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.
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!
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.
Fruit stalls were packed with all sorts including rambutans, salak fruit (shepi guo/蛇皮果) and Yunnan tamarind.
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.
Steamed rice for breakfast came in other guises we found, as we walked through Dali old town just after sunrise.
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.
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.
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!
For lunch we had slices of firm yellow pea jelly mixed with rice noodles, bean sprouts, and a sublimely tangy peanut and chilli sauce.
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.
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.
The next day we went walking, and just outside of Shaxi in a village opposite the Silian Cun (四联村), 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.
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!
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/薄荷汤).
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).
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.
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.
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.
About the Authors:
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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