Can Veganism Become Big Business in China?

By Alistair Baker-Brian, September 5, 2022

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Beijing’s Yuan Dadu City Ruins Park is one of the capital’s lesser-known scenic spots. It's the perfect place for a quiet stroll, well away from the bustling crowds of more touristy areas like Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City.

Indeed, it’s these kinds of places where the capital’s recondite elements can be found – including within the culinary scene.

Several eateries are lined along the park's Tucheng Gou river, among which is a Lanzhou Pulled Noodle restaurant (known in Chinese as lanzhou lamian). On a rainy day in August, the restaurant is abuzz with customers during lunch service. Groups of workers in business attire chat as they pick at dishes with their chopsticks, while young families enjoying the Beijing summer sample different delicacies. 

A signature dish of noodles from Lanzhou, the provincial capital of Gansu would normally include thin slices of beef. However, at this establishment, there’s no beef. In fact, there are no meat, egg or dairy products in any of the restaurant’s dishes. That’s because this Lanzhou noodles eatery is vegan.

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Baiyi Lanzhou vegan noodles as seen from Yuan Dadu City Ruins Park. Image via That's/Alistair Baker-Brian

The restaurant serves classic pulled noodles in broth with vegetables and cubes of solidified gluten (mianjin in Chinese). Dishes include everything from vegan shelled shrimp to grilled tofu with sweet chili sauce and more.

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A bowl of vegan Lanzhou noodles. Image via That's/Alistair Baker-Brian

The eatery is owned by the Baiyi (百易) company – a brand which was founded in… you guessed it… Lanzhou.

The chain was started by Mr. He Jun – a restaurant industry professional of 20 years who decided to become a vegetarian in 2010.

After sampling some of the best vegetarian restaurants in Beijing, Shanghai and Suzhou, He put what he learned into practice, and founded Baiyi in 2013.

While restaurant chains like He’s might not be part of the culinary mainstream in China, Baiyi is a reminder that veganism can be successfully marketed in the Middle Kingdom.

In some respects, elements of veganism can be traced back over 1,000 years in Chinese history. In accordance with a strict vegetarian diet, Buddhist monks would eat “mock” meat. Elaine Siu – managing director of the Good Food Institute’s Asia-Pacific Arm (GFI APAC) – explains that mock meat can be traced back to the Tang Dynasty (618-906 AD):

“A variety of mock meat products have long been available because many of the country’s adherents of Buddhism eat a partially or fully vegetarian diet.”

However, Siu concedes that the modern-day mock meat industry still struggles to make its products appealing to China’s meat-eaters.

Cao Jinzhu – known by her English name, Jamie – hails from a rural part of Jiujiang, Jiangxi province. She has been teaching Mandarin to expats in Guangzhou for nine years.

Cao tells That’s that her vegan journey started at university in 2010:

“I met a yogi from India and was introduced to an Indian (Jain style) vegetarian diet. Being Chinese, I don’t eat many dairy products in my diet so becoming vegan wasn’t so difficult.”

Cao goes on to describe how her respect for animal life was also a factor that made her turn to veganism, as were her concerns for the environment.

She also references the history of Buddhism when describing what it’s like to be vegan in China:

“The background of Buddhism plays a role in the country’s vegetarian and vegan culture. People traditionally “吃斋” (chi zhai) on the first and 15th lunar days of each month, even if you are not a vegetarian.”

斋饭 (zhai fan) refers to food given to Buddhist monks as alms – a term synonymous with veganism and vegetarianism, and a key reference point in many Chinese people’s understanding of non-meat eaters. 

In 2019, Cao started selling honey produced by her father in her hometown. What started as a few sales to close friends has now developed into an online business, with Cao even invited to exhibit the honey at the United States Consulate in Guangzhou.

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Ecological honey from Jiangxi province. Image via Cao Jinzhu

With this in mind, we couldn’t resist asking Cao about that age-old debate in the vegan community – whether or not it’s acceptable for vegans to eat honey.

“It depends on the motivation of each individual who chooses to be vegan,” Cao stresses, saying that her eating honey means she sometimes labels herself as vegetarian rather than vegan.

“I saw the whole production process and how my dad takes good care of the bees. In a way, keeping bees growing in natural and healthy ways is important for ecological balance. 

“This might upset some strict vegans, whom I respect. But, I think cultivating some flexibility is much more practical and will open a dialogue to those who want to try a plant-based diet.”

