An increasingly health-conscious dining public and concern for animal rights are just two of the drivers behind the rise in vegetarian options in China’s cities, as Helen Roxburgh reports
At M on the Bund, a popular restaurant overlooking Shanghai’s historic riverside, well-heeled diners gather to tuck into a monthly Vegan Brunch amid the outlet’s classic Art Deco style.
The event brings together platters of colourful and beautifully presented food, including coconut, avocado, roasted cauliflower, beetroot chips and chia seeds. Executive chef Hamish Waddel says the brunch has been appealing to a more health-conscious crowd, and is in response to an increasing preference for vegetarian dining.
“It’s been a lot of fun to work on something outside the box, trying to show that the idea of veganism isn’t boring,” says Waddel, adding that due to the success of these brunches, the restaurant is planning to add a separate vegan menu to its daily food options.
Downriver is Michelin-starred WUJIE Shanghai The Bund, a sophisticated eatery specialising in vegetarian fusion cuisine. It is the flagship of the popular vegetarian restaurant chain WUJIE, boasting nine restaurants across China and collaborations with international chefs.
“Before people just thought vegetarian food was always going to be like temple food; not very exciting, and only for Buddhists,” says Cheryl Lin, events and marketing manager at WUJIE. “We wanted to show there are no boundaries. After receiving the Michelin star, we’ve seen more diners coming who aren’t necessarily vegetarian but want to see what we’re about and what we do.”
In much of the 20th century meat was a rare luxury in China, but as the country grew wealthier, eating meat became a sign of prosperity. By 2017, China consumed far more meat than anywhere else and around twice as much as the US, eating 74 million tonnes of pork, beef and poultry every year.
However, a growing number of health-conscious Chinese consumers are choosing to reject meat-based diets, and according to state-news channel Xinhua, there are around 50 million people in China who identify as vegetarian. Research firm Euromonitor says pork sales have fallen for the past three years.
As well as a growing number of vegetarian restaurants, operators are adjusting menus to reflect the meat-free trend. Shanghai-based Mexican restaurant Maya recently introduced a green menu, offering vegan dining, including options such as mushroom tacos, lentil and mixed vegetable enchiladas, and calabaza and garbanzo bean taco. Founder Miguel Jonsson says the group introduced the new menu due to customer demands. It ran, initially, as a trial, but the group has already decided to keep the option going.
“We’ve tried lots of new things in our time here at Maya,” he says. “But this is a change that feels good, and I think people really appreciate it.”
Concerns about obesity and heart health have been shaping lifestyle choices, as has better education about healthy eating. A series of food scandals has also unsettled consumers, such as a 2013 report that exposed how pigs that had died of disease were still making their way into the food market, or a 2014 scandal where meat supplier Shanghai Husi Food was shown in a TV report mixing expired meat with fresh produce.
Religion has also played its part in the number of people becoming vegetarian, fuelled by a recent religious revival. The Pew Research Center estimates there are 245 million Buddhists in China, and one study found that China’s vegetarian Buddhists offset about 40 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions each year.
“The numbers of outlets being completely vegan, completely vegetarian or offering vegetarian and vegan options is not only increasing, but is also increasingly widespread with more such outlets appearing in lower-tier cities. Although, of course, tending to be concentrated in the larger, tier-1 cities,” says Matthew Crabbe, regional trends director for Mintel Asia-Pacific.
An increasing concern for animal rights is also key, boosted by rising pet ownership. A campaign against dog meat centred around the controversial Yulin festival, where animal-welfare groups claim 15,000 dogs are slaughtered each year. In response, China’s largest food delivery service Ele.me banned businesses that sell dog meat, deleting 294 vendors and 7,733 meal options from the app.
Last year, Taipei, Shanghai and Hong Kong all landed spots on the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) list of the Top 10 vegan-friendly Asian cities, and the trend shows no sign of reversing as the health-conscious middle class grows.
“Because this is a visible and significant trend, it is also a significant opportunity for food companies to tap into,” says Crabbe. “Even if, as suggested by our own survey data, about 10% of tier 1-3 urban Chinese shift to at least a partial vegetarian or vegan diet, that still offers a lot of meals for companies to sell. Being able to pin an epithet of “health”, “ethics” or “environmental-friendliness” by offering vegetarian or vegan options could be a useful marketing position for food companies in a market where consumers are strongly sensitive to health and safety issues around food.”
It also gives creative food operators the chance to offer diners something new and exciting. “We want to reach out to the 99% who aren’t already vegetarians,” adds Lin. “We want them to come and try our great food and enjoy it, and think about meat-free as an option, and then come again and again.”
Picture: Lentillifera Seaweed at WUJIE Shanghai The Bund