A Vegetarian in Shanghai

Finding good vegetarian options can be challenging when travelling – here’s how Hamilton food writer Amber Bremner and her young family coped during a recent stopover in Shanghai.

In August I spent a few days in Shanghai with my husband and daughters, as a purposeful detour on our way to Malaysian Borneo. My family is vegetarian and we veer towards a fully plant-based diet most of the time. We knew this might present some challenges when travelling (it often does), and China’s typically ‘meat with everything’ style of dining served up its own unique experience.

With a population of 25 million, Shanghai is everything you might expect of a modern city. From the Bund, the skyline is a sci-fi fantasy of Blade Runner proportions. A short hop in the other direction and you find yourself back in time at Yuyuan Garden in old Shanghai.

To travel is to eat, so our first order of business was finding dinner. Despite being in the heart of China’s most modern and arguably most western-friendly location, finding a vegetarian-friendly meal was more difficult than we’d imagined. Even plant-forward dishes tend to include at least a little pork, or are cooked in a meat-based broth. Eventually we found a small hand-pulled noodle shop with an English menu and made short work of a few surprisingly tasty bowls of vegetable noodles and stir-fried lettuce.
Before leaving New Zealand I organised a breakfast street food tour with Lost Plate Food Tours. We set out on foot in torrential typhoon rain to meet our guide Anis, who was impressed by our willingness to walk and eat in the wind and rain (Kiwis are not discouraged by a bit of bad weather). Anis was charming and put us instantly at ease as she guided us through the streets of old Shanghai to some authentic neighbourhood street food spots. Some of these vendors have been in the same spot for 20 years or more, specialising in delivering their one dish to perfection.
Jianbing was one of our favourites – a sort of crepe filled with greens, egg, crunchy fritter, chilli and fermented bean paste. Cong you bing (fried spring onion pancakes) were also outstanding, and in the interests of good health I’m grateful they’re not available here.
With a little local knowledge and help overcoming the language barrier, being vegetarian wasn’t a problem that day. While we skipped the pork xiao long bao and snake wine, we finished our time with Anis with very full bellies. I find food tours such an excellent way to connect with locals and gain an introduction to foods we otherwise wouldn’t know how to find.
On a promise to our children, we rounded out our time in Shanghai with a full day and night at Shanghai Disney. We didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when we discovered there were no vegetarian meal options available in the park – even the popcorn came tossed with chunks of meat. We survived the day by eating plain rice, the emergency muesli bars that travel everywhere with us, and significant quantities of overpriced watermelon and ice cream.
On reflection, the Asian countries we have enjoyed the most on our travels have an ingrained vegetarian food tradition which makes eating out easy (think India, Thailand and Indonesia). That said, I’d still return to China in future, just better armed with some translations and an extensively researched list of restaurants. Shanghai is an incredible city with so much to offer, and we know we barely scratched the surface.

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