Mock Meat Marketing

In China, the number of vegetarians stands at around 50 million, or around 3.5% of China’s population, as reported by the Shanghai Observer (上海观察); the article acknowledges that the figure includes what they describe as “whole” vegetarians (vegans), and “half” vegetarians, who eat eggs and dairy products.

While 3.5% of the population might not sound like a lot, that hasn’t stopped the growth in recent years of the plant-based meat market in the Middle Kingdom.

Daxue Consulting notes that the global plant-based meat industry was valued at USD16 billion in 2021 and is forecast to grow by 15% by 2025. Despite the United States and some European countries showing faster growth, China currently represents around 53% of the global meat substitutes industry, with a forecasted market value of around RMB9.69 billion (USD1.44 billion) by 2025.

This has been reflected by the growth of domestic brands of plant-based meat, such as Z-Rou, Zhen Meat and others.

The promotion of plant-based meat has also found its way into China’s political sphere. At the annual Two Sessions in 2020, member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) Sun Baoguo voiced his support for plant-based meat as a means of addressing environmental concerns, reports The Guardian.

“The traditional means of meat production comes at the cost of consuming a lot of resources, as well as seriously polluting the environment,” notes Sun.

“With economic development, population expansion and the substantial increase of middle-income people, the global demand for meat is increasing rapidly. The traditional ways of producing meat have become increasingly problematic in the face of escalating need. 

“Humankind urgently needs a new type of efficient, environmentally friendly and sustainable protein production.”

In China’s restaurant scene, veganism is slowly making its mark, particularly in first- and second-tier cities.

Thijs Bosma from the Netherlands moved to Shanghai in 2018. After running a kids’ education company in Chengdu, Bosma set up Duli – a fully plant-based casual bistro in Shanghai’s Xuhui district.

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The entrance to Duli. Image via Thijs Bosma

Bosma likes to believe the restaurant is “a bit more modern and fresher” compared with other vegan eateries in the city.

“It has always been my vision to normalize plant-based food,” Bosma tells That’s.

“So, when people walk into Duli, they are not always aware that it is vegan food. They will just get creative and tasty food without thinking about veganism too much.

“We also serve alcohol and play lounge music. Our fusion dishes do give us a special edge as well. We are also located in one of the best locations in Shanghai.”

When asked who Duli’s main customer base is comprised of, Bosma answers, “Mainly cosmopolitan females between the ages of 25 and 45 years old.” Consumers in China are increasingly aware of the perceived health benefits of a plant-based diet. 

The fusion menu includes dishes like mapo doufu hummus, bringing together Sichuan and middle eastern flavors; gongbao pizza; doubanjiang pasta; tom yum wonton soup and more. 

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Thijs Bosma (right) receiving an award at That's Shanghai Food & Drink Awards 2021. Image via Thijs Bosma

An article on the restaurant’s WeChat Official Account notes the importance of locally sourced Chinese ingredients in the dishes.

One of the vegan brands making its mark on China’s market is that of MissGreen, which includes Carrot&Cleaver – a vegan eatery in Shanghai. 

UK national Jason Bridge first came to China almost 15 years ago and today runs a set of consulting agencies called Shine Group. His wife Vivian Chang from Taiwan founded MissGreen nine years ago in her home city of Taipei. Chang is the “real passion” behind MissGreen, according to Bridge.

For his part, he has been using his marketing experience to get the message out there. 

What started as a community vegan café in Taipei, MissGreen has grown into multiple restaurants in the city. Meanwhile, Carrot&Cleaver operates as a quick-serve restaurant in The Portman Center, Shanghai. The brand is positioned as a mission-based business.

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Carrot&Cleaver in The Portman Center, Shanghai. Image via Jason Bridge

“We wholeheartedly believe that the way we presently produce and consume food is unsustainable and destructive, not only to the planet as a whole, but also ourselves,” Bridge explains.

“We strive to show the benefits and real impact that regularly making good food decisions can have.”

Bridge goes on to note that making vegan food tasty is not only advantageous, but necessary to achieve their mission.

“To have a real impact on the Earth, we need to appeal to a broad range of people, and that will only happen with tasty food that brings real health benefits.”

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Carrot&Cleaver during their weekly FitFam run to The Bund and back. Image via Jason Bridge

Indeed, MissGreen has developed into more than just a restaurant chain. Their WeChat Official Account – along with other social media platforms like Xiao Hong Shu and Douyin – include healthy meal plans, tips and tricks which attract a community of vegans, as well as people who want to be healthy and conscientious.

