When the idea of moving to China hit me, the first thing I thought of was tofu! I was excited by the prospect of an ancient history of vegetarian culture … and the presumed availability of tofu. Some Chinese friends living in the U.S. told me that vegetarianism in China was actually not as common as I had thought. All was not lost, though, because after a decade as a vegetarian—the better part of which was spent searching for vegan food around the globe—I knew that things are often very different in reality from how people say they are. Once I was in China, I actually found that vegetarianism is, in fact, alive and growing there.
Quanzhou in Fujian province is where my stomach told me to go. I found a job and booked a flight for the old port city of the maritime Silk Road. Quanzhou, an ancient city with a large Buddhist (and Taoist) population, China’s oldest mosque (1009 C.E.), and an ancient Confucian temple, was looking better and better.
A plethora of vegan treats awaited me at almost every corner. I had vegan versions of shrimp, ribs (equipped with “skin” and “bone”!), hot dogs (a lot different than Western ones), shark-fin soup (I couldn’t eat it), and just about anything you could imagine. I actually had a vegan fried egg!
I lived in the old part of the city, Licheng District, where I taught English at one of the high schools. Within a two-block radius of my apartment, there were five vegetarian restaurants, two of them featuring all-you-can-eat buffets. All over town, there were restaurants serving vegan food, and most of the temples would also serve lunch or dinner for free if you asked to eat with the monks. There were so many options and so many places—I couldn’t believe my luck.
Now, let’s get to the really good part: the tofu! Every kind of tofu you can imagine was offered there: soft, hard, semi-soft, almost liquid, dry, wet, and so on. My favorite was a flattened version of the soy deliciousness that you could marinate and make into vegan cold cuts. Cooking at home was also easy because beans and tofu were so cheap.
Quanzhou spring rolls were probably my favorite street food, a thin crepe-style wrap with cilantro, peanuts, and sugar inside—all vegan! Also tempting on an afternoon stroll were steamed buns (depending on where you got them), a fried dough braid, deep-fried carrots and turnips, and the most amazing greasy flat bread with chives.
In the last few months before I left Quanzhou, a number of new vegetarian buffets opened. Even my students who claimed they needed meat would head to an all-vegetarian buffet for lunch. “It’s so cheap, and you can eat as much as you want,” they would say. I even found an all-vegetarian store with no-oyster sauce. I ate durian and dozens of mushrooms while I met new people and helped some friends open a vegan café. It was more awesome than I can describe in a blog. If you are ever traveling through China, you must visit the ancient city of Quanzhou.
Posted by Edwina Baier