Vegetarian food in China

the Chinese market for alternative meat is already the largest in the world, with sales nearing USD 910 mln in 2018 compared with USD 684 mln in the U.S.

Buddhism is closely associated with vegetarian eating. Some records of monks eating beancurd-based “vegetarian meat” date back as early as the Song Dynasty in the 10th century. It was known as fanghuncai or literally “imitation meat dish.”

However, although Buddhism has been an influential religion in China for centuries, vegetarian restaurant or food products are not that abundantly and overtly available. During the celebration of the 1st anniversary of the China Vegetarian Cooking Association on June 6, 2018,, it was revealed that there were about 4000 vegetarian restaurants in China. This is still relatively low, as the total number of restaurants is estimated to be 5 mln.

A fellow student of mine who has been a vegetarian all his life once returned from a visit to China even skinnier than he already was. He claimed that he regularly had problems in China to find genuinely vegetarian dishes in restaurants as Chinese often use small quantities of meat, in particular pork, to flavour food.

Another reason could be that vegetables have always played a bigger role in Chinese cuisine than in meat-based European cuisines. But Chinese also believe in a well-balanced meal, so a few vegetable-based dishes need to be complemented with some meat or seafood. Leaving out animal protein altogether does not result in a balanced meal. As a result, most Chinese perceive their cuisine as ‘mainly’ vegetarian. According to an estimate of Xinhua News Agency, there are are now around 50 million vegetarians – about 3.5% of the population. Tang Li, founder and head of the Chinese Vegetarian Association, predicts that in the future, China will become the number one vegetarian country. The association, a non-profit organization that promotes the benefits of a vegetarian diet, was established in 2007, and is made up of ordinary vegetarians, entrepreneurs, activists, and nutritionists.

Xiao Changjiang, head of the Cardiovascular Department at the Hunan Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine Affiliated Hospital, believes that a vegetarian diet is more suited to the Han Chinese than a carnivorous one. “As a farming people, the Chinese had adopted a plant-based diet since ancient times,” Xiao says. “We are less tolerant to meat than nomadic people. Since the 1980s, the massive supply of meat has resulted in people eating much more of it.” In April 2017, Xiao promoted a “one vegetarian meal per week” plan by providing free vegetarian dishes to both patients and hospital staff. “It’s an experience-based activity,” Xiao explains. “We invite the patients to try the meal and then explain the benefits to them. This will make it easier for them to accept.” The scheme has so far served more than 7,000 people, and the feedback has been “pretty good”.

November 25 marks the World Vegetarian Day, which is an excellent excuse to have a look at history of vegetarianism in China.

Not all about Buddhism

Most Chinese people would be familiar with an ancient quotation from their high school textbook: “people who eat meat are shallow minded.” The quote is from the ancient book of Zuo Zhuan, the earliest annals in China. “People who eat meat” refers to the privileged that belong to high class, for only noble people were recorded to have access to eat meat in ancient China for a certain period of time.

According to Book of Rites (Li Ji), a historical record written during the Zhou Dynasty (c.11th century-256 BC), the kind of meat people ate was closely related to their social status. Only emperors could eat beef every day. Hereditary rulers and noblemen often had mutton and could enjoy some beef on the first day of each month of the Chinese lunar calendar. Most of the time, the common people only had meat-free meals. However, the book also recorded that the nobles needed to stay away from meat when they were on a fast. When somebody died in the family, they went without meat during mourning.

When Buddhism first entered China later in the Han Dynasty (202 BC-220 AD), there were no strict rules about monks’ eating habit. However, emperor Xiao Yan from the Southern Dynasty (420-589) changed everything. He strongly promoted vegetarianism in Buddhist temples by issuing an order to force monks to adopt a vegetarian lifestyle, and abstain from alcohol.

Some temples also became well-known for their delicate vegetarian food. In Qing Bai Lei Chao, a book from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), four such famous temples were mentioned: Fa Yuan Temple in Beijing, Ding Hui Temple in Zhenjiang, Bai Yun Temple in Shanghai, and Yan Xia Dong in Hangzhou.

Vegetarian dishes

The Qi Min Yao Shu written in the Southern and Northern Dynasties (420-581), widely recognised as one of the earliest agricultural books in China, recorded 11 vegetarian recipes. The vegetables mentioned in the book included spring onion, leek, wax gourd, mushroom and eggplant. Later vegetarianism became relatively popular in the Tang and Song dynasties (618-1279). According Meng Liang Lu, a book from the Song Dynasty, there were even shops that specialized in vegetarian cakes. The book recorded about 25 kinds of meat-free cakes made from dates and chestnuts.