It’s not just restauranteurs who are making the most of China’s vegan market.

Australian national Robert Fry has lived in China for around six years. After having worked in Shenzhen and Dandong, he now teaches literature in Beijing.

He founded his brand of niche vegan products under the name Grateful Veg – something Fry says combines two of his favorite things: The Grateful Dead (the American rock band) and veganism.

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The Grateful Veg logo. Image via Robert Fry

“To be honest, I just saw a gap in the market,” Fry tells That’s.

“I was aware of the vegan markets (organized by Vegans of Beijing). I would usually try to go to them. But, I found some things were lacking – some things in Australia that we would consider essential vegan items, like hummus.”

Fry introduces us to some of the main items. Hummus and pesto are some of the more popular savory goods. Meanwhile, the pun names of the various hot sauces are something one doesn’t easily forget – Bei-Zing (a Beijing-style hot sauce), Rectal Wreckage (no explanation required) and so on.

Similar to Duli’s customer base, Fry stresses that it’s mainly young people interested in his products.

“Among the people who buy products – whether they’re Chinese or expats – there aren’t a lot of old people who are interested,” says Fry.

“It’s usually young people and people in their 30s and 40s.” 

Fry adds that, at first, his customers were mainly expats. Later on, it balanced out to about 50% local Chinese people and 50% foreign nationals.

Going Mainstream?

China’s march towards veganism still has a number of obstacles to overcome.

Reuters reports that pork consumption in China was around double that of all European Union countries in 2020. China is the world’s leading producer of pork, with around 36 million metric tons produced in 2020. Moreover, imports of pork also remain high to keep up with domestic demand.

Statista notes that China has become the second largest meat market in the world in terms of revenue, second only to the United States, though the Middle Kingdom ranks significantly lower in terms of per capita meat consumption.

In terms of selling veganism to China’s population, Bosma notes something of a “stigma.”

“People believe vegan food will not taste good, and that vegan food is not nutritious enough,” he says.

This is reflected in the number of searches on Baidu, with internet users questioning the health implications of a vegan diet.

Bosma acknowledges that such stigma can negatively affect the availability of vegan products in China:

“It can be hard at times to get a pure vegan dish at a local restaurant. And the vegan products in supermarkets are more limited than in western countries.”

Moreover, regulation regarding the labeling of vegan products is still in its infancy in China – something Fry has experienced first-hand.

“A lot of times, a product will be marketed as vegan or plant-based, and it’s not,” Fry stresses. “That can be frustrating, especially when you can’t read the ingredients in Chinese, but you see the word vegan.”

Fry tells That’s of his initial excitement in finding a vegan version of a roujiamo (肉夹馍) – a meat-stuffed sandwich snack from Shaanxi province, sometimes referred to as a Chinese hamburger – only to be warned by a fellow member of the Vegans of Beijing WeChat group that the item contained lard.

China Briefing notes that “China does not have any mandatory requirements for the certification or labeling of vegetarian, vegan and plant-based foods or cruelty-free products.”

However, that’s not to say that the industry isn’t making progress. That’s because “industry associations have developed several voluntary standards for the certification and labeling of meat-free foods, which can be used as a reference for certification, labeling and marketing.”

The growth of the plant-based meat industry is certainly encouraging – so too, is the acknowledgment of the environmental benefits of plant-based meat by the country’s political mainstream.

Restaurants like Duli – as well as smaller brands like Grateful Veg – prove that veganism can be marketable, at least in cities like Shanghai and Beijing.

“There are now so many great options [for vegans],” non-vegan Bridge tells us (his wife is vegan). “Oatly in your coffee, Duli, and, of course, Carrot&Cleaver for your lunch. Many restaurants now have vegan options or can make vegan versions of dishes.”

However, the lacking availability of pure vegan products may put many Chinese consumers off a purely vegan diet, if only due to inconvenience.

If veganism is to grow, we could expect to see tighter regulations regarding the labeling of products, beyond the current voluntary guidelines laid down by industry associations.

Those looking to get into the vegan market in China might want to take a leaf out of Baiyi’s book. Perhaps the best way to introduce Chinese consumers to a vegan diet is through dishes that many ordinary Chinese people can relate to, in this case, a bowl of hand-pulled noodles.


[Cover image via Pixabay]

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