People told me that China would be very unfriendly to vegans (because they like to put tiny pieces of meat in otherwise vegan dishes), so when I landed in Shanghai I was prepared for the worst. I certainly wasn’t prepared to be greeted by a large stack of vegetarian food brochures in the airport in Shanghai. Smack dab in the middle of all the other tourist brochures at the information desk were brochures on the history of vegetarian food in Shanghai, along with a list of the best veggie restaurants in the city. And so Shanghai is the only city in the world that I know of that provides tourists with a list of veggie places upon landing. 🙂
Shanghai is a strange amalgam of very traditional Chinese alleyway streets, late 19th century European influences, Art Deco buildings, and the extremely modern Pudong skyline (pictured above). There aren’t many “must see” sights in Shanghai, but this only serves to make it an even better city for those who like to explore by wandering aimlessly, people watching and observing the odd mix of architectural influences. And the veggie food is fantastic.
When in Shanghai, vegans and non-vegans alike HAVE to try Lucky Zen/Ji Xiang Cao (sadly now closed). Their delicately flavoured, exquisitely well balanced (taste-wise), and surprisingly healthy veggie meals are fantastic (one of the best meals of my life!), and, like most things in China, cheap. I highly recommend their dumpling-esque “shephard’s purses” and the oddly-described “noodle, VEG, sesame soy” (oh, Chinglish!), which will set you back 12RMB ($1.80/£1.14) and 15RMB ($2.40/£1.52) respectively. The tricoloured noodles are accompanied by raw cucumber, onion, and a peanut-sesame-soy sauce (pour over, then mix with the noodles). Lucky Zen really was a zen treat; sick of the noise and traffic of most streets in Shanghai, I was happy to find it tucked away on a (relatively) quiet side street.
Unusual Mock Meats & Pretty Side Streets
Another great veg restaurant in Shanghai is Wu Guan Tang. Like Lucky Zen, it’s down a pretty side street, this time full of European-style architecture. A strange contrast, the buildings on the street make you feel as though you’re walking through a street in Germany, while the sounds and signs remind you you’re definitely in China. Wu Guan Tang will also remind you you’re in China; its English menu is difficult to come by and even trickier to understand. But once you get past that, Wu Guan Tang is a good place to sample mock meats unusual even by China’s standards. Chinese vegetarian cuisine is famed for its mock meats, usually made of gluten, and approximating duck, chicken, and beef (sometimes even with “bones” made of bamboo). Wu Guan Tang takes a different tack, making highly unusual mock meats out of vegetables. For 28RMB ($4.20/£2.65) you can sample mock crab roe (described on the menu as “stewed potatoes with carrots and pears”) stuffed in a red bell pepper (pictured in the background of the first photo). Their take on crab roe is so good it’s even been featured in City Weekend (Asia’s equivalent of Time Out), who say it’s as tasty as the real thing and cheaper, to boot. Another interesting mock meat that even faux meat haters will like is their take on baked fish (made of a specially baked, thinly sliced and marinated baked potato, pictured on the right above). Fake baked fish will set you back only 12 RMB ($1.80/£1.14).
After a delicious dinner at Wu Guan Tang, a stroll along the river is in order. The nighttime views of the lit up Pudong skyline (pictured at the top of the entry) are spectacular, but don’t forget that just a few feet from all the tourists clicking cameras is the Bund. The Bund is lined with lovely Art Deco buildings, which are mostly lit up nicely at night. Like many parts of Shanghai, the Bund feels at once very Chinese and not Chinese at all. The buildings wouldn’t be out of place in Chicago, but the sounds and the futuristic views of Pudong remind you that you’re definitely in Shanghai. Turn your back on the “Chinese Big Ben” clock tower, and you’re facing the Oriental Pearl Tower. Shanghai is truly a city of beautiful contrasts.