Vegetarian food not only enjoyed more categories, but also more lovely names since the Song Dynasty. There was a kind of cake, named “cakes make cats drunk”, recorded in a book Qing Yi Lu from the Song Dynasty. The cake was made from peppermint and dill, two plants with a strong odour.

Lifestyle food – meat from plants

Vegetarian food gradually became a more delicate choice for ancient Chinese. Li Yu, an aesthetician who was also good at literature, from the Qing Dynasty, praised the vegetarian food as the most valuable delicacy. “In my opinion, beef, mutton and fish are not as good as meat of wild animals. However, the taste of the latter ones cannot compete with vegetables,” Li said in his Xian Qing Ou Ji, a book about his opinions on drama, dance, costume, makeup, architecture and food. Having said that, a typical feature of Chinese vegetarian cuisine is that it aims to perfectly imitate meat. Vegetarian duck looks like duck, tastes like duck and has a texture like duck. The picture shows an example with beancurd sheet (doupi) to imitate the skin.

Chinese people had less eye for vegetarian food during hard years of the republican era and the early decades of the People’s Republic of China, the increase of the living standard of ordinary people increased so much, that they were too happy with the new access to meat, that vegetarian was part of another universe. It was during the post 80s, 90s and even 00s, Chinese consumer interest shifted for subsistence to personal health and body care.

On Douban, a popular Chinese social media platform, there are more than 50 groups on vegetarianism. Users discuss the vegetarian lifestyle or share vegetarian recipes in such groups. Many vegetarians also write blogs to share their daily meals with readers, among which, some even publish their own recipes.

Benniao and Tudouni, two vegetarians based in Beijing and Chengdu, came to know each other on the internet through sharing vegetarian recipes. They set up a blog, Creative Kitchen of Two Vegetarians, on Sina Blog in 2006. Since then, they have been posting their recipes for vegetarians. In 2008, their first cook book Creative Kitchen of Two Vegetarians was published. The book provides about 200 vegetarian recipes according to the vegetables sold in four seasons. Its sequel about another 180 vegetarian dishes came out in 2010. Xiao Bai, a post-1980s vegetarian cook, attracts 30,000 followers on Douban and around 40,000 followers on Sina Weibo. From 2011, she began sharing on Douban the photos of the meat-free dishes she made. The food was aesthetically featured in the pictures, which soon attracted a lot of attention. One year later, her first cook book, Record of Vegetarian Xiao Bai, was published.

Industrially manufactured vegetarian dishes have also become a lucrative market. This picture shows industrially produced vegetarian duck bites.

Ingredients: soy beans, salt, cooking wine, chili

Vegetarian restaurants can now be found in all Chinese major cities.

Beijing-based Zhenmeat Food has launched plant-based lobster and plant-based fried meat in June 2020. The company was set up by US-trained entrepreneur Vince Lu Zhongming. The brand name, which is a play on the Chinese characters for “precious” and “meat”, reflects the company’s mission to create a precious plant-based alternative that tastes just like meat. Zhenmeat plant-based products include sausages, steak, faux meat mooncakes and meatballs. The vegan-friendly products are made out of a mixture of plant proteins, including pea, soy, brown rice, and protein sourced from mushrooms. This picture shows mooncakes filled with Zhenmeat’s plant-based meat.

Vegetarian food has become so popular that even a Chinese meat processor like Jinzi Ham (aka King’s Ham) has launched artificial meat products like these vegetarian beef patties.

China’s three top manufacturers of plant based meat generated a combined turnover of RMB 390 mln in 2018.

China’s top instant noodle maker Chef Kong has launched a Buddhism-inspired type of vegetarian instant noodle in 2020, branded as Ai Chi Su, ‘Love Eating Vegetarian’.

Still, it is a little too early to talk about a solid trend. A recent Chinese survey shows that September 2019 saw a high in discussions about artificial meat in the Chinese online social media (app. 40,000 items) . The line then showed a downward slope to appr. 10,000 in December; staying on that level during the first months of 2020.

Plant-based ‘meat’ mooncakes and chicken burgers

Mooncakes stuffed with artificial meat will hit the market in China for the first time in September 2019. The product has been developed by a lab team from the Beijing Technology and Business University and vegan meat brand Starfield. The first batch will be put on sale in Starfield outlets in Shenzhen, South China’s Guangdong province.

