When I was preparing to come to China, food was one of the main things I was looking forward to. I’ve always loved Chinese food, from Chinese takeaways growing up, to discovering authentic Chinese cuisines in Nanjing, to finally learning home-cooked Chinese food from friends in the UK, so I had only positive expectations.
However, having recently decided to try out veganism, I knew it wouldn’t be quite the same, but whilst eating veggie in restaurants in the West can be challenging, with meals centred very much around meat and cheese, Birmingham Chinatown had showed me that eating veggie in Chinese restaurants needn’t be a problem. At home I had experimented with multiple types of tofu (plain tofu 白豆腐, frozen tofu 冻豆腐, tofu bamboo 腐竹, tofu skin 豆腐皮, fried tofu炸豆腐), and masses of vegetable combinations.
On first arriving at my parents-in-law’s home in Dalian, it seemed my husband hadn’t told his mother this fact about me, and I think she was disappointed at the long list of things I chose not to eat. Although traditionally meat has been a garnish in Chinese home-cooking, since Chinese families often use food to show love (as do we, but I think more so) I think it has probably become more common for Chinese parents to bring home impressive bags of seafood, big boxes of eggs or expensive foreign milk powder to express their love for the family or perhaps their success that week. It’s clear that my husband has always been given the very best food in their house, with plates of meat and fish always placed closest to him, his parents only tucking in once he’s had his fill.
I was really grateful that my mother-in-law got her head around it pretty quickly by asking lots of questions about what I liked. A few days later when they held a big welcome home meal with the larger family, the banquet contained lots of exclusively vegetable dishes and healthy options, which everyone enjoyed tucking into, alongside the showstopper dishes, such as a whole fried sweet-and-sour fish 糖醋鱼 and piles of prawns and other (unidentifiable by myself) shellfish. She really is a wonderful chef and host, and a big inspiration to me.
Attitudes from Chinese people vary a lot. I find some people get it when you tell them you do it for health reasons, and acknowledge that eating too much meat may not be healthy. However on the other end of the scale, a lot of people do try to persuade you to try dishes as they believe more meat is a good thing, and they want to show you love or respect by offering you nutritious foods full of protein and nutrients (which I don’t dispute). A lot of people also say ‘it’s ok, don’t worry’ or ‘just have a bit, don’t be polite’, as I suppose they think you are being polite to only eat the simpler foods. And finally there are other who know about Buddhist tradition of avoiding meat and more potent foods, and think of it from a spiritual point of view. If ethics/animal welfare was my main concern and I explained that, I think I’d be met with a lot of confusion, as I think animal welfare is a relatively new concept in China, and as I’ve read before, the Chinese word for animal is ‘moving thing’ 动物, which may reflect the traditional attitude.
Eating vegan over the last 5 months has been up and down. What I’ve found is that everything needs to be made from scratch to ensure there aren’t any hidden ingredients, and that obviously takes a lot of work. Whereas at home I had the luxury of drinking fortified soya and nut milks, and grabbing a (free-from type) flapjack or piece of toast for a snack, convenience foods in China often have unexpected added ingredients, such as bread, which contains often egg and butter. I was surprised to find that cartons of soya milk are also hard to find, as everything is usually in powdered form, possibly mixed with cow’s milk powder, or you can simply do-it-yourself using beans and a blender.
I have also discovered a lot of good choices, such as ready-boiled cobs of corn, or baked sweet potato, and some types of little pancake. But it is not easy. Labelling is not as strict as in Europe, where ‘Suitable for…’ labels are very common, if not a legal requirement. And I have often compromised by eating vegetables cooked alongside meat. More recently, since moving to Guilin, Guangxi province, I have been introduced to a fabulous vegan buffet for 36元 per head, which is also a big hit with non-vegetarians alike (like my husband), and I think might be run with Buddhist principles in mind. I might just move in!