If you don't eat meat, eating in China can be a nightmare. There is absolutely nothing in the Chinese psyche which seems to be able to deal with the idea that a dish can't be made better by throwing in some meat. Even when you take care to order what looks like it's vegetarian – a tofu dish for example – there's still a very good chance that the chef will look at it as it swirls around the wok he's been cooking meat in all evening and think "I know what would make this SO much better" and then chuck in a handful of minced pork. You, sitting with your chopsticks in your hand, trying desperately not to give offence to your hosts, will then spend most of the evening trying to scrape mince off your dish whilst nobody is looking. Even if you eat fish (as I do) being confronted with the fish you are about to eat being plucked from a tank and brought to the table, flopping about in a carrier bag to prove it's not only fresh, it's actually still alive, is quite enough to put you off eating.
I used to go to China quite often for work. I would leave home with my suitcase stocked with 'safe' food to eat in my room when the whole ritual of Chinese restaurant life got too much. Many was the time I'd excuse myself as 'too tired' and then order a cheese sandwich from room service. Only twice did I ever get the chance to just relax and eat everything that was put in front of me and that was on the occasions when kind and understanding colleagues took me to Buddhist restaurants.
China may have no official state religion but many people practice a form of Buddhism and they are told that they should not eat meat before visiting a temple. The first special Buddhist restaurant I went to was in Guangzhou. My local female colleagues took me to a tiny local restaurant which was located close to a temple where absolutely everything LOOKED like meat but wasn't. I was thus introduced to the Chinese are of faking it. No men went with us – eating vegetarian just isn't considered 'manly'.
It wasn't a fancy place. The menus were written on the walls and there was no translation. I told my colleagues not to bother asking me what I wanted and said I'd happily have a try at everything they put in front of me. They'd watched me shrinking into myself and looking really tested by the food all week so they pulled out all the stops and ordered a ton of food, safe in the knowledge that no critters would be dying for my dinner. The waitress brought a large pot of tea and we started off by washing our chopsticks by pouring tea over them. My hostess explained that these type of retaurants aren't always the cleanest and this was how they made sure the chopsticks were clean. I know what you're probably thinking – what the heck's the food going to be like if the chopsticks aren't safe, but I really didn't care. It was all going to be cooked and you don't hear too much about tofu food poisoning.
We started with a soup and this was followed by multiple courses of oddly textured tofu. There was mock chicken, mock pork, mock duck, mock beef, all served in a variety of different sauces. The funniest dish of the night was mock king prawns steamed in aluminium foil. These looked exactly like the foamy pink prawn sweets we bought as children and tasted........well, exactly like king prawns. I ate like a woman with two stomachs and my colleagues loved that I ate so well. All week they'd worried about my diminishing appetite and suddenly it was back in full.
My second Buddhist restaurant was in Shanghai and was part of a chain of such restaurants. My hostess on that occasion was a colleague who was taking Buddhism classes in her spare time. It was a plusher and much fancier place but again the food was fabulous, the choices were extensive and I could eat everything I saw. In each case the bills were considerably cheaper than in standard restaurants.
So my purpose in writing about these places it to reassure vegetarians or those who prefer not to eat meat that you CAN find edible, tasty food in China without resorting to living off McDonald fries. You may have to ask around to find these Buddhist restaurants, and you may struggle sometimes to believe that what you're eating really isn't meat, but I thoroughly recommend finding a mock-meat Buddhist restaurant. I've eaten in such places in Malaysia, China and Singapore and never had a bad meal yet.