10 Chinese Snacks That Vegetarians Will Love

10 Chinese Snacks That Vegetarians Will Love

“Have you tried this food before? You have to try it!” I heard some variation of these words so many times during the five years I spent living in China. Having lived in China as both a college student and as a teacher, I had classmates, bosses, friends, and students who were eager to teach me more about their culture—and extremely excited about introducing me to new Chinese snacks.

As a vegetarian, this was a bit more challenging for me. I felt bad rejecting the snacks that my friends wanted to share with me, but I was also cautious about what I ate and worried that I would accidentally consume meat. 

Luckily, with the help of my friends—some of whom could be described as foodies—I still had the opportunity to experience Chinese snacks and street food.

Three Cities and Ten Delicious Chinese Snacks 

I also had the privilege of living in three different cities: Beijing, Shanghai, and Chengdu, and I traveled to many other areas. However, it’s also worth noting that China is obviously a large country, and is home to at least 55 ethnic minority groups. 

My experience with Chinese street food has several limitations: I am a vegetarian (so I couldn’t try everything), I ate a lot more street food in Chengdu compared to when I was living in Shanghai, and I spent the majority of my time in the regions that I lived in. There are truly too many incredible snacks to try—which is not the worst problem to have. Here are my top 10 favorites.

the cityscape of shanghai

1. Langya Potatoes

It’s possible that living in Chengdu transformed my tastebuds. I didn’t grow up eating spicy food and didn’t really crave it. But Chengdu is a foodie’s paradise—and Sichuan province is famous for its bold, spicy flavors. When I first tried Sichuan hot pot, which is(debatably)not a snack, I fell in love. 

Langya potatoes are a common street food found in Sichuan province. I studied in Chengdu for six months and on many occasions when I went for walks with friends, they encouraged me to buy these potatoes. When I returned to Chengdu after relocating to Shanghai, one of my friends felt devastated because we couldn’t enjoy those spicy crinkle-cut potatoes together again. It turned out that the stall we used to visit had sold out. She told me that one day I would return to Chengdu, and she would be sure to eat langya potatoes with me—a true tradition.

A Tray of Langya Potatoes

2. Tian Shui Mian

Are noodles a snack? Yes, definitely. I’ve come to appreciate that noodles can be a snack, breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Tian shui mian, or sweet water noodles, are another popular street food in Chengdu. The “sweet water” is a sweetened soy sauce, and the sweet and spicy sauce that covers the thick noodles seemed a bit different from anything else I’ve had. However, I find the sweetness to be subtle, and the combination works. Tian shui mian can also be ordered at many casual restaurants in Chengdu.

a bowl of Tian shui mian

3. Mung Bean Cakes

Mung bean cakes are my favorite. I can’t be the only one who loves mung bean (right?), because a friend and I waited in long lines in less-than-desirable weather to snag fresh mung bean snacks. To make mung bean cakes, people use mung bean paste, resulting in a light sweetness and a very smooth texture. They’re also small, similar in appearance to a mooncake because of their size and shape. Though I would gladly eat mung bean cakes during any time of year, they’re popular during the summer as mung beans have cooling properties according to traditional Chinese medicine. 

I loved visiting tea houses and getting these cakes to go with my tea, but I have purchased them basically everywhere: bakeries, vegetarian restaurants, street vendors, etc. There are different varieties of mung bean cakes—for example, some might have red bean paste in the center, while some don’t have filling—but I personally love that this sweet treat is not too sweet. These are my go-to if I’m looking for something that is just a bit sweet without being rich. 

A Plate of Mung Bean Cakes in Shanghai

4. Put Chai Ko

Chinese food is diverse and varies by region. Guangdong province (and Cantonese cuisine) has a long history and is well-known for its dim sum. The time I spent in Guangzhou (the capital of Guangdong) was fairly limited, and I’ve never been to Hong Kong. Luckily, one of my friends made sure I tried plenty of Chinese snacks while in the area. 

This particular snack, put chai ko, is popular in Hong Kong. The “cake” is made using rice flour. They’re chewy and jiggly, and red beans were added to the one I had. (Personally, I am a red bean advocate—not everyone shares this opinion.) I tried put chai ko from a street vendor when walking around in Guangzhou. 

A Plate of Put Chai Ko

5. Jianbing

I’m not ashamed to admit that jianbing was a staple for me when I lived in Chengdu on a student budget. (I think I liked it so much that I always ate it before thinking of taking a photo, because I only have one photo of jianbing and it’s in a bag). Jianbing, a popular Chinese street food, resembles a type of pancake or crepe and people commonly eat it for breakfast.

In my experience, jianbing vendors populate many neighborhoods across China, offering different regional variations of the dish. For reference, I lived in six different apartments in China, and I could walk to a jianbing vendor within five minutes from each one. Around the time that I left Shanghai, some vendors even started selling vegan jianbing using a plant-based egg alternative.

Jian-Bing-from-a-street-vendor-in-Nanjing-China

6. Zongzi 

Zongzi, or sticky rice dumplings, are a Dragon Boat Festival tradition. When I was teaching in China, many of my students told me that they would celebrate the Dragon Boat Festival by eating zongzi despite not liking zongzi. People eat zongzi to commemorate Qu Yuan, a patriotic poet who drowned in a river. To stop fish from eating his body, people threw zongzi into the river.

