Welcome back one and all to the June edition of Fact or Fiction. Those of you who read any or all of the last six will know, every edition I will have a guest and we will discuss a few of the big issues in China of the day. Every answer will have a “Fact” or a “Fiction” and some justification to go along with it.
My guest today is Fred Dintenfass (aka @freddint aka fed-a-rama-lama-ding-dong) arrived in Beijing in 2006. Since then he’s been busy studying, editing, DJing, and eating all manner of things on sticks. Fred is the mastermind behind the world’s 4,375,463th most popular website — 10tonfunk. An infrequently updated repository of bad puns and worse product ideas. Despite being a vegetarian he is, as his Chinese friends and random strangers like to point out, overweight, and possibly pregnant.
Today, my esteemed guest and I are going to be talking about something near and dear to both of us, food. More specifically we are going to be talking about our diets. See we are both vegetarians living in the very omnivorous Middle Kingdom, and are going to talk about some of the issues that we face. So join us for Fact or Fiction 7: The Veggie-Veggie-Shakes.
1. China has great vegetarian food
Given that the life blood of our people, tofu, originated in this part of the world, it’s hard not to give it some big thumbs up. Add in the fact that the fruit and vegetables are fresh, (mostly) organic, and inexpensive, and we have what should be a good recipe for meatless living.
Veggies are cheap and plentiful. Fresh tofu and other mock meat-type products are all over the place. Mercifully, tofu dogs are nowhere to be found. From Buddhist-inspired dishes with poetic, but completely unhelpful names, to classics like di sanxian, jian bing and the plates of boiled soybeans, the amount of vegetarian options greatly improves the odds of getting something good. Unless you go to TGI Fridays, you’re never forced to choose, for the millionth time, between the bland salad or the grilled cheese.
Looks like they share dietary practices and opinions! 1 for 1.
2. It is easy to be a vegetarian in China
There are all sorts of obstacles facing veggies in the Middle Kingdom, that I think some of our omnivorous friends don’t seem to understand. The most obvious issue is of course language. I mean, to order something in Chinese is challenging, but the specifications that are often needed makes it harder. This is of course compounded by the fact that most menus are not at all straight forward. How on earth am I supposed to know what “Grandmother Loves the Wild Dragon Sauce” is?
Even more annoying though is the culture going along with vegetarianism. Chinese people tend to associate meat with wealth, and given that you’re foreign you must obviously be wealthy and must obviously want to eat meat…on everything. Even if you can explain that you don’t want meat in Chinese, there is the simple fact that most people may not understand just why you want to do it.
It’s certainly much easier than in most of North America and large swaths of Europe — good luck eating vegetarian in either Georgia. The amount of vegetarian dishes on every menu is a huge help, and family-style dining means you’re not confined to one dish. Though Chinese certainly love to eat meat, non-meat dishes play a much larger role in the diet than in many other cultures. Though Chinese friends and acquaintances are often surprised to discover I’m a vegetarian, probably because of my size, they quickly get over it and are extremely considerate about making sure I get enough veggies to eat, often choosing to only order vegetarian when we eat together.
There is, however, an enormous caveat here, and that has to do with how strict of a vegetarian you are. I’ve relaxed significantly over the years, to the point where “real vegetarians” may question my veggie-ness. I don’t eat meat or fish, but I will, at this point, pick around meat and don’t mind if meat and non-meat are cooked together. (I like to consider myself a chunkatarian, an esoteric dietary practice (population one) which stems out of a great desire to eat Matzoh Ball soup.) If you’re strict, it is difficult to eat out — emphatic requests for no meat may produce dishes with bits of ham or pork. However, while being strict vegetarian isn’t easy here, it can definitely be done with a bit of ingenuity, a basic phrasebook, and practice.
Is that Beijing vs. Suzhou? Canadian vs. American? Or is Glen just plain lazier than Fred? 1 for 2.
3. The Chinese Veggie Restaurants with Fake Meat Dishes are really strange
If any of you have never been to a traditional Chinese Vegetarian restaurant I’d advice you to stop reading this instant and go find one…I’ll wait.
Back? Well good, wasn’t that weird! Chinese vegetarian restaurants are full of very traditional (meat based) dishes made out of tofu, gluten, or other strange things. It is rather strange getting a mold of tofu shaped like a duck, or eating spare ribs which have a “bone” made out of taro on the inside. It is rather odd, and not because the idea of eating meat looking things upsets me, but because I can’t possibly imagine all the struggle that must go into creating vegetarian pork tripe or Peking Duck.
This depends entirely on where you go. Some of the more famous vegetarian restaurants are the most expensive and the most weird; I have absolutely no interest in having faux fat on my fake meat, and really don’t need the fake fish to be fishy. At least in Beijing, there are many smaller, simpler vegetarian restaurants that offer delicious, less literal, fake meat dishes. Unless you’re unable to eat meat and craving an approximation, it’s better to steer clear of the over-hyped, over the top veggie restaurants. Though there a lot of imitation meat dishes in China, they are a culture unto themselves, rather than the half-assed fake meat versions of meat intensive dishes you get in the West.
