Veganism in Ancient China
Updated: Apr 4
Veganism is the world's fasting growing diet trend. From adverts on mainstream Western media, to fast food chains expanding their plant-based menus, it seems easier than ever to convert to a meat-free diet. The availability of meat alternatives seems to have grown exponentially in the last several years.
But as it turns out, meat substitutes are not necessarily a modern invention. Some have been available in China for thousands of years...
Tofu is well-known to have originated in China, over 2000 years ago; and is made from fermented soy-beans. Another meat alternative is seitan, also a Chinese invention (its first mention in historical texts is in an encyclopaedia dating from the 6th Century!).
Seitan is traditionally made from gluten (extracted by hand from water-and-flour dough). The production process is time-consuming and requires a lot of labour, but it's worth the effort, and was given the nickname "wheat meat" in China due to how the texture closely resembles real meat. It is widely available all over the world today, and remains prevalent in Chinese cuisine.
The popularity of meat substitutes in ancient South-East Asia is mainly attributed to religious practices: Chinese Buddhists, Taoist monks, and also Japanese Zen monks followed a mostly vegetarian lifestyle. Without meat in their diets, they experimented with other plant-based options.
So how do meat substitutes fit into Chinese culture? Many Chinese customs and traditions are deeply intertwined with the idea of prosperity.
Symbols representing wealth, luck, and happiness are an integral aspect of Chinese culture. Be it the colour red representing luck and financial wealth, or Chinese knot decorations, or even how some numbers are seen as luckier than others (6 is considered particularly lucky).
Another symbol of prosperity in Chinese culture is meat. Because of its high cost, meat was historically consumed as food but also as a status symbol. Indeed, even today, offering expensive, rare foods at a social gathering shows respect to the guests.
That said, studies of modern Chinese diets show that substitutes like tofu and seitan are still widely consumed, and are available to buy in the vast majority of grocery stores. However, being a vegan tourist in China in modern times can still be a little difficult if you don't speak Mandarin. A lot of dishes contain egg noodles, or fish sauce. There are vegan restaurants if you know where to look, but always plan your visits carefully, and check ahead to see whether a particular restaurant can cater to you.
Right here in Cardiff, we're lucky our restaurant doesn't have to compromise between authenticity and inclusivity. We provide authentic, traditional food inclusive of all dietary needs and choices.
Our vegan spicy tofu, and healthy bao buns, contain tofu. Want to try seitan for yourself? Our vegan char siu baos contain delicious pork-style seitan pieces.
Click on the pictures to see both our vegan and non-vegan menus.