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The best vegetarian restaurant in Shanghai

BEST OF SHANGHAI: ‘One man’s opinion’

My girlfriend is a vegetarian. Actually, no she’s not. Well … kind of. Really, she’s a pescetarian, but no one knows what the hell that means. So, she usually just tells people that she’s a vegetarian who eats fish — a label that likely infuriates hardcore vegetarians. But at least it’s not as bad as those “I am a vegetarian … but I eat chicken” posers. (I actually know a girl who is a “vegetarian” … but eats barbecued lamb skewers. That amuses me.)

My girlfriend, by the way, is now very close to dropping her pesce- prefix altogether. Why? Because a fish recently attacked her … in our kitchen. Earlier on the day in question, I had heard some strange noises coming from that part of the apartment. A crashing. A rattling. I couldn’t place the sound. I checked it out, saw nothing out of the ordinary, and assumed the sound came from some sort of construction project in my building — people are always drilling, hammering, scraping, sawing, etc., in this place (this place meaning China) … and sound travels all too well in uninsulated apartment buildings … especially when I am trying to sleep. So, I thought nothing of the noise — until my girlfriend screamed.

She had made the mistake of opening the refrigerator door. That’s when a fish that should have been dead jumped out, bounced off her chest and went splat on the tile floor. It was still panting there, like a heaving single lung, when I arrived at the scene. Here’s the kicker: This fish had been gutted by our maid at least 90 minutes before the attack. Gutted! I am not making this up. This fish did not go quietly into that good night — instead he went all Johnny Depp on the inside of our refrigerator. Remember the noises I heard coming from the kitchen? It was a mess.

Since the incident, since witnessing that fish struggle so mightily for its life, my girlfriend the pescetarian has refused to eat fish. Well, she has refused to eat fish that looks like a fish. She’ll still eat tuna out of a can. Pescetarians are nothing if not contradictory. I told our maid — who, like most Chinese maids, is of the leave-the-head-and-tail-on school of fish cooking — to stop preparing fish until further notice. And because I don’t have the Chinese language skills to explain the strange series of events that led to our fish boycott, she was confused and likely a little hurt. She probably thought we didn’t like the way she had been cooking our fish. Little did she know we just didn’t like the way she had been killing them.

It had taken our maid a long while to understand my girlfriend’s eating habits in the first place. I don’t know how to say “pescetarian” in Mandarin. And the concept of any form of vegetarianism is a foreign one to most Chinese anyway. It’s been explained to me thusly: During a good chunk of the second half of the 20th century, when millions were starving, meat was a rare luxury. Now, when meat is comparatively plentiful, no one can understand why someone would choose not to eat it. Order a vegetable dish in Shanghai and there is a good chance it will come sprinkled with pork. Ask for vegetable dumplings and the server will say they include “just a little” meat in the stuffing — because no meat would be ridiculous. Being a vegetarian in China is not easy.

Thank God then for Vegetarian Lifestyle restaurant, which is not only the best vegetarian restaurant in Shanghai, it’s one of the best restaurants in Shanghai. Period. I’ve tested the place out with strict vegetarians and carnivores alike. Everyone loves it.

We first learned of the restaurant from our first maid here in Shanghai. She was a vegetarian — she pronounced it “vegeterarian” — and actually a member of some worldwide club/cult of people who don’t dine on swine (or any other sort of animal). She brought us the cult/club’s magazines and brochures, no doubt trying to bring my girlfriend into the fold, but the images found inside did nothing but scare her off. Seems like the vegeterarians have a leader, an Asian woman who always wears a long white gown. Scarier still, it seems as though Steven Seagal is a follower. Our former maid told us that the Communist government has banned her band of leaf-eating thugs from China. “I hate the Communist government,” she told us frankly. (But, really, can you blame the CCP? I mean … Steven Seagal!)

We have dined at Vegetarian Lifestyle many times since then, and never had a bad experience. There are three restaurant locations, but we prefer the one on Fengxian Lu, behind the Westgate Mall on Nanjing Xi Lu (other addresses at the bottom of this post). The place is always amazingly clean, almost like a doctor’s office. Indeed, health is one of the restaurant’s main focuses. A wide variety of fresh juices and herbal teas are available, and the English menu explains what ailments and diseases each item helps ward off. And, get this, there is no smoking allowed in the restaurant — a revelation in China. In fact, a sign in the bathroom tells you where you can stick your cigarettes: “Ideal environment for smokers, under the jujubetree outwindow.”

