Living the China Study: Vegan in Yunnan, China

Living the China Study - Vegan in Yunnan, China

If you've read up much on the health benefits of a plant-based diet, you've probably come across The China Study by T. Colin Campbell. The book is based on the most comprehensive study of nutrition ever conducted, which compared mortality rates from cancer and other chronic diseases in different parts of China.


Basically, people in rural China, who ate a largely plant-based diet, were much less likely to die of cancer, diabetes and other chronic diseases than people living in large Chinese cities, where the diet was more meat-heavy.

Today, we're going to find out what kinds of dishes all those healthy people in rural China were actually eating. And yes, there's definitely some rice and tofu involved, but there's a whole lot more than just that!

My dear friend Becky and her sister Georgie recently travelled around the Yunnan region in southern China, and they discovered so many amazing plant-based, naturally vegan dishes!

Even though they're not bloggers themselves, they very generously agreed to document their trip and share their findings with Nomadic Vegan readers. So without further ado, here are Becky and Georgie!

Having flown from Beijing to Kunming in Yunnan province, we had a day to wander around Kunming city before boarding the night train to Xiaguan, the station terminal for Dali. The area around Kunming train station, where we first headed to entrust our rucksacks to an apparently official luggage store, was full of small restaurants and street food hawkers. 

Kunming street food hawkers - Living The China Study

Street food hawkers in Kunming, China

Wanting something simple, we shared a sweet potato cooked over coals in an open barrow, with blackened skin and piping hot innards. We paid 8 yuan (about US$ 1.20) and suspect we were had!

Sweet potatoes in Kunming - Living The China Study

Roasted sweet potatoes in Kunming

Had we wished, we could also have had steaming roasted peanuts or griddled spicy tofu (tieban doufu/铁板豆腐) being sold right next to the canny potato seller.

griddled spicy tofu - Living the China Study

Griddled spicy tofu (tieban doufu/铁板豆腐)

Fruit stalls were packed with all sorts including rambutans, salak fruit (shepi guo/蛇皮果) and Yunnan tamarind.

Fruit stall - Living The China Study

An abundance of fruit in the stalls of Kunming

Our train pulled into Dali just before 6am and, as the little town woke up around us, we ate steamed rice/millet cake on the roadside. The land around Er’hai Lake is yellow with the haze of millet fields (xiao mi), and the cake we ate was made of both millet and purple rice flour cooked in wooden, mushroom-shaped moulds which were then used to sandwich a dollop of brown sugar that melted with the heat from the cake and stuck the two sides together.

Millet fields near Er'hai Lake - Living The China Study

Millet fields near Er'hai Lake

Making cakes from the local millet - Living The China Study

Making cakes from the local millet

Mushroom-shaped cake moulds - Living The China Study

Mushroom-shaped cake moulds

The final product - Living The China Study

The final product

Steamed rice for breakfast came in other guises we found, as we walked through Dali old town just after sunrise.

1,001 things you can make with rice - Living The China Study

1,001 things you can make with rice

Rice. It's what's for breakfast! - Living The China Study

Rice. It's what's for breakfast!

That night, in the small village of Xizhou, on the north-western side of Er’hai Lake, we ate a dish of crushed potato, pomegranate flower, chilli and Yunnan pickles.

crushed potato, pomegranate flower, chilli and Yunnan pickles - Living The China Study

Crushed potato, pomegranate flower, chilli and Yunnan pickles!

The following morning we were shown around the village. We watched workers making rice noodles, used in traditional Yunnan cuisine, such as Crossing-the-bridge (guoqiao mixian/过桥米线) and Mixian noodle dishes, which are often naturally vegan.

Making rice noodles - Living the China Study

Making rice noodles the traditional way

Setting the noodles out to dry - Living The China Study

Setting the noodles out to dry

The village was abundant with rose-based products: syrup, jam, and brown sugar and rose squares for making cordial and rose cakes (baba/粑粑). It is doubtful that the cakes are vegan, so instead we bought syrup, sugar and petals and made vegan rose-flavoured cookies with them upon our return home. Brown sugar was sold in piles in the market, as was ‘stinky tofu’, furry with fermentation!

Brown sugar at the Dali market - Living the China Study

Brown sugar at the Dali market

Stinky tofu - Living The China Study

Stinky tofu - not just stinky, it's also furry!

For lunch we had slices of firm yellow pea jelly mixed with rice noodles, bean sprouts, and a sublimely tangy peanut and chilli sauce.

Yellow pea jelly with rice noodles and bean sprouts - Living The China Study

Yellow pea jelly with rice noodles and bean sprouts!

Yellow pea jelly with rice noodles and bean sprouts - Living The China Study

Georgie looks like she's enjoying this one.

We cycled out to the Tongue of the Lake (hai she/海舌) after lunch and bought tall cups of freshly squeezed pomegranate juice for 10 yuan. Again in Xizhou that night, we had a simple plate of stir fried pumpkin leaves (nanguaye/南瓜叶) and garlic.

Stir-fried pumpkin leaves with garlic - Living The China Study

Stir-fried pumpkin leaves with garlic

We traveled on to Shaxi (沙溪) the following day. On our first evening in the village, which is set up for travelers but still quiet and beautiful, we ate another typical Yunnanese dish of lotus slices with pickles from the region.

