In Singapore, “vegetarian Chinese” tends to be pretty much synonymous with Buddhist cuisine (斋菜 zhāi cài), which focuses heavily on replicating mainstream Chinese dishes using all sorts of inventive gluten or soy-based substitutes for meat. Many hawker centres have a stall or two specialising in this, and it’s often also the cheapest option around, but I’ve rarely found the meals particularly satisfying: like eating a tofu-lentil burger, it’s hard not to compare it to the “real” (meaty) thing and not be at least slightly disappointed. There are a couple of chains like Elemen that offer quite tasty upmarket versions of this, but they’re also priced to match.
On my culinary journey through the 34 provinces, I was thus pleasantly surprised to run into quite a few regional Chinese dishes that have been vegetarian since day one and really deserve more recognition. Here’s a quick summary of dishes and places in no particular order.
Obligatory but important disclaimer: very few if any of these places are purely vegetarian or even advertise these dishes as vegetarian, so broths and sauces may contain trace amounts of meat or seafood from cross-contamination or even ingredients like chicken powder (鸡精). Diner beware.
“Pot helmets” aka guōkuī (锅盔) at A Gan Guo Kui, Funan. China’s answer to Indian naan flatbread, half the flavours on the menu (snow vegetable, hazelnut chocolate, red bean, coconut) are vegetarian.
“Chinese crepes” aka jiānbing guǒzi (煎饼馃子) at Wenjiabao (温家饱), People’s Park, Chinatown. If you pick shredded potato as your filling, it’s egg-etarian and quite tasty.
“Tofu brain” (豆腐脑 doufunao) at Guang Ju Ren Kitchen, Yong Kang Food Court, Defu. Warm tofu in savoury broth with preserved veg, chilli etc is vegetarian and tasty, and so are quite a few of the other dishes here: leek & egg pancakes, shredded potato, wood ear fungus, etc. (Plenty of meaty choices too, though, so pick carefully.)
Shaanxi’s most famous dishes may be meaty paomo soup and greasy rougamo burgers, but Shaanxi classic liángpí (涼皮) is always vegetarian, and so are biang biang noodles if you choose the basic yóupōmiàn (油泼面) “oil-splashed” style. You can even complete the Xian Triangle with a vegetarian rougamo at Qin Ji Rougamo, ARC.
Cold Shanghai noodles (上海冷面) and Scallion Oil Noodles (葱油面) at Dingtele, Kovan. You can find these at many other Shanghainese places too, including Din Tai Fung.
I always thought the cuisine this far north would be super meaty, but there’s actually lots of veggie dishes to be found! “Three Earths” (地三鲜 dìsānxiān) of capsicum, eggplant and potato, “dry pot” cauliflower (干锅有机菜花), fried tomato and egg (番茄炒蛋), and even Chinese barbeque has surprisingly many vegetarian options like beancurd rolls (烧干豆腐巻), mantou buns, shiitake mushrooms, etc. Many options in Chinatown, but I like Dong Bei Cai Guan in Bukit Batok.
The Yun Nans chain has lots of interesting mushroom, tofu and vegetable dishes. Porcini is always a tasty umami bomb, but try the Sauteed Asparagus with Golden Fungus and Mushrooms (金耳花菇炒芦笋) for something a bit more unusual. Olive fried rice is also tasty.
Hunanese cuisine has many unusual flavors, some of them vegetarian: century eggs with pickled chilli, green beans with Chinese olive, stir-fried cucumber with perilla, Changsha cold noodles, and more. Check out Hunan Traditional at Chinatown or Xiang’s Signature in Bugis.
And that’s a wrap. Stay tuned for the wrap-up!