Starfield’s plant-based chicken burgers are now available at most of  domestic fast food chain Dicos’ 2600 outlets.

Foreign fast food following suit

KFC launched its vegetable protein based Golden Nuggets in China in March 2020.

Exciting option

Vegetarian food is also regarded as an exciting option by part of the more well-educated and high-income Chinese city-dwellers. They are embracing plant-based and clean meat as a healthier, more nutritious, and exciting option. In fact, they prefer plant-based and clean meat more than the Americans. According to a study published in Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems, more Chinese were ‘very or extremely likely’ to buy clean meat when compared to the Americans and Indians. The number of Chinese who were “very or extremely likely” to purchase clean meat was twice as much as the Americans at 59.3% versus 29.8% and 10% more than the Indians. When it came to plant-based food, all three groups expressed a higher rate of acceptance. Yet, the number of Chinese who were ‘very or extremely likely’ to spend on the product was again nearly twice as much as the Americans at 62.4% versus 32.9%, while that of Indians were slightly higher at 62.8%.

Another sign that vegetarian food is making its way in China is the start of vegetarian cooking courses. This picture is an ad for such a course launched in April 2019 in Shanghai. The small print words in red say ‘nutritious and healthy’.

Vegetarian as charity

The best-known restaurant among Chinese vegetarians is the non-profit Yuhuazhai, a loose federation of charities established (according to business legend) in 2011 in Jiande, Zhejiang province, by an elderly restaurateur who invested his life savings to help save animal lives. Volunteers soon followed and opened their own Yuhuazhai restaurants; by 2017, there were nearly 700 kitchens called Yuhuazhai nationwide. With the help of social workers and volunteers, Yuhuazhai has given out over 580 mln free meals without any coordination, economic interest, or real affiliation among all the branches – not even a registered trademark. According to Southern Weekly, the earliest founders of Yuhuazhai discussed the latter issue but decided that it was unlikely that a corporate interest would risk sullying their own image by stealing a charitable icon.

Certification and other rules

With the increase of production and consumption of plant-based meat products, China has promulgated various rules and regulations regarding labelling and certifying these products. In 2021, the Chinese Institute of Food Science and Technology (CIFTS), a government-affiliated industry body under the CAST, released China’s first-ever voluntary standards for labeling and verifying plant-based foods, the General Principles for Plant-Based Food (the “General Principles”). In May 2022, the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation (CBCGDF), a non-governmental organization affiliated with the China Association for Science and Technology (CAST), released the China Vegan Food Standards, the first set of voluntary standards for vegan foods to be published in China. You can read more about this aspect of the business on this site.

Peter Peverelli is active in and with China since 1975 and regularly travels to the remotest corners of that vast nation.


Discovering the Holiland . . . in China

In our Western view of the world, cream cakes are very much a part of our culture, as the ideal accompaniment of a cup of coffee. The powerful synergy of caffeine and sugar gives a bitter sweet boost to body and mind.

Traditional Chinese pastry is different. Chinese have a sweet tooth as well, but cream is dairy and hence non-Chinese. Dairy products have found their way to China, witness a number of earlier posts in this blog, but it took a while before Chinese bakers starting producing cream cakes that can compare with the ones in a Konditorei in Vienna.

The largest Western style pastry chain in China has an ominous name: Holiland. The story of its foundation is unique as well.


When the founder Luo Hong couldn’t find a decent cake for his mother’s birthday he made a rather extravagant gesture. The then 23-year-old bought a bakery to ensure the problem would never happen again.

That was 18 years ago. Now, at the age of 41, Luo is president of one of the largest bakery chains in China, and controls more than 1,000 cake shops in 70 cities including Beijing, Shanghai, Shenyang and Chengdu. They specialise in cakes, breads and other pastries and control 85.7% of the market.

This year the company is moving some stores from their original homes in the suburbs to downtown areas where the footfall is high enough to bring in even more customers.

Unlike other Chinese entrepreneurs whose names are often connected with their business, Luo is better known as a photographer, environmental campaigner and social activist.

He has spent most of his time during the last decade taking pictures and participating in charity events around the world, including the establishment of an environment protection fund for the UN Environmental Program.

Cake inspired by a photo
It’s Luo’s belief that if a company doesn’t have different brands to meet different customers’ demands, it cannot be successful.

