TEMPLE vegetarian cuisine is extremely strict regarding ingredients, banning the five pungent flavors used in cooking — onion, chives, cloves, parsley and coriander. Top vegetarian chefs place more emphasis on unique raw materials and cooking methods. Precious mushrooms and petals are often found in the recipes.
Now diners have no shortage of options. Type “vegetarian” on the popular restaurant review website Dianping.com, and you will find more than 100 results. These cover traditional Chinese cuisine, Western food and fusion dishes.
The competition is getting fierce as customer’s increasingly high demands make it essential for restaurants to provide quality ingredients. Instead of simple bean products, more restaurants are paying attention to fresh vegetables and mushrooms.
“Though a healthy diet has become a major concern for people in choosing a restaurant, delicious food will always get their vote. Nobody is going to go to a restaurant selling healthy food that tastes bad,” says Y.B. Sung, a Taiwan businessman who founded Zao Zi Shu (Jujube Tree) more than 10 years ago.
More and more vegetarian restaurants like Zao Zi Shu are targeting fashionable young diners rather than traditional Chinese Buddhists. Some offer “high-end” vegetarian cuisine, like Fu He Hui (Fortune and Intelligence), where average costs soar to more than 500 yuan (US$81) per person, and Da Shu Wu Jie, (Vegetarian With No Boundary), where it costs no less than 200 yuan per person.
“To be honest, I don’t like vegetarian restaurants like this, though the food there is generally delicious,” Wang says. “It now more looks like a high-end trend rather than a healthy lifestyle.”
For Chinese vegetarians, there are differences between vegetarian eateries in China and in the West.
“Vegetarian food in Chinese restaurants is generally much greasier than that in Western style,” says Gu Yiqiao, a 30-year-old Shanghainese.
Out of health concerns, more customers today opt for light vegetable dishes, cooked delicately with little oil and heat with the aim of retaining the original flavor of the fresh, raw ingredients.
Yams, mushrooms and various green vegetables are among the most popular ingredients, according to Pim Li, catering development manager at Sun Island Resorts in Shanghai, which provides vegetarian menus.
“Most earlier Chinese vegetarian cuisine focused on cooking soybean products so that they resembled meat dishes,” Li says. “This involved deep-frying and heavy seasoning, both of which are considered far from healthy today.”
Gu, a vegetarian since 2010, says the reasons are for health and her wish for “peace in the world.”
Fresh salads, vegetarian soups, pizzas or pastas in Western-style restaurants are her first choice for lunch. She cites restaurants like Element Fresh, Wagas and Green Safe. She usually prepares dinner at home, which she considers more reliable than dining out.
“You have a lot of choices of green vegetables at food market,” says Gu, “However, at many Chinese restaurants, if it’s not a pure vegetarian one, the kitchen usually doesn’t change the wok before preparing a vegetable dish for vegetarians.”
She says she can tell the difference between a pure vegetarian dish and one done in a wok where meat was cooked before.
“I don’t want to bother people who eat with me — being too picky would bring troubles to others,” Gu says, adding that’s also the reason why she prefers Western restaurants where she can order and eat independently.
While rich animal protein has long been a symbol of wealth and nutrition in Chinese culture, vegetarians like Wang, who is four months pregnant, insist that a vegetable-only diet is healthier.
Gong De Lin (Godly)
This century-old vegetarian restaurant is famous for “meaty” dishes. Best-sellers include tofu with crab roe, fried eel shreds, fried fish slices with wine and fried spare ribs with sweet and sour sauce.
Address: 445 Nanjing Rd W.
Zao Zi Shu (Jujube Tree)
One of the oldest vegetarian restaurants in the city, it features Shanghai and Taiwan cuisines — fresh, light and creative. Now it has several branches in Shanghai.
Address: 77 Songshan Rd
Ji Xiang Cao (Lucky Grass)
This restaurant offers creative vegetarian food. Yam with plum sauce, sour and spicy vermicelli made from bean starch and braised “pork” are some of the must-orders.
Address: 2/F, 428 Madang Rd Tel: 6373-0288
Wu Guan Tang
Located in an old wooden house in the former French concession area, the restaurant is decorated in ancient Chinese style. The food is light and many organic options are available.
Address: 349 Xinhua Rd
New Age Veggie
It offers a wide variety of “meat” dishes, including Chinese, Western and other popular culinary styles. Steak with pepper sauce, traditional red cooked pork, curry seafood pot and fresh wild vegetables are all popular orders.
Address: 5/F, 988 Huaihai Rd M. Tel: 5403-3980
Fu He Hui (Fortune and Intelligence)
Featuring precious vegetable ingredients like matsutake and valuable mushrooms, this expensive restaurant is also well-designed in decoration and has good service.
Address: 1037 Yuyuan Rd
Da Shu Wu Jie (Vegetarian With No Boundary)
It is a relatively expensive vegetarian restaurant that provides creative cuisine with organic ingredients. The menu includes lotus leaf rice and new Mapo Tofu.