Personally, I believe zongzi are one of the most underrated Chinese snacks, which is why I’ve included them. Zongzi are made with sticky rice and are wrapped in bamboo leaves. They can be made with sweet fillings like red bean or savory fillings like pork. As a vegetarian, I had only ever tried red bean zongzi and was not a huge fan, but I tried a vegan version of the savory dumplings during my last year in China, and I personally love the sticky rice and savory “meat” combination.

A Bowl of Zongzi

7. Xiaolongbao

I lived in Shanghai for four years before I tried xiaolongbao, one of the foods that Shanghai is most famous for, because I didn’t know where to find vegetarian options. Xiaolongbao are similar to steamed dumplings but are filled with soup. 

You can find xiaolongbao with meat or vegetable fillings, but the soup is usually not a vegetarian-friendly snack. I tried xiaolongbao for the first time at a vegetarian restaurant in Nanjing (sorry, Shanghai). Many of the vegetarian versions of xiaolongbao that I personally found in China were mushroom-based. You’re most likely to find great xiaolongbao at a casual restaurant in or near Shanghai.

A Serving of Xiaolongbao

8. Tangyuan

Tangyuan (also called yuanxiao in northern regions) are historical Chinese snacks that have been enjoyed for more than 2,000 years. They’re associated with several different Chinese festivals, including Spring Festival/Lunar New Year and the Lantern Festival. Tangyuan represent reunion or unity, and are commonly enjoyed for Dongzhi Festival (winter solstice) as well. People commonly serve this dessert snack, consisting of glutinous rice balls filled with red bean, sesame, and peanut or another filling, in a warm sweet soup.

(Note for vegetarians: Some tangyuan recipes use lard.)

Plates of Tangyuan Being Prepared

9. Yang Rou Chuan

Yang rou chuan means lamb kabob, so I’ve only had a vegan version. People enjoy eating lamb skewers in different regions, especially northern China. The popular variation comes from Xinjiang. You’ll typically find yang rou chuan seasoned with chili and cumin. It’s common for street vendors to sell lamb skewers (and other skewers) at night, either at night markets or just on the street. 

Yang Rou Chuan at the Table

10. Liangmian

There are so many different types of noodle dishes in China, so it’s hard to pick a favorite. One of my favorites, though, is liangmian (cold noodles). You’ll typically find these noodles sold by street vendors or at small restaurants. Portion sizes are usually small, so this dish functions as a delightful vegetarian snack, especially on a hot day. 

There are different variations of liangmian; for example, the Sichuan variation is spicier due to the use of chili oil and Sichuan peppercorn. In Shanghai, I ate a variation of liangmian made with sesame sauce, cucumbers, and meat (in my case, a plant-based substitute).  

A Plate of Liang Mian

Conclusion…There are Tons of Delicious Chinese Snacks for Vegetarians

Every region of China has something different to offer. Even after spending close to five years studying and teaching there, I didn’t run out of delicious Chinese snacks to try—even as a vegetarian. I admit that experiencing China’s popular snack culture is harder with dietary restrictions, but it’s certainly not impossible. There are so many spicy, savory, and sweet treats that didn’t make it on this list (mooncakes have my heart), making China a foodie’s paradise. 

 Are you considering studying abroad in China? Check out Paunise Pierre Talks Studying in China next to get an insider’s take!

18 thoughts on “10 Chinese Snacks That Vegetarians Will Love

  1. I’m getting hungry just looking at these! They all look amazing, but I would definitely go for the dumplings first.

  2. How wonderful! Sadly, I have never been to China, but my mouth is watering reading your post. Not surprisingly, I wasn’t familiar with the majority of the snacks that you presented. However, I have heard the story about the poet who drowned in the river. I remember hearing that people through some food in the river to distract the fish. Cool, zongzi! The Xiaolongbao sound very similar to soup dumplings that I’ve had in the US and the same with Liangmian, both delicious. I would certainly love to try all of your suggestions!

  3. I can see some options here that I haven’t tried but also some of my favorites like the dumpling haha. I will save this list. Thank you for sharing!

  4. I love trying new dishes and snacks – those potatoes look so fantastic! Thank you for sharing.

  5. These Chinese snacks all sound amazing, my cousin went to China for a year as a break when at Uni. I will ask if he has tried these

  6. This is the post I have been waiting for. I love vegetarian dishes and they’re not always so easy to find and when you do people almost always say, ‘is that it? you don’t want meat in it?’ lol Almost EVERY single time.

  7. I can’t wait to try these out with the kids, especially the Jianbing – it sounds delicious!

  8. These sound like a lovely range of vegetarian snacks for all to enjoy. I really do love the sound of the zongzi. They sound like a fun sweet/savoury snack to try.

  9. omg I wanna try all of these…I am literally drooling. I love chinese food especially chinese street food. soooo good!!!

  10. I am a vegetarian so its great to know that there are so many Chinese vegetarians snacks available. Some of these sound very interesting.

  11. My daughter is a vegetarian, so she would appreciate a list like this! In fact, I think she has made some of these items in our kitchen at home.

  12. The mung bean cakes look like they would be my favorite. I appreciate this list of vegetarian chinese snacks because my husband is vegetarian, and it’s so hard for us to know where to go or what to order when traveling! Thanks!

  13. This post is for me I guess. I am a vegetarian and I find it so difficult most of the times to find vegetarian food. This post is so helpful.

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