Vegetarianism in Asia: A Comprehensive Guide to China, Korea, Malaysia & Japan

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Asia is known for its diverse culture, stunning landscapes, and delicious cuisine. But did you know it’s also home to some of the world’s most dedicated vegetarians?

The practice of vegetarianism has been prevalent in Asia for thousands of years. Ancient Indian texts like the “Vedas” and “Upanishads” mention the practice of vegetarianism, and the “Manusmriti” (200 BCE) forbade the consumption of meat.

In this guide, I’ll take you through the history of vegetarianism in Asia, and look at some of the reasons why it’s so popular.

Vegetarianism in Asia

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The Evolution of Vegetarianism in Asia

  • Vegetarianism in China is considered to be an ancient practice with recorded data dating back to the Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BCE).
  • The idea of not eating meat was strongly associated with religious and philosophical traditions such as Buddhism and Confucianism.
  • The word for vegetarian in Chinese is “sùshí” (素食) which literally means “plain food” or “non-meat food”.
  • In modern times, the trend of adopting a vegetarian diet has continued to grow in China, particularly in larger cities where people are more health-conscious.
  • Vegetarian dishes in China typically include a lot of vegetables and grains, and seafood is often linked with vegetarianism.
  • Some popular vegetarian dishes in China include “Buddha’s Delight” (a dish named after Buddhist monks who are supposed to have created it), “Mapo Tofu” (a spicy tofu dish), and “Hot and Sour Soup”.

The Development of Vegetarianism in Other Asian Countries

  • Vegetarianism in other Asian countries such as Malaysia, Vietnam, and South Korea differ from those in China and Japan in terms of the types of dishes and products that are typically consumed.
  • In Malaysia, for instance, vegetarian dishes often include mock meat products made from soy or wheat protein.
  • In Vietnam, vegetarianism is strongly associated with the national tradition of “com chay” (vegetarian rice) which includes a variety of vegetables and grains.
  • In South Korea, vegetarianism is a relatively new trend that began in the 20th century, and it is often associated with schools of Buddhism that emphasize the importance of not harming animals.
  • In all of these countries, the practice of vegetarianism is closely linked with the idea of compassion for animals and the environment, as well as a desire for a healthier diet that includes a greater variety of vegetables and grains.

The Rise of Veganism in Asia

  • Veganism, which involves not consuming any animal products including dairy and eggs, is a relatively new trend in Asia.
  • The word for vegan in Chinese is “zhīròu” (植肉) which means “plant meat”.
  • In recent years, there has been a greater awareness of the health benefits of a vegan diet, as well as the ethical concerns associated with animal agriculture.
  • Some influential figures in the spread of veganism in Asia include Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk who has argued for the importance of compassion for animals, and new vegan restaurants that have opened up in cities across the continent.
  • While veganism is still a minority practice in most Asian countries, it is continuing to grow in popularity as people become more aware of the benefits of a plant-based diet.

Vegetarianism in China: A Cultural and Dietary Revolution

  • China is the world’s largest consumer and producer of meat, but there is a growing trend towards vegetarianism and veganism in the country.
  • According to research, approximately 50 million people in China follow a vegetarian or vegan diet.
  • The Chinese government has released data aimed at encouraging people to reduce their meat consumption, citing the potential benefits for both the environment and human health.
  • The increasing understanding of the link between meat consumption and negative effects on the body has led to more people choosing to cut meat from their diets.
  • Vegetarianism is becoming more popular among the younger generation in China, who are more open to new ideas and methods of food preparation.

South Korea: A Vegetarian’s Haven?

Despite being a meat-loving country, South Korea has seen a surge in vegetarian restaurants and food options. Major cities like Seoul and Busan have a growing number of vegetarian and vegan restaurants, with many offering soy-based meat replacements. Some popular vegetarian dishes in South Korea include bibimbap (mixed rice bowl with vegetables), japchae (stir-fried glass noodles with vegetables), and kimchi (fermented vegetables).

The Government’s Stance on Vegetarianism

The South Korean government has announced that it is considering outlawing the consumption of dog meat, a move that would be in favor of the country’s growing vegetarian and humane eating culture. However, the government has yet to make any legal claims or take any action towards this.

Exploring the Vegetarian Cuisine of Malaysia

Malaysia is a country located in Southeast Asia, known for its diverse culture, stunning landscapes, and delicious cuisine. The country is a melting pot of different ethnicities, with Malays, Chinese, and Indians being the largest groups. This cultural diversity is reflected in Malaysia’s cuisine, which is a fusion of different flavors and cooking styles.

The Malay Influence on Malaysian Cuisine

The Malay people are the largest ethnic group in Malaysia, and their cuisine is a significant part of the country’s food culture. Malay cuisine is known for its rich and spicy flavors, and it heavily features meat and seafood. However, there are also plenty of vegetarian options available, especially in the form of vegetable curries and stir-fries.

Vegetarianism in Malaysia

Vegetarianism is not a new concept in Malaysia, and there are plenty of vegetarian restaurants and food stalls throughout the country. However, it’s worth noting that vegetarianism is not as widespread in Malaysia as it is in some other Asian countries. That being said, there are still plenty of delicious vegetarian dishes to try, including:

  • Nasi Lemak: A popular Malay dish made with coconut rice, peanuts, and sambal (a spicy chili paste). Vegetarian versions of this dish are typically served with fried tempeh or tofu instead of meat.
  • Roti Canai: A flaky, crispy flatbread that’s typically served with a curry dipping sauce. Vegetarian versions of this dish are made with vegetable curry.
  • Laksa: A spicy noodle soup that’s popular in Malaysia and Singapore. Vegetarian versions of this dish are made with tofu or vegetables instead of meat or seafood.

Exploring Vegetarianism in Japan

Japan is known for its love of meat, seafood, and eggs, making it difficult for vegetarians and vegans to find suitable food options. Despite this, the number of people who prefer a vegetarian or vegan diet is on the rise in the country. However, it is still not widely understood or accepted, and many people find it difficult to comprehend the idea of not consuming meat.

The Role of Seafood in Japanese Cuisine

Seafood is a significant part of Japanese cuisine, and it can be challenging for vegetarians to find dishes that do not contain any seafood. Even dishes that do not contain meat may contain seafood or fish broth. However, some restaurants in Japan are now offering fully vegetarian and vegan options.

The Influence of Western Diets

With the rise of Western diets in Japan, there has been a significant increase in the consumption of meat and dairy products. However, there is also a growing interest in vegetarianism and veganism, with many companies producing plant-based products. Research has shown that a vegetarian or vegan diet can provide significant health benefits, and this information is slowly being delivered to the Japanese population.


So that’s how vegetarianism came to Asia and how it’s influenced the culture. It’s a great way to eat healthier and feel better about yourself. Plus, it’s better for the environment and the animals. So don’t be afraid to try it yourself!

Check out our new cookbook

Bitemybun's family recipes with complete meal planner and recipe guide.

Try it out for free with Kindle Unlimited:

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Joost Nusselder, the founder of Bite My Bun is a content marketer, dad and loves trying out new food with Japanese food at the heart of his passion, and together with his team he's been creating in-depth blog articles since 2016 to help loyal readers with recipes and cooking tips.