A picture of a white swan taken in Cambridge is the inspiration for a new cake he intends to market later this year as part of his diversification into premium cake making.

Following on the success of the black swan series, white swan cakes will feature top-class decorations and accessories. The price will be between RMB 400 and 10,000, putting it into a class of its own. A cake weighing 1.5 is priced at RMB 469. At 21 cake, one of the most popular online cake shops, a cake weighing the same costs RMB 169 yuan.


The wedding cake in the swan series will set customers back RMB 10,000. Fittingly, as part of the service, it will be delivered to the wedding ceremony by Rolls Royce free of charge.

“Cakes and photography are two parallel interests in my life. Sometimes they cross paths. The launch of swan cakes is a combination of my business and personal interests,” Luo said.

To make white swan cakes as exquisite as possible, Luo asked the developers to capture minute details from the queen of birds.

Luo is confident about the cake’s sale prospects and expects they will account for 50% of Holiland’s total annual revenues.

Photos as marketing tool
Luo says photography brings him happiness, inspiration for design and also a low-cost marketing strategy. Some of his photos adorn subway walls after the Beijing municipal government decided this year to improve the city’s culture environment.

“It’s good for our business,” Luo said. “People who talk about the swan pictures will also be curious about my swan cakes.”

Luo knows that in baking it is wise to follow produce what customers like best. One of his products featured a bear decoration but he got rid of it because some of his friends in the finance industry said it brought back unhappy memories of the bear market during the financial crisis last year.

As one of the largest cake shop chains, Holiland also faces the problem of “brain drain”. The high turnover of skilled employees means that Holiland is always in danger of losing key intellectual capital in its core competency areas. The company needs to develop knowledge management strategies to capture, share, and preserve knowledge and integrate knowledge management into its strategic plans, said Luo.

This year, the entrepreneur paid RMB 5 million to American leadership expert, John C. Maxwell, to give a speech about leadership to all employees at Holiland on July 28 and 29 to improve the management skills of his employees.

Online business
Today’s hurried urban life and the convenience of the Internet are luring more customers to online businesses, including bakeries, in China.

Luo and his team have joined the trend. All swan cakes are only accessible to online shoppers. The savings will be used to improve the product. It will come with a steel knife and fork rather than less environmentally-friendly plastic used previously.

Other bakery shops have also found that doing business online is less time-consuming and more economical. E-beecake, 21 cake and Waffleboy are among those becoming more popular with young people.


Other traditional chains are also challenging Holiland’s market position. Beijing-based Weiduomei is diversifying its business by opening three cafes and two Western-style restaurants. Baoshifu (Chef Bao), a popular pastry chain established by a man named Bao originating from Jiangxi, has made name for its shred meat buns, but also carries a broad range of pastries and breads. Bread Talk is focusing on gaining a foothold in high-end shopping malls and office buildings, reinforcing its niche image. Luo says: “Competition is good for the development of the cake market, which still has great potential.”

Holiland is also expanding its portfolio of delicacies to include mooncakes and sweet dumplings. This autumn, the company will introduce a greater variety of mooncakes to attract more high-end customers. Holiland sold as much as RMB 200 million of mooncakes every year in China. According to Xie Li, general manager of Holiland, regular cakes, mooncakes and sweet dumpling are Holiland’s best sellers, accounting for 60, 20 and 10% of the company’s revenues respectively.

Innovation – localisation

Holiland tries to link up with current trends. A great example is the marketing of its ‘drinkable cakes’ launched late 2020. These chestnut and cheese cake flavoured beverages are based on Western flavours, but the marketing is done in traditional Chinese style.

Another way Holiland links up with the Chinese tradition is launching a series of soy milk based cheese cakes late 2020. These are more acceptable to the many Chinese consumers that still have a problem with the creamy flavour of milk.

Brand name with a double meaning (?)

Readers with knowledge of Chinese may notice that this brand name has a double meaning. The Chinese name Haolilai literally means ‘good profit coming’, but the pronuciation resembles haolaiwu ‘Hollywood’. The English name Holiland is obviously inspired by Holy Land. The allusion to the world’s movie capital will attract Chinese consumers’ attention, while Westerners will want to check out a chain linked to the Holy Land. Luo Hong has never explained his choice of brand names, but I am sure the above is more than a conjecture.

Peter Peverelli is active in and with China since 1975 and regularly travels to the remotest corners of that vast nation.