China is not short of variety when it comes to cuisine. Talking about specialties from one’s hometown can even be a conversation-starter with a stranger.
However, finding vegan versions of such specialties in China is not always so easy.
Restaurants serving Lanzhou pulled noodles – known as lanzhou lamian (兰州拉面) in Chinese – can be found across the Middle Kingdom. The capital city of Gansu province is famous for its signature bowl of pulled noodles served in broth, with vegetables and thin slices of beef.
The restaurants offer diners an affordable option, the portion sizes of which won’t leave many people with an empty stomach.
Beside the Tucheng Gou river in between Beijing’s third and fourth ring roads lies Yuan Dadu City Ruins Park. Along the river sit a variety of different restaurants – a Lanzhou pulled noodles eatery amongst them.
Baiyi Vegan Lanzhou Pulled Noodles as seen from Yuan Dadu City Ruins Park, Beijing
However, this one is a little different to what you might expect. There are no beef noodle dishes at this restaurant; in fact, there are no dishes with meat, eggs or dairy because the restaurant is vegan.
We paid them a visit and sampled some of the dishes. The menu includes a variety of vegan pulled noodles, including classic Lanzhou noodles (solidified gluten (mianjin (面筋) replaces the beef), Sichuan-style spicy noodles, as well Beijing zhajiangmian and more.
Vegan Lanzhou pulled noodles with solidified gluten
Dishes suitable for sharing include a variety of plant-based meats garnished with vegetables, vegan shelled shrimp, fried mushrooms flavored with cumin, grilled tofu in sweet chilli sauce and more.
Sautéed plant-based meat with vegetables
Grilled tofu with sweet chilli sauce
The eatery is owned by the Baiyi (百易) company – a brand which was founded in… you guessed it… Lanzhou.
According to a post on the company’s WeChat Official Account, the company adheres to a philosophy of “eating vegetarian for a healthy lifestyle and an eco-friendly way of living.”
Founder Mr. He Jun had worked in the restaurant industry for 20 years when in 2010, he decided to become a vegetarian.
After having sampled dishes in some of China’s most renowned vegetarian restaurants in Beijing, Shanghai and Suzhou, He took what he had learned, and started Baiyi in 2013.
The chain started out with renwen sushi guan (人文素食馆) – Humanity Vegetarian Restaurant – in Lanzhou in the same year.
A year later, He opened a vegan pulled noodles restaurant and a vegan hotpot restaurant, both of which were also located in Lanzhou.
All ingredients are free of meat, eggs and dairy.
In some respects, elements of veganism have long existed in Chinese culture. As far back as around 1,000 years ago in the Middle Kingdom, Buddhist monks – in accordance with a strict vegetarian diet – ate plant-based or “mock” meat.
Today, while veganism might not be part of the “mainstream” in China, the market for vegan products is growing.
According to Daxue Consulting, China represents around 53% of the global meat substitutes market, with a forecasted market size of USD1.44 billion (RMB9.69 billion) by 2025.
Domestic brands such as Z-Rou, Zhen Rou and others are taking advantage of the slow shift towards veganism.
Moreover, plant-based meat has even found its way into the political mainstream. At the annual Two Sessions in 2020, member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) Sun Baoguo called for more investment in and promotion of artificial meat, as reported by The Guardian.
Baiyi has already got the vegan ball rolling with its version of Lanzhou pulled noodles. What other vegan versions of iconic Chinese dishes are out there?
Or, perhaps we should ask, which iconic Chinese dishes should have a vegan alternative?
Baiyi Vegan Lanzhou Pulled Noodles (百易兰州素拉面), No. 44, Beitucheng Dong Lu, Yuan Dadu City Ruins Park, Beijing (enter via entrance on Beitucheng Dong Lu; look for the sign which reads 兰州素拉面).
[All images via That's/Alistair Baker-Brian]