken, I think most people will understand 全素 (quán sù) or 齋 (zhāi), though because of their religious connotations, you will also end up eating dishes that don’t have pungent vegetables like leek, green onion, etc. 全素 or 齋 will also usually exclude egg, which of course is much more common than dairy in China.

    Avoiding the ubiquitous chicken base (which in some cases is artificially flavored, but could contain chicken and / or beef fat and other animal ingredients) or other meat based stocks can be really difficult. Usually places consider 味精 and 鸡精 (jī jīng) more or less equivalent, but I usually make it clear that 鸡精 is what I’m trying to avoid.

    Oyster sauce is another one to watch out for, simply because a lot of places will consider it “vegetarian”, even under stricter definitions of the term.

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