By Ava Ming: My Oriental Life
Chinese people take great pride in feeding guests whether at their home or in a restaurant. If you appear to be hungry your host will lose face. Consequently, unless you utter the magic words ‘bu yong, bu yong’ (‘no need for more’), your plate never empties and your glass remains full. When eating out I always decline the meat dishes as politely as possible. I’m more than satisfied with rice and any non-meat food as, unlike bland English veg, Asian vegetables are prepared in deliciously savoury sauces but my refusal is usually met with confusion; ‘you don’t eat meat? What’s wrong with you?’
Vegetarianism is Rare
The concept of vegetarianism is new for many Chinese, especially those who’ve never travelled. They equate it with not liking meat which in my case is not strictly true. I don’t particularly dislike it, I just don’t want dead animal flesh in my mouth. They immediately worry about losing face at my potentially half empty plate amidst their full ones, but this concern quickly subsides as they offer me chicken instead.
Excuse me? Is chicken a vegetable now? A fruit? A tuber? A type of grass? Broccoli in disguise?
A Cultural Misunderstanding
It took me a few months to understand but I now know that the term ‘meat’ in China generally refers to ‘red meat,’ hence, chicken or ‘white meat’ is considered a suitable substitute. Eliminating meat completely is almost unheard of especially as Chinese people don’t eat meat in the quantities that we do. Their dishes carry a few small pieces as opposed to the big slabs of thigh, breast or ribs consumed in a Western diet. But it can be hard to find a truly vegetarian dish here as even traditional veggie foods such as tofu and eggplant are frequently prepared with a layer of minced meat. More frustrating is being assured that a dish is vegetarian simply because it has vegetables in it, in addition to the meat which I’m generally advised to ‘eat around.’ I’m also told to ‘ignore’ the duck’s blood which has been used to season the main dish, or, that I can go ahead and eat a particular dish because it contains ‘only a little’ meat. Kind of like being ‘only a little dead,’ or ‘only a little pregnant?’
Socializing with Hot Pot
Hot Pot is widely enjoyed among all ages in China. It’s popular among families, colleagues and groups of friends, with some restaurants catering to specific types of Hot Pot such as spicy, mild, or fish. The process of preparing the meal is elaborate but fun. First the waitress lights a fire under a huge pot in the middle of the table into which she pours boiling water. Patrons then add the vegetables to be cooked from raw, followed by small slices of raw meat put directly on top of the vegetables. Sauces and spices can be added to the main pot or to your individual plate. Diners dip in and out taking whatever they choose. The fire is kept alight and more food and water is added until everyone is basically too full to stand up. I no longer eat Hot Pot as I grew tired of hunting the vegetables buried beneath the meat and having to shake off meat fibres, particles and juices before being able to eat a single strand of cabbage, lotus leaf or beansprout.
More Money More Brawn
It could just be a question of economics. Adding meat to a dish means you can charge more. There’s also the widely held belief in China that eating meat makes you big and strong. I’m a hardy lady, it would take more than a stiff breeze to blow me over, yet it’s been ten years since I’ve touched meat.
At the time of writing there’s a Donkey restaurant in Shenzhen, not a place where Donkeys go to dine out, but a place where you can dine on Donkey. Until you’ve chewed away at a Donkey’s ear, tongue or some other bodily part you just haven’t lived, so I’m told. Far north of my city Dog Meat festivals abound. Stop at a street stall, pick your cut from an unrefrigerated dog carcass covered in dried, dog meat and chow down over a beer. Within the Cantonese region here in South East China, eating Monkey at high ranking functions is the norm. I won’t tell you how they prepare it but if you have a strong stomach, look it up. Recently, certain high end restaurants were rumbled and severely punished for passing off rat as lamb to their established but undiscerning clientele.
So, with a bit of seasoning and a posh dressing, all meat tastes the same? Maybe, but not so with vegetables. Each has its own unique flavor and texture. You’d never mistake a carrot for an onion now would you? Happily, I’ve now discovered that there are 100% vegetarian Buddhist restaurants in many of the major cities. They’re a little costly but that could be down to the lush and peaceful décor as well as the painstaking care they take in presenting beautiful dishes. I’m happy to be a vegetarian oddity in China. As the country modernizes and attitudes change, one day it might even catch on and large parts of the general population could be enjoying ‘no meat Mondays.’
Hey, it could happen!