This summer, I was lucky enough to go to Beijing for two months, and I was thrilled to get to eat authentic Chinese food. As a vegetarian in Beijing, I was excited to eat some real 麻婆豆腐, or Mapo tofu, a spicy Sichuan dish I'd eaten many times in the United States. However, other friends who had gone before told me it’s basically impossible to be a vegetarian in Beijing.

“Yes, you can eat some vegetables, but even vegetarian dishes usually have meat in them in Beijing.” Most plant-based travelers to China have heard this, and this is what my friends told me as well. Others from the program told me they were vegetarian in the United States, but decided to eat meat in China because they thought they wouldn’t be able to find anything.

I can understand wanting to try traditional meat dishes while traveling abroad, but giving up on vegetarianism just because I expected it to be hard didn't seem worth it to me. I didn’t want to break 3 years as a vegetarian. I was dejected, but resolved to find a way to make it work. Here are the restaurants, the dishes, and the phrases that made staying vegetarian in Beijing possible (and a cautionary tale, so you can hopefully avoid my mistakes).

#SpoonTip: many of these tips will work for being a vegan as well, because Chinese food rarely has dairy in it. However, watch out for egg – it’s in many dishes.

Restaurant Recommendations

Luckily, Beijing has many vegetarian restaurants. Since Beijing is home to the Lama temple, a famous Buddhist temple, and lots of vegetarian tourists, you can definitely find some good vegetarian food. Here were my favorites:

Suhu Vegetarian Tiger

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Suhu Vegetarian Tiger is one of my absolute favorite restaurants in Beijing, and not just because they serve all vegetarian food. This place was beautiful. After we found the restaurant, a staircase brought us to a reception with many ornaments and statues, and the dining room was spacious and felt like a home. Not only was the decor immaculate, but my friend and I were offered complimentary drinks, fruits, tea, and snacks. The menu was gigantic, featuring everything from "Beijing duck" (made with yams) to tofu and vegetable dishes to "pork buns" to "eel."

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This restaurant was filled with everything I had wished so long to try as a vegetarian in Beijing. Eating at restaurants where my friends got delicious-looking duck and I was stuck with green beans definitely became hard sometimes (as did splitting the bill afterwards), but at Suhu, I could finally try all the famous dishes I wanted.

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Not only did I think the food was delicious, but my omnivorous friends loved it too. Apparently, the "pork" I had picked was very close to the real thing. Most of these meats were made completely of vegetables – the pork, for example, was made of mushrooms. Overall, everything about Suhu was wonderful, from the service to the food to the feeling. I didn't even have to worry about what I was ordering on the menu.

Haidilao (Hotpot)

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Hotpot is also a great option for vegetarians in Beijing. Not only is it delicious, but meat-eaters have a lot of options as well. Hotpot places always have a lot of vegetables to order, and the service is usually also fantastic. 

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My favorite hotpot place in Beijing is called Haidilao, which actually has many locations in the US (though the ones in Beijing are far better). We received some of the most amazing service I've ever had, with complimentary fruits and snacks, and extremely attentive waitstaff. 

Grandma's Home/The Grandma's

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Like Haidilao, this restaurant is not strictly vegetarian, but it is an amazing restaurant for any diet. The decor was elegant and inviting, and the food was both surprisingly cheap and very safe and delicious. Lines form daily outside this restaurant, which is inside a famous mall, APM, in Wangfujing. I highly recommend anything in this restaurant – bring lots of friends so you can try everything. 

Din Tai Fung

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This world famous Taiwanese restaurant was named in the New York Times' top 50 restaurants, specializing in soup dumplings. Although it has locations in the US too, my friends who had gone before told me the Beijing location was much better.

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While it is a bit expensive, you should absolutely try their vegetarian dumplings. Even though they aren't Din Tai Fung's signature xiaolongbao (which has meat), these dumplings were honestly the best I've ever had. For a treat, get the chocolate xiaolongbao. They also have many vegetable and noodle dishes.  

Explicitly vegetarian restaurants are definitely the safest option for eating vegetarian in Beijing, but can at times be expensive. A cheaper alternative can usually be vegetarian dishes at a normal restaurant, but you should be careful and ask to make sure a dish doesn't have any meat in it.

Fish Tofu: A Cautionary Tale

One of the favorite things I found in Beijing were these made-to-order "stir-fry" restaurants. Their variety was incredible!

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My program took place at Beijing Normal University, which even had one of these restaurants as a dining hall. Customers would pick from a huge selection of vegetables, tofu, and meats. As it was done by weight, you could pick any quantity you wanted. Not only that, but it was very reasonably priced at about $1-$2 for a gigantic meal. I was thrilled at the large selection of vegetables, half of which I'd never even seen before! The tofu selection was also fantastic, with all different kinds of firm, fried, soft, silken, and even crunchy tofu. Naturally, I loaded up. 

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Unfortunately for me, the tofu I had picked wasn't quite right. As I took a bite, I tasted a fishy flavor. When I asked the chef, she told me it was fish tofu, which is a mashed mixture of fish and tofu cut into cubes. Apparently, 鱼豆腐 (fish tofu) is pretty common, and definitely something I watched out for after this incident.

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However, the dish was still delicious, and I highly recommend eating at these types of "stir-fry" places. As a spice lover, I appreciated these places even more, but if you're not into hot foods, watch out for the spice. Sichuan cuisine is so spicy it often completely numbs your tongue.

Making Dishes Vegetarian

Lots of restaurants were very accommodating, as I asked people if they could take meat out of dishes using the following phrase:

我吃素。请你别放肉, 可以吗?(wǒ chī sù. qǐng nǐ biè fàng ròu, kě yǐ mǎ?)

You can also just ask which dishes are vegetarian, using this:

你们有什么素菜?(nǐ men yǒu shén me sù cài?)

Dishes to be Wary Of

You might think the following dishes would be vegetarian, but watch out. These three commonly have ham, so make sure to ask to take it out if possible:

1. Scallion pancakes

2. Green beans

3. Mapo tofu

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For the most part, the restaurants can make these dishes without the ham – just be sure to ask.

Dish Recommendations

On the other hand, these dishes are commonly completely vegetarian, and also delicious. 

1. Fried egg and tomato

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Also known as 西红柿炒蛋 (xīhóngshì chǎodàn), this hearty dish is often served on noodles. 

2. Fried rice

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Regular fried rice is literally just rice with eggs and maybe peas, which is a great comfort food. Make sure to ask for no pork though.

3. Eggplant dishes

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Some places put pork in their eggplant dishes, but many restaurants don't. This dish was from Grandma's Home, and was completely vegetarian. 

4. Baozi 

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Baozi are a delicious and filling breakfast dumpling, but can be enjoyed at any time of day. They're usually also freshly handmade. Most baozi places have at least one vegetarian option with various types of mushrooms. Be sure to check the menu and/or ask the staff.  

5. Fried pumpkin

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This dish was one of my all-time favorites in Beijing, and I ate it almost weekly. It consisted of fried pumpkin dusted in egg yolks, and was definitely not something I'd had before. Most restaurants have it, and if you're not vegan, this would be a great dish.

Overall, being vegetarian in Beijing takes some getting used to, but is very doable. Not only will you find delicious food, but you'll also probably get sick less often (from meat you're not used to or not fully cooked meat). Food in Beijing is definitely something you'll miss when you leave. 

Want more Chinese food? Here are some other articles to check out:

An Unconventional Quest: Finding the Best Pizza in Beijing

The 10 Foods You Must Try in Beijing Before You Leave

How to Eat Like a Native When You Visit China