In this May 3, 2019, file photo, an Original Impossible Burger, left, and a Cali Burger, from Umami Burger, are shown in this photo in New York.

Move over, meat! Plant-based alternatives in China are booming. 

A growing number of vegetarian and vegan restaurants are opening up in China, as well as plant-based meat competitors, as consumers become more conscious of their carbon footprint.

The World

In this May 3, 2019, file photo, an Original Impossible Burger, left, and a Cali Burger, from Umami Burger, are shown in this photo in New York. Beyond Meat and other plant-based meat competitors have exploded in China.  

Richard Drew/AP/File 

At Green Common restaurant in Shanghai, all the meat on the menu is made of plants. There’s a burger and fish and chips, but also wontons, dumplings, hotpot and spam sushi. Customers can sample plant-based pork, beef, chicken and seafood.

Resident Lin Yu learned about the restaurant on social media and invited her vegetarian friend to join her. They ordered a culinary mashup of East meets West — a ramen hotpot and plant-based hamburgers.

“I can tell it’s not real meat, but it’s got good texture and flavor. It’s satisfying.”

Diner Lin Yu samples plant-based meat at Common Green, Shanghai, China

“I like it,” she said. “I can tell it’s not real meat, but it’s got good texture and flavor. It’s satisfying.”

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The restaurant is one of a growing number of vegetarian and vegan restaurants opening up in China. Multinational brands like Oatly, JustEgg and Beyond Burger are quickly entering the market, along with a host of local brands.

David Ettinger, a Shanghai-based lawyer who specializes in the food industry, said China’s long Buddhist tradition of vegetarian cuisine, such as tofu and other soy-based mock meats, are common, making it an exciting market for new plant-based proteins. “It’s just exploding,” he said. 

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UB Qiu works for Green Monday, a Hong Kong company that promotes plant-based foods. She said consumers here are ready to try these alternative proteins.

“Driving electric cars or, you know, turning off your lights — these are pretty go-to standard [things] that anyone can do to have a lower carbon footprint,” she said. But now people are asking, “What's the carbon footprint behind my plate?”

China has pledged to reach carbon neutrality by 2060, so one’s carbon footprint is a growing concern for some people.

Alice Hughes, a conservation researcher in China’s western Yunnan Province, said that target is driving a reconsideration of China’s eating habits. A rapid rise in meat consumption over the past few decades has been a major contributor to higher greenhouse gas emissions. 

“We have the choice of either cutting industry, which will have huge financial costs, or we can try and find ways to deal with people's diet.”

Alice Hughes, conservation researcher, Yunnan Province, China

“We have the choice of either cutting industry, which will have huge financial costs,” she said, “or we can try and find ways to deal with people's diet.”

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To curb greenhouse gases, the Chinese government made another target — cutting meat consumption by half by 2030. Hughes said the push for less meat is coming at just the right time, as technology now allows for exciting new plant-based food trends.

“So, people often don't realize they are making a decision to have something that is better for the planet,” she said. “They might choose it because it's healthier [or] they might choose it because it's fashionable.”

Global fast food chains are jumping on the bandwagon. 

Plant-based proteins are available at KFC, like with plant-based chicken nuggets. Starbucks offers lasagna with plant-based ground beef. And 24-hour convenience stores sell plant-based, ready-to-eat meals.  Oatly, a company focused on alternative dairy products, is available at nearly every coffee shop. Even neighborhood street vendors offer vegan egg replacer in morning jianbing omelets. 

You can barely tell the difference.

But at the same time, the plant-based meat trend is up against another trend in China — real meat. Burger joints, like Five Guys and Shake Shack, are also opening up shop to long lines. Korean BBQs and hotpots have become trendy spots for group dinners.

Green Monday’s UB Qiu said China’s economic growth has affected how people think about meat.

“They see eating meat as the progress of social development or economic development. Especially beef. They treat it like a luxury on the table. If you are asking them to give [it] up, means that they would see [it] as going backwards.”

UB Qiu, Green Monday, Shanghai, China

“They see eating meat as the progress of social development or economic development,” she said. “Especially beef. They treat it like a luxury on the table. If you are asking them to give [it] up, [it] means that they would see [it] as going backwards.”

But some think this is big meat’s last hurrah. 

Frank Yao, founder of Z-Rou, another plant-based meat company, thinks a ground pork product is a better option for Chinese tastes. He said it can be used in many Chinese dishes, in everything from mapo tofu to Beijing jiazhang noodles. He’s hoping meat eaters — not just vegetarians — will give it a try.

“Nobody wants to eat future food. 'I don’t want to eat what the astronauts are eating.’ They just want to eat the food their grandmother cooked for them.”

Frank Yao, Z-Rou plant-based company, Shanghai, China

“Nobody wants to eat future food,” he said. “‘I don’t want to eat what the astronauts are eating.’ They just want to eat the food their grandmother cooked for them.”

UB Qiu of Green Monday said the goal is not to cut out meat from Chinese people’s diets completely.

"We are not asking people to become vegans — just be flexible,” she said. “Start where you are to do one meal a day or one day a week or something. It's really easy, you know, everyone can join.”

Back at the vegan restaurant, Zhang Lian and his friend dig into the plant-based meat hotpot.

“I was just curious to see what it tastes like,” he said. “It’s flavorful.”

Zhang and his friend said they wanted to try plant-based protein for its health benefits, but they can't imagine this replacing their desire for real meat. 

“I need meat. I could replace it maybe once a month with plant-based protein, but not once a week.”

If it’s to meet its target, China has just under a decade to cut its meat consumption in half. So, perhaps these meat alternatives can help diners shift their diets without anyone thinking they had to make any sacrifice.