If you hadn’t read the flyer closely before heading to Shanghai’s first ever MeatFest last month, you might have been a bit disappointed upon arrival. The sounds and smells of sizzling meat might have seemed like a carnivore’s dream come true, but the name was tongue in cheek; the event was thrown by Vegans of Shanghai for “eco-conscious meat lovers” and served only domestically sourced plant-based “meat” products.
It’s part of a bigger push towards eating a plant-based diet in China, where vegetarians make up less than 5% of the population. But even at such a low rate, that still comes out to approximately 50 million people (a population larger than that of Spain). Historically vegetarianism is rooted in Buddhist or Taoist beliefs but, like recently in the West, the meat-free lifestyle in China has become less about religion and more focused on health and being environmentally friendly – and millennials are leading the pack.
The movement has government and corporate support. A 2016 Ministry of Health dietary guideline recommended a diet highlighting reduced consumption in meat. Just last month, Wal-Mart – which has some 400 retail locations in 180 different cities across China – announced its partnership with Qishan Foods, a local vegan “meat” company with annual revenue of US$50 million (the partnership has already rolled out in Shenzhen, where the company headquartered in 1993).
One of the beneficiaries of this growing interest in a meat-free diet is Godly Vegetarian, a restaurant that has been catering exclusively to vegan diners since 1922 and has recently seen its popularity take off. The restaurant’s focus is on Huaiyang cuisine, the region that falls in between the Yangtze and Huai Rivers, encompassing Shanghai and its surrounding areas. Mock meats are a staple at the original location, a large banquet style restaurant on Nanjing Road, but when we’re looking to up our veggie intake, we head to the cozy wonton and noodle shop they opened in 2006 off a leafy street in the former French Concession.
Godly Vegetarian has been catering exclusively to vegan diners since 1922.
Mushrooms, seitan (pure wheat gluten) and tofu sub in for meat in dishes like 红烧肉 (red-braised “pork” – hóngshāo ròu), 香酥鸭 (crispy “duck” – xiāng sū yā) and 松鼠桂鱼 (a surprisingly realistic squirrel “fish” – sōngshǔ guì yú). And straightforward veggie dishes like 全素馄饨 (quán sù húntún – Shanghai style soup wontons stuffed with shepherd’s purse and shiitake mushrooms in a veggie broth) and 时菜香干 (shí cài xiānggān – seasonal vegetables – in our most recent visit, carrot and cilantro with dried tofu strips) are some of our favorites. You can also get the wontons in a peanut-sesame sauce (麻酱干拌的 – májiàng gān bàn de). The shop is also popular for its outdoor patio hidden out the back door. A well-shaded terrace like that is a rarity amongst local restaurants and a treasure in summertime.
Just one block down on Wuyuan Rd, Godly also has a tiny tea house turned takeaway shop that sells their famous pastries. The mooncakes come individually wrapped in flavors like rose and green bean, and they are served alongside fruit with tea sets that range from Dragon Well tea to a High Mountain black tea that’s been aged for 60 years. If you’re peckish, you can also order from a menu of three items: vegetarian “duck”, vegan wontons or noodle soup. Most of the seats are reserved for tea tastings, but there’s three high chairs in the window where diners can slurp down a bowl of wontons and people watch on one of the former French Concession’s most picturesque seats.