I guess they have different definitions of strange…1 for 3. Let’s switch up the order and see if it’s any different.
4. You don’t cook enough in China.
This is certainly true for me. The cheapness, quickness, and availability of vegetarian food makes me lazy about cooking. However, I do try to take advantage of the fact that I can buy great fresh vegetables at roughly 11 places within a five minute walk of my house. I love being able to buy fresh blocks of tofu and mock meat that isn’t engineered out of creepy vegetable protein and non-biodegradable. If you are a strict vegetarian it’s definitely easier to cook a wider array of dishes, for much cheaper, than it is back home. Since when I do cook I inevitably spend a lot of time on it I like to make use of readily available ingredients, adding roasted sweet potatoes and steamed corn bought off the street to soups, or adding tofu to cold noodles.
I think that we’re one in the same on this one! I tried to cook more this year, really I did, but I just got plain lazy about it, no other way around it. Restaurant food is cheap, delicious, and readily available. Add in the incredibly cheap delivery services that exist and my culinary side starts to suffer. That being said, I do enjoy cooking and should take advantage of things more often. I do make a mean vegan lasagna or tofu and avocado sandwich if anyone is interested.
United in laziness! 2 for 4.
5. It is harder to immerse yourself in the local culture without eating meat.
While Chinese may be surprised you don’t eat meat, they usually adapt pretty quickly. There are very few restaurants or street vendors that don’t have veggie options. The one time it can be a bit awkward is if you’re invited to someone’s house, but as in the West, a bit of advance notice solves this problem. Even without notice, your’e likely to have more options than in many places in North America. In midwest America meat is not only always on the menu, unless you’re eating at an “ethnic” restaurant (Indian, Thai, etc.) it’s often 90% of it. In Chinese cuisine, vegetables are often an equal part of the equation, not relegated to a perfunctory salad or garnish. This means even at a surprise dinner you’re likely to have plenty of viable options and not be the weirdo eating iceberg lettuce and chewing sadly on a sprig of parsley.
Before I moved to China, people asked me constantly if I would give up my veganism because I would be “missing out on the local culture”. Now I have slipped back into the vegetarian zone, but that’s for convenience and health not for cultural reasons. This is something that I quite frankly don’t really understand. I mean culture should be the way that people interact with one another, and that is gained by sitting around the dinner table and talking, not from sharing the same food. I think that implying that the interactions with the people is anywhere near as important as what goes in your mouth is borderline insulting.
We’re on a role here! 3 for 5. Let’s see if they can end well…
6. The open animal cruelty is one of the worst things about living in China.
What open animal cruelty? While people here eat animals, and pieces of them, that we don’t in the West, I feel the reports of animal cruelty are often greatly exaggerated. This is not to say that animals are raised or slaughtered humanely, but living in Beijing I don’t see a lot of livestock. I have never seen a dog butchered, and wouldn’t like to, but I wouldn’t feel any differently about that than I would seeing a cow or pig killed. I’ve seen dog on sale, and on menus, but I don’t consider that animal cruelty. I find the inevitable hooha about eating or killing dogs to be laden with Western-bias. Even when stories come out of dogs being killed in rather horrible ways, like the recent post on ChinaSMACK — a site that specializes in controversy — I don’t see that as any worse than the factory farming and horrifying slaughterhouses that exist in the West. Not eating one animal doesn’t make you any better than someone that does. I also don’t believe that being a vegetarian is any great moral virtue — though I think there are a lot of great reasons, from the ethical to the environmental, to do it. I apologize for blathering on about this but I’ve completely had it with the outrage that emerges any time any sort of dog killing story emerges. I don’t think raising animals for food is inherently cruel, though I think in this day and age, in practice, it almost always is.
I’m in total agreement on this one. I mean, I have seen trucks full of pigs or chickens off to their final destination, but so what? That kind of thing happens all the time in the West, we are just better at hiding it and that really doesn’t make it right. I also don’t get the idea that dogs are somehow different than other animals, I mean pigs are actually smarter than dogs, and chickens are also very social animals if you let them be. I do hate seeing animals in pens at restaurants, but similar things happen with lobsters in the West, and really it is better to come face to face with reality than to be so disconnected.
I, unlike Fred, do think that raising something for food is inherently cruel. I think that the concept of “humane captivity and slaughter” is one of the greatest oxymora in our society. I’m glad the Chinese at least don’t seem to have that concept.
And that does it! We have once again tied the maximum at 4 for 6!
For Fred, I’m Glen, thanks a ton for reading! As always, we welcome questions/comments/concerns from all! Let us have it