You can’t go wrong with just about any item on the menu. But my personal favorite is the sweet and sour vegetarian pork (28 yuan). Really, this is one of my favorite dishes in all of China. Another item we often order is pot with vegetable and curry (a huge serving for 36 yuan). The vegetarian roast pork (16 yuan) is about as tasty as fake meat can get. And the vegetarian fried duck, beijing style (38 yuan) is a nice untraditional take on the traditional Chinese delicacy. Seriously, though, just order whatever looks interesting — with these prices, there are no costly mistakes.

And one thing is guaranteed: You will not get attacked by a fish at Vegetarian Lifestyle restaurant. But if, by chance, you see Steven Seagal there, I suggest you run.

Vegetarian Lifestyle
枣子 , (1) 848 Huangjin Cheng Dao, near Shuicheng Nan Lu (6275 1798); (2) 77 Songshan Lu, near Huaihai Zhong Lu (6384 8000); (3) 258 Fengxian Lu, near Jiangning Lu (6215 7566). (1) 黄金城道848号, 近水城南路; (2) 嵩山路77号, 近淮海中路; (3) 奉贤路258号, 近江宁路

03.30.2005, 1:28 AM · Best of Shanghai, Food, Observations

8 Comments


  1. Agreed, Dan. Vegetarian Lifestlye is top notch. It’s also a favourite hangout for local monks - perhaps from the Jade Buddha Temple up the road? Plus it has a bookstore (a bit New Age for my tastes, but in Shanghai you take anything you can get).

    But what’s with all the “fake meat” dishes? Is this an attempt to convert the masses by easing them into vegetarian food gently? Or does it imply that most vegetarians actually crave meat? I’m not a vegetarian, but I still don’t understand why places like Vegetarian Lifestyle stack their menus with dishes like “black pepper beef”. I visit a vegetarian restaurant when I don’t want to eat meat. So why would I want to eat something that for all intents and purposes looks like meat? Or for that matter, smells and tastes like it?

    Still, cheers for the post. It’s reminded me that I’m due for a return visit to Vegetarian Lifestyle. More importantly, it has pushed my ugly mug further away from the top of your page of articles.


  2. Dan may I recommend some advice I heard from someone else, why not just request strict buddhist fair when eating out? It may not get you precisely zero-meat food, but the concept should probably resonate quicker than trying to explain vegetarianism or psuedo-vegetarianism or non-fishism.

    Oh I also have a more serious question Dan, except its about the former maid. I’m curious about further information on this quasi-cult vegetarian organization that alleges Steven Seagal as a member. Not that I am interested in joining, but I am interested in finding about more information about growth of spirituality in contemporary China and all the myriad of loony variables in between. I know the FalayGongay (eat pig latin censors) is but one of many outlawed organizations. Was the vegetarian organization you mentioned politically active? Has it recently been denounced in official media as cultish? Are you familiar with which state organ was responsible for its suppression? (PSB or Health Ministry) Who is its leader and what other tenants besides vegetarianism, if any, do they hold? How many total membership does this organization claim?

    Well thats just a few of my questions, if you have any answers, I’d appreciate it.


  3. I have a friend who is a FREEGAN. He is a strict vegan—unless the food is free—at which point he will devour any animal in sight. Quite a comical notion, but he defends his stance on the grounds that he does not wish to support the industrialized meat business. As long as his dollars aren’t going to meat companies, he loves a good steak!


  4. Here is the definition for FREEGAN at Urban Dictionary. Slightly different. You guys should add your version.


  5. Hey thats nothing. I saw a half filleted fish with its heart still beating in an Asian market in NYC. Freaky


  6. As one myself, may I offer the phrase “Fish and Chipocrite” for Pescatarian ….


  7. I believe the spiritual leader that is referred to (that Steven Segal apparently follows) is Ching Hai. There is a good vegetarian restaurant in San Jose, CA, USA that is run by her followers, called Vegetarian House.


  8. Ching Hai is the spiritual leader mentioned (that Steven Seagal apparently follows). There is a good restaurant in San Jose, CA USA that is run by her followers. Highly recommended.

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Shanghai Diaries is a website about Shanghai, China ... and lots of other stuff. Voted Best Mainland China Blog in the 2004 Asia Blog Awards.

Editor: Dan Washburn

Related: Shanghaiist and Mudan Boutique

Dan is a freelance writer living in Shanghai. More about Dan.

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