Asian [Food] Oddities

Being a vegetarian in China was particularly difficult for me on my first visit. I should have known I was in for a hard time when on the plane, my choices for a meal were beef, chicken and fish. Oh dear. Well, maybe the actual country of China will be different, I thought. I armed myself with phrases like, “No meat” and “I don’t eat any meat” in Mandarin before my trip, thinking I would avoid any misunderstandings. Not quite…

Airplane food on the way to China. I ate the bun, fruit and yogurt.

Once I arrived at my hotel (I met a group that I was teaching with and we all stayed at the hotel together), this was our dinner – very elaborate and beautiful but not very veggie-friendly.

The sculpture is made out of salt!

For a long time, I lived off of steamed white rice. When I felt like splurging, I’d find a Pizza Hut (Pizza Hut is among one of the many food chains that can be found in Asia), otherwise, I found these great “digestive cookies” that tasted just like graham crackers with about 300% more fiber. They were tasty.

Later on in my trip, I learned that a good way to communicate vegetarianism is to tell people you’re Buddhist or that you want “Buddhist food” or “monk’s food” since most Buddhist monks are vegetarian and do not eat meat. This trick only worked about half of the time. I think the Chinese were more confused as to why a white person would say she is Buddhist…. just another culture speed bump.

Other food oddities I found in China:

These were beside the fish tanks at a seafood restaurant. I suppose you select the frog you want to dine on and they’ll sauté it right up for you! Never seen anything like this before.

(they're live frogs)

Not sure what kind of fish these were but they sure were FLAT!

One night in Tianjin, my teaching group went out to eat at a Korean restaurant. I’m not familiar with Korean food or Korean culture – I’ve only had layovers at the Korean airport – but from what I understand, this was the Korean version of Chinese hot pot. Yes, that’s tofu in there… along with just about any kind of meat you can think of. I wasn’t a fan of this dish but it made for some interesting pictures. My fellow teacher friends really enjoyed it!

Seafood of some sort

It doesn’t take much to know that authentic Chinese food is nothing like the Americanized version of it. Many vegetable dishes I came across in China were served in a clear, gelatinous “glaze” – salty and very slimy. You won’t find this at Panda Express.

Chinese vegetables

I enjoyed exploring the local markets so I could better understand the culture of Chinese food. There were some very strange things I found at the markets, things I was not used to seeing as an American or as a vegetarian.

Pig feet

The red bricks on the left, I thought, were some sort of veggie-infused tofu. It had a similar texture and looked like it was a soybean relative. After asking a vendor, we found out that the “red tofu” was actually curdled pig blood.

This part of the market had a pretty foul odor

Then there were things like this in China:

Oh yeah, Hard Rock Cafe exists overseas.

And one of our favorite local hot spots in Tianjin was this place – Yummy Food.

And just as the name suggests, the food was YUMMY.

Yummy Food served things like veggie pizza…

Absolutely delicious.

and chocolate-covered banana pancakes!


Some things came across felt just like home. (Although, I’m totally a Jiff girl.)

Too bad this was confiscated when I flew from Tianjin to Shanghai.

While other things made me more ill than I have ever been in my life.

The real Ramen noodles (not really but same idea).

My first visit to Shanghai was a disaster, on many levels. I’m convinced everything went downhill when my peanut butter was confiscated at the airport. We met up with a friend of a friend and he graciously gave us a tour of the city. He raved about this little restaurant that served noodle dishes and told me I would surely find a vegetarian dish on the menu. I had read things and heard from other travelers, DO NOT EAT THE STREET FOOD, which usually goes for any country. But, I was not in a position to be picky or high maintenance for our lovely host, so I sucked it up and crossed my fingers there wouldn’t be any “aftermath.”

In hindsight, this sign is hysterical and seems to foreshadow ….

Not what you want to see outside of a restaurant halfway across the world.

This was the dish that, morning after, made me wish I was dead. I had the worst food poisoning of my life – vomiting + diarrhea + dirty squat toilets = most miserable time of my life. The morning after I ate this, I boarded a bus with some friends to go to Hangzhou for the day. My stomach gurgled and bubbled, my intestines rumbled and my throat hurt from puking so much. At one of the bus stations, I broke down and cried in the bathroom (again over a squat toilet) – wishing that I could teleport back to America into my cozy bed at home.

The dish of death!

Luckily, by the time we arrived in Hangzhou, my “illness” had subsided and I was feeling better. There were more odd foods along the way but this time, I had a new appreciation for Chinese food. And sometimes (for me anyway), it’s better to just observe the foods and appreciate their uniqueness. Like these:

Corn-flavored ice cream bars

Pea-flavored ice cream bar

I will always enjoy my overseas adventures with food – particularly as a vegetarian. When we take our trip around the world, we’ll likely modify our diets to include meat or at the very least, fish. Not only will it make traveling easier but it will allow us to enjoy more of the local cultures if we can experience their cuisines. I’m sure one can circumnavigate the globe as a vegetarian but I’m not sure I’m the vegetarian to try it. If you have any tips, advice or suggestions on either foods to try or places for foodies like us to visit, please let us know! We’re up for [just about] anything!

Here’s to never-ending adventures with food. Happy eating!

Categories: Adventure, Animals, Asia, Backpacking, China, Circumnavigation, Food, Shanghai, Top Knotch Gear, Travel, Travel Photography, Uncategorized, Vegetarian | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

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8 thoughts on “Asian [Food] Oddities

  1. Love this post! I found eating in China to be a huge challenge too, partially because very few people spoke English and it was next to impossible to know exactly what you’re eating (one place served us a deep fried baby duck, which we did not eat). The bathrooms there were pretty terrible, so I can only imagine how ‘shitty’ (no pun intended), your food poisoning experience must have been!

    • Thanks! Oh dear… deep fried baby duck?! Yikes. I’ll have to post my shots from the Night Market – there was some WEIRD stuff there (testicles on skewers, etc.) – It’s good to know I wasn’t the only one who had a challenging time eating in China! And yes, food poisoning was a very shitty experience. Haha! 🙂

  2. I still eat street food, even though I know I’ll pay for it later! Usually the best food of the trip. Great post! Can’t wait to visit China.

    • It’s TOTALLY the best food of the trip! I just was NOT expecting to feel that sick after those noodles. Ugh. Where’d you have good street food?

  3. Great post! I loved the corn and pea flavored ice cream. Other cultures are so interesting in every way. I wonder what common things make them laugh.

    • Thank you! We also saw blueberry & cheese-flavored ice cream too! I totally agree – I often wonder what things we have here that make foreigners laugh and take pictures back to their home countries.

  4. Street food in China’s always a dangerous proposition I’m afraid, if it’s any consolation I’ve lived here three years and not a month goes by without some form of food poisoning. Food hygeine isn’t all that, sadly. And don’t get me started on the recycled drain oil (yes really). Great post.

    • Ahhh really – food poisoning that often??! I’m so sorry, that’s awful! I know their food practices aren’t always that clean but I had no idea about their drain oil! All the “rivers” in Beijing/Tianjin were just black sludge – you just knew that it had to be radioactive. Not to mention the BROWN air… I hope you’re surviving well! Thanks for checking out our blog!

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