I'm pretty sure I heard the angels — or was it Buddha? — sing when my fiance and I walked into Godly's, an 80-year-old Buddhist restaurant. Although the staff looked at us as if we were lost, we quickly informed them we had indeed come to the all-vegan eatery on purpose. We sat down, took a deep breath and eagerly perused the multipage menu. Then a sigh of relief. We'd found it. The holy grail of vegan Chinese restaurants.
I've been vegan for almost 10 years. My diet is absent of all things animal — no eggs, dairy, fish or meat. Making sure food is 100 percent vegetarian in a place where you speak the language is difficult enough. Expecting it in a place where you can't even recognize letters is more than frightening. But we came armed with our vegan cards — laminated pieces of paper that state in Chinese: "I am a vegetarian. I do not eat meat, fish, shellfish, poultry, eggs, milk or milk products." We hoped for the best.
Our first stop after the 14 1/2-hour flight from Newark to Shanghai: the Metro City Starbucks in Xu Jia Hui. The large green siren beckoned me inside. I wanted to impress the locals with my attempt to speak the language, so I asked my Mandarin-speaking friend and tour guide how to order a tall coffee with soy. After he paused to laugh, he informed me "they don't put soy milk in their coffee over here." Thanks to my fiance's love of cereal, we came with a Ziploc bag full of powdered soy milk. Crisis averted.
After getting fully caffeinated, we headed over to a Sichuan-style restaurant called Mushroom on Tian Yao Qiao Road. We asked a local to translate the menu so we could pick items for our "hot pot." The server brought out plates of vegetable-based ingredients — bok choy, tofu skins, lettuce, mushrooms — that we could add to our individual pots of vegetable broth. This style of restaurant also features a table full of sauces and spices to personalize your food. The English translations aren't spot-on, so I stuck with things I could identify by sight like soy and chili sauces.
Located on the same road is a street vendor that my friend touted as the best steamed bun stand in Shanghai. Before boarding the overnight train to Beijing, we stocked up with 20 cai bao, or vegetable buns, and four large xiao kou zao (sesame balls filled with sweet paste) to feed our group of four. Each bun set us back about two yuan, or 30 cents; the sesame balls were only slightly more.
After dropping our bags off at the five-star Renaissance-Beijing Capital Hotel, we walked to a Sichuan-style restaurant in the Landgent Center Mall. The menu had pages of pictures, so even if we hadn't been accompanied by someone who spoke the language, we could have pointed to the ingredients we wanted.
They make a stir-fry on demand with the ingredients you choose. We picked tofu skins and chunks, snow peas, sweet potatoes and an array of vegetables I'd never seen before. After the first bite we could tell a stark difference from Chinese food in the states. The Sichuan peppercorn produced a tingly numbing sensation that differs from the burning caused by the hot peppers that are normally added to spice up dishes.
Many hotels offer a complimentary breakfast or provide a discount in their restaurant. Our Beijing lodging provided us with basic warm soy milk and rice porridge — a breakfast staple in China — in addition to buffets with steamed buns, American-style cereal, breads and fruit. Luckily everyone there spoke English, so it was easy to know what dishes we should avoid.
Our trip to Beijing was based around visiting the Great Wall. We opted for the more strenuous — meaning less touristy — section from Jinshanling to Simatai. We knew our vegan options could be limited so we loaded our backpacks with Clif Bars and trail mix we brought from home. As soon as we boarded the bus and saw a breakfast sandwich of ham and cheese, we knew we had made the right call.
After hiking almost 7 miles on the unreconstructed steps of the wall — and getting engaged along the way — we were more than excited to see a buffet of what looked like mostly vegan food. We showed the servers our vegan card and they pointed to the dishes we could eat: cucumber salad, vegetable lo mein, a carrot-and-cabbage dish and a side of rice.
The last two days of our trip were spent in Shanghai, sans our personal translator. We stayed at the Home Inn at 400 Tian Yao Qiao Road, only blocks from our faithful steamed-bun stand, the metro and several Starbucks. Our mission on this trip was to find a true Chinese vegan restaurant. Our guidebook told us of several, but many of the addresses listed led us to dead ends. So, with two days left, we decided to check out Godly's at 445 Nanjing Xi Road.
The menu listed almost every Chinese dish imaginable. The restaurant follows Buddhist vegetarianism, which means it is entirely vegan, even if the dishes have carnivorous titles — shredded "pork," sweet and sour "chicken," "meatballs" and the succulent roasted "duck," all made of vegetable-based ingredients. The "pork" appetizer resembles a pulled-pork sandwich – minus the bread. The strips were tangy, sweet and a little spicy. My favorite dish was the roasted "duck," a staple at Godly's. I never tasted this bird before my vegan days, but this entree was soft and juicy, served with a side of plum sauce and small tortillas for wrapping.
We visited this restaurant twice and were told before going that the items can be hit or miss. I strongly advise against the "bird claw" appetizer. This dish actually looks like a winged-creature's foot. Its salty, rubbery consistency also doesn't help. Avoid anything that references a sparrow in the title and pass on the "seafood" dishes, and you should be fine.
If you visit only one vegetarian restaurant in China, let this be it. The waitstaff speaks little English, but the menu has translated titles for each item. There's also a side store that sells takeaway food and sweets.
Overall, we found China friendly and delicious, with plenty of animal-friendly morsels along the way.