amw (amw) wrote,

vegan in china, one month on

Last year i decided to start eating vegan after considering the impact of meat and dairy farming on the global ecosystem. I don't really care that much about animal rights, beyond that i think holding animals captive is kind of gross regardless of whether you intend to eat them or not, but i definitely care about this planet and the future of its species. Eating vegan is a very good way to decrease your environmental footprint, so i figured why not?

It was very easy to stick to at home. You just stop buying meat and dairy, the end. Plenty of delicious stuff can be cooked with what's left over. It's when you're eating out that things can be problematic. If you are extremely dedicated you can always fall back on eating fruit and nuts, but that does suck a bit when you are out with other people, or when you are traveling and just want to eat something hot for a change.

I've written about my woes traveling around Europe. If you eat in young/hip areas there are vegan or at least vegan-friendly restaurants. If you eat in greasy spoons, it can be a bit trickier. But it's doable, because most everyone in Europe understands what you mean when you say you want to eat vegan.

In Asia it's been a little bit different.

In Taiwan and Hong Kong you can easily eat vegan if you stick to the Buddhist restaurants. The range of fake meats is spectacular. I think most meat-eaters would be very happy with the countless variations on offer. Except, no fucking garlic. This, to me, is almost unforgivable. You can add chili - and sometimes even garlic - as a condiment, but it's not the same as building the dish with "pungent" ingredients from the ground up. So i mostly ate at regular restaurants and tried to choose vegetable dishes, only occasionally screwing it up and getting a meat dish by accident or out of desperation. And by "meat" i really mean "egg", usually.

In mainland China the problem is a little different. Although there are a few Buddhist restaurants scattered around, diet is more driven by wealth than religion. In poorer joints, you will often find a lot of dishes with no meat just because meat is expensive. If there is meat, it's often ground pork or sausage or some other weird bit of offal. On the other hand, because the new middle class is still in that first generation of conspicuous consumers desperate to show off the opulence of their new lifestyle, many middle class restaurants don't have any vegetarian dishes at all - it's considered peasant fare.

It does seem like there is a trend toward "healthy eating" slowly sweeping the country - one not-so-subtlely pushed by the party. Unfortunately its main success seems to be getting yoga pants/soccer mom types to condemn traditional Chinese food as "oily" and instead buy overpriced avocado toast and kale smoothies. So, pretty much the same as everywhere else in the developed world.

Because i refuse to eat at the temples of gentrification aimed at bourgeois health nuts, i am eating less vegan than i would hope. I would say probably 3/4 of what i eat makes the cut - it is at least aspirationally vegan. I say aspirationally, because almost certainly some of the "mystery juice" they mix into most noodles here is based on meat or fish broth. But i consider that acceptable from an ecological perspective. It would be better if no animal product was used, but boiling some bones to make broth for a hundred vege noodle bowls is far and away less harmful than serving up a hundred bowls of 牛肉面 (niú ròu miàn) or beef noodle soup. Every now and then i allow myself to try out a new dish, or join someone else in eating a meaty type thing, or i just throw my hands in the air and say "fuck it" because even a lot of the peasant food tends to have an egg in it somewhere. Even committed vegetarians here eat egg.

Which is how i ended up trying 皮蛋 (pí dàn) or hundred-year egg and 咸鸭蛋 (xián yā dàn) or salty duck egg. After hearing i didn't eat meat and wasn't much of a fan of candy, my teacher decided on these two things as educational gifts that would teach me how to describe different flavors in Chinese. The former was not an entirely unpleasant flavor, but definitely an unpleasantly sticky texture - like eating peanut butter straight out of the jar. I will try it again - maybe in the famous Cantonese congee that features century egg and lean pork - but i don't think it'll become a regular. The salty duck egg, on the other hand, was incredible. I was told to eat it with some kind of bread or rice, so i picked up one of those brown mantous that i call a "nothing bun", because it is just a steamed bun with no filling. The white ones taste like nothing at all but the brown ones have some raw sugar in the dough and taste a little bit sweet. It paired awesomely with the salty duck egg.

My main carnivorous dish, though, is Hong Kong style pastries. That is, pork bun (when i am over there) or hotdog bun (when i am over here). The pork buns over here are not as good - they use mainland-style spicy minced pork and not the sweet, neon-colored Hong Kong pork. The hotdog buns have been elevated to an artform, though. The most peculiar one i have tried is the hotdog danish. It's exactly what it sounds like. The base is a filo pastry with some kind of custardy stuff in it, like a regular danish. Then on the top is a chicken hotdog with ketchup and kewpie mayo and possibly a little mustard. It's one of those triumphs of fusion cuisine that flavor-wise is almost nothing like its inspiration, but somehow the clash resulted in something unique and wonderful anyway.

I guess it would make sense that my go-to "cheats" are cheap, scrappy processed meats on bread, since i love finger food and SPAM is pretty much my favorite animal product. It's one of the few non-vegan things i really crave from time to time.

The other night after the run we went to a Sichuan restaurant, which would have been a dream for me if i hadn't been surrounded by a bunch of obnoxious drunk laowai. But there were obnoxious drunk Chinese in the group too, and some who preferred not to eat meat. I noticed the trick there was to pick vegetables out of the meat dishes, which is quite easy to do with chopsticks. I like this kind of pragmatic vegetarianism, so i did the same. Of course the animal was already dead anyway, and it's not like the vegetable was "untainted", but it still makes a statement to choose not to go there even when the food is right in front of you. Of course, this only really works in the context of a Chinese feast where all dishes are shared and it is expected that there will be leftover food anyways.

So, although i continue to self-deprecatingly refer to myself as a veganarchist in a running joke with friends, in reality i am just a plain old omnivore these days. But i am most definitely a conscientious omnivore. I eat cheap, i eat local, i only snack on fruit and nuts, and when the menu gives me the choice i will always choose the vegan option. But when i am at a restaurant that gives less of a shit about lifestyle choices and more of a shit about basic sustenance, i will accept eggs and broth and maybe even some small scraps of meat too. And when i am tired or hungover or just want the opportunity to try something new i won't let ideology get in the way of my experience. I guess that's selfish, but everyone has some vices.

Morally, i feel pretty comfortable with how i eat these days, but it is a little difficult to explain to people. Interestingly, learning Chinese and struggling to express myself to local restaurant owners has helped me to word it concisely in English too. "I prefer not to eat meat or eggs. I do not drink milk in my tea or coffee. I will sometimes eat meat on special occasions." Well, that was simple.
Tags: china, food, simple living

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