My first dining out experience which I had in China was with my new found co-workers at a restaurant called ‘Meizhou’. With most of us having not a word of Chinese, we relied on our more experienced colleagues to do the ordering. Aware that there was at least one vegetarian among us, they ordered accordingly. Excited to try some of these new cuisines I enthusiastically reached for a delicious looking eggplant dish. With my new arch nemesis in hand (chopsticks) I inelegantly co-ordinated a pile of food on my plate and began to tuck into the succulent slices. As I turned to my roommate Rebecca, she looked at me in horror quickly alerting me to the hidden little bastard chicken which had been seamlessly sown into the eggplant slices. Not to cause a scene with my new colleagues I discreetly spat the contents of my mouth into a serviette and downed several glasses of water trying to quench the tirade of expletives shouting inside my head. How the hell did the chef manage to disguise a dead chicken inside a slice of innocent eggplant? I didn’t know if I was annoyed or impressed. What else was lurking between the green beans and tofu? Was it even tofu? It was probably some cute Labrador puppy that had been ripped from the hands of a crying five-year-old Chinese girl. Someone was definitely conspiring against me. Clearly an over sensitive vegetarian, I was foreseeing the next year of my life starving to death and surviving on knock off Maltesers from the local newsagents. At least my travel insurance would foot the repatriation of my skeleton at the end of the trip and my poor mother wouldn’t have to re-mortgage the house.
Following my first gastronomic catastrophe I thrust myself into an eating lockdown. For the first few weeks of this bumpy integration into a normal Chinese diet, I survived mainly on cereal and ice creams. I suspect the owners of the local shop had me pegged for some idiot hamburger guzzling foreigner who probably had the palate sophistication of a knat. Wishing so much I could express in Chinese that I have actually eaten more nutritious things in my life than Cornetto’s and Magnums, I would take my change, run away and shamefully feast on my sugar pile until the deadly withdrawal would see me drag my hypo-glycaemic corpse through their doors again. Having cut out the food pyramid entirely from my diet I rapidly dropped a half stone in weight because I was so utterly paranoid that everything was tainted with meat products, meat juices or secret meats of some variety. Twenty-two years of abstaining from eating anything with a pulse was proving difficult to ignore, and having inherited from one of my generous parents the type of appetite that could cause famine in small villages, I knew this life style would be unsustainable. I was going to have to figure out a compromise with my personal values which were etched into my being.
Luckily this realisation coincided with Rebecca’s own enlightenment (she was equally perturbed by the eating situation and was surviving solely on Nutella and crackers) and we began to slowly suss out the plethora of local Chinese restaurants dotted around our neighbourhood. Thankfully what came out of it was the overdue wake up call to our temporary close mindedness. We both needed to realise we were not living on some other planet with a bunch of barbarian, dog-killing, murderers who would eat their granny on a stick if they could. Quite the contrary. ‘The Shan’ (our affectionate name for our home in the district of Shijingshan) has endless gastronomic experiences to be discovered. Food is so cheap we could order as much as we wanted. Our philosophy was to experiment with a random dish (often there are no English menus and a just a photo to decipher it), discover if it had meat in it, eat it or not, and try something else. It was a simple process of elimination and we quickly amassed our own personal menu of vegetarian dishes which were tasty and cheap. So cheap in fact that we could order a ton of food and still only pay the cost of a few pints of milk back home.
Being a vegetarian in China does not equate to a life sentence chained to the junk food aisle at the grocery store. In fact, China has a massive Buddhist culture, so coming across vegetarian and vegan restaurants is much more common than you would imagine (you just need to seek them out). A veggie restaurant just popped up near my work place which is located deep in the west of Beijing (a very non-westernised area) so things are moving forward in terms of variety and mind set. Favourite vegetarian Chinese dishes of mine are ‘enoki salads’, ‘spicy potatoes’, ‘egg fried sweet potato’, ‘scallion pancakes’ and ‘vegetarian chuan’ (vegetables on a stick), and if you are so inclined, the range of mock meats (soy based dishes) are abundant. As long as you can turn a blind eye to someone dipping their chopsticks from the ‘gōngbăo jīdīng’ into the ‘qié zi dòu jiǎo’ then you are full steam ahead for a culinary experience that will enrich your journey here.
Living in Beijing as a vegetarian has a different meaning to me now than when I was the over cautious, fresh off the boat ‘lǎo wài’. I appreciate the importance of the relationship Chinese people have with food as a tool to show appreciation for each other and form bonds with new friends, and having adopted a similar sensibility has helped me to create my own community of friends through a shared love of food. My core belief system is still intact and I uphold it pretty easily here.