Lotus slices with pickles - Living The China Study

Lotus slices with pickles

The next day we went walking, and just outside of Shaxi in a village opposite the Silian Cun (联村), within a temple dedicated to the goddess Guanyin, we ate a clean, vegan meal in the Pear Orchard Temple restaurant: bok choy, wild mushrooms (called junzi/菌子 in local dialect) with bell peppers, and shredded green winter squash coloured with a little tomato.

Vegan temple food in the Guanyin temple - Living the China Study

Vegan temple food in the Guanyin temple

Before hiking in Shibaoshan (石宝山), we spent some of the morning at the oldest remaining market on the tea-horse road, bustling and selling all manner of local products. We found mint and peanut bites, heads of sunflower seeds and brittle made of black millet, sunflower seeds and peanuts. We stocked up with snacks for our walk!

Sunflower seeds sold straight from the sunflower! - Living The China Study

Sunflower seeds sold straight from the sunflower!

Local snacks make great hiking food - Living The China Study

Local snacks make great hiking food

Returning to Shaxi for dinner, we had another tantalizing meal of tofu, a fresh water vegetable the locals refer to colloquially as the shuixing yanghua (水性杨花), green winter squash with slices of carrot, ginger and garlic, and a clear soup made of bunches of mint leaves and ginger (bohe tang/薄荷).

Relaxing with a cup of tea - Living The China Study

Relaxing with a cup of tea

Tofu and local greens - Living The China Study

Tofu and local greens

Winter squash with carrot, ginger and garlic - Living The China Study

Winter squash with carrot, ginger and garlic

Mint and ginger soup - Living The China Study

Mint and ginger soup

We were to fly back to Beijing from Lijiang. We munched on purple yam as we wandered around Dayan old town, where the tourist infrastructure all but completely obliterates what is left of Old Lijiang, and then made our way to the slightly less touristy village of Shuhe (束河).

Purple yam in LIjiang - Living The China Study

Purple yam in Lijiang

Our last meal consisted of a dish of a fern-like vegetable with the endearing local name of Dragon-claw (longzhao cai/龙爪菜) and one simple dish of Chinese leak and carrot, flavoured with local pickles.

Dragon claws - Living The China Study

Dragon claws (don't worry, no dragons were harmed!)

Although Yunnan is also famous for its cheese (which is not traditionally eaten in China) and of course has many meat dishes, eating vegan in Yunnan is not only very easy but makes for endless exploration. Usually, the local fresh vegetables that any given restaurant is using are visible to the customers.

Vegetables proudly on display in a local Chinese restaurant - Living The China Study

Vegetables proudly on display in a local Chinese restaurant

So, if in doubt, you need only point to your vegetable of choice (on the rare occasions when we did this we chose the strangest looking one!) and, supporting your gestures with “no meat please” (buyao rou不要肉), dinner is served! [Editor's note: You can also use one of the translation tools reviewed here to help get your point across].

There are authentic Yunnanese restaurants in most Chinese cities, so even if you don’t visit Yunnan, you can still taste the region’s delights. We hadn’t had our fill when we landed back in Beijing and went for a last traditional meal, which included cucumber and aubergine salads, enlivened with chilli and cilantro, and mushrooms in banana leaves.

Cucumber and aubergine (eggplant) salad and other Yunnanese delights  Living The China Study

Cucumber and aubergine (eggplant) salads and other Yunnanese delights

Mushrooms wrapped in banana leaves - Living The China Study

Mushrooms wrapped in banana leaves

About the Authors: 

Becky and Georgie - Living The China Study

Prompted by Georgie’s newest abode, Beijing, where she has been for five years, the sisters’ most recent travels have taken them to the urban metropolises and the far corners of China. Becky (left) is a translator and has been based in Geneva for five years. Georgie (right) is a community dance practitioner working in inclusive arts through the organization she co-founded, Pojie Arts.

Many thanks to Becky and Georgie for sharing all their delicious vegan discoveries! 

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Vegan Food in Yunnan China

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About Wendy Werneth

Intrepid traveler, vegan foodie and animal lover. I uncover vegan treasures all around the world, so you can be vegan anywhere and spread compassion everywhere.


  1. China is so incredibly polluted that I’d be afraid to eat anything there.
    I even avoid organic products from China because so many have heavy metals.

    • Hi Cara!
      Thanks for your comment. I do understand the concern about pollution in China, but I think it’s less of an issue in rural areas such as the places that Becky and Georgie visited. I do my best to avoid exposure to toxins, but I personally wouldn’t let the fear of exposure stop me from visiting China. I will say, though, that when I lived in Beijing for five months, the thing that was the hardest for me to deal with was the air pollution. I didn’t necessarily notice any physical effects, but just seeing it in the air every day was very depressing.

  2. I did see pollution in the water in a rural area while I was there, but I had nothing but good experiences. I had the wonderful experience of also getting off the beaten path in Suzhou and Nantong and other areas nearby. My son lived there for two years and got married there. I had great food experiences both in markets they took me to and at her family’s rural residence. Nothing like homemade Chinese food to make you turn your nose up at our U.S. take out food!

    One thing I loved and haven’t been able to duplicate is a blue sticky rice that we had for breakfast. It was made from a mix and was sweet and delicious.

    Thanks for a wonderful piece!

    • Hi Beth!
      Yes, authentic Chinese food is completely different from the take out stuff we’re used to! I don’t think I’ve ever seen blue sticky rice before. Sounds intriguing! China is certainly full of surprises.

  3. China is one of my favorite country. I love food of china and places of china. Thank you so much for sharing information.

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