Fact or Fiction VII: The Veggie-Veggie Shakes

22 Comments

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.

Fact or Fiction

1.  China has great vegetarian food

Glen: FACT

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.

Fred: FACT

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

Glen: FICTION

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.

Fred: FACT
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

Kung Pao Vegge-Chicken and hamms, strange, delcious or both? - image by hack man

Glen: FACT

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.

Fred: FICTION

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.

Oh no! That carrot looks like people! Now what are we going to eat? - Image by vegefoodie

Fred: FACT

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.

Glen: FACT

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.

Fred: FICTION

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.

Glen: FICTION

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.

Fred: FICTION

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.

Glen: FICTION

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 :)

Talk on Fact or Fiction VII: The Veggie-Veggie Shakes


22 Comments
  1. I actually think this mental disconnect that glen discussed is responsible for many people turning away from meat and became veggies. Back in the good ole’ days, a larger percentage of the people saw their food go from earth to plate. Kids who grew up watching a chicken getting his head chopped off before it ended up on his/her plate is less likely to find the practice immoral (I think). But as food production goes mega scale and streamlined, people forget that meat comes from killing animals and they are subsequently appalled when they are shown propaganda shock videos by PETA turning away from meat.

    For what it’s worth, I think veggies are on the whole a kinder and more empathetic people. What determines if we feel pained by a killing or suffering is if we can put ourselves into their place and empathize. It does say something to progress that veggies can empathize with animals when not long ago (maybe still) many people can’t even empathize with other humans.

  2. Well, there is some more cruelty here in China. I’m thinking of the pets you can buy at every streetcorner. Boxes full of puppies, bunnies in cages they can hardly turn around, hundreds of (somtimes colored) young chicken in boxes, fishes in containers that are largely bigger than themselves EVERYWHERE… :( Breaks my heart :(

    • Gotta agree here. An un-shaded box is no place for puppies in a Shanghai August. The fact that these puppies were repeatedly died a deeper red in hot dye in order to up the price makes it all the worse. My own dog has one leg it will never use, thanks to neglect and face vaccinations on the part of the guy I got it from.

      I think there is more overt animal cruelty here, and not in any way related to preparing animals for food.

      Off topic, someone was telling me last night about a friend who named his dog “snack” so that if he ever got tired of it he’d already be prepared for the next step. I think the friend meant it as a joke. At least that’s how I took it.

  3. Another veg in China here, thought I’m in NW Yunnan. I’m also gluten-free, which complicates things significantly. I can’t have soy sauce, but that isn’t added to things quite as automatically here as it is in the north.

    While my husband is much more strict than I am (I figure if it’s already been killed I’m not going to waste it) we’re both resigned to the necessity of meat broth in our noodles. Plus, with the long list of things he has to tell them to leave out of the dishes, sometimes the one that’s not medically necessary gets left out.

    Anyway, I do think that *some* meat is important for getting the whole experience in *some* countries. I haven’t found that in China so much as I have in countries with a national dish that gets served constantly, like adobo in the Philippines.

    I also love the way tofu is more than just a block of white stuff here. There are endless varieties, and I hope someone will have figured out fresh tofu skin by the time we get back to Wisconsin.

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  5. While living in China I enjoyed the Buddhist-run restaurants – especially those run by Taiwanese. But outside of those trustworthy establishments it was hard being a strict (real) vegetarian in China. Most Chinese either didn’t understand what “no meat” meant or chose not to understand. I can’t even count the number of times I would order a dish asking for “no meat”, “no chicken”, “no animal fat” and then was served exactly what I did not order. When I would bring this to the waiter/waitresses attention they would invariably lie to my face – telling me the pork in my noodles was not there or was “just a little bit”.

    The two interviewees above must not have visited any markets or places of slaughter in China or they wouldn’t be so naive as to claim that there was no difference in the humaneness of the animal industry or their slaughter in China vs “the West”. While all slaughter of sentient creatures for food is wrong there is a big big difference in humane slaughter vs humane methods. North America and Europe have standards in this regard. China most certainly does not. Go to a market in China where they have live animals if you don’t believe me.

    I now live in the Southern US and it is quite easy these days to get vegetarian dishes at restaurants. And the waiters know what I mean when I say “vegetarian” and “no meat”.

  6. I will never understand why people feel a need to eat tofu shaped and flavoured like meat. It’s nowhere near as delicious as the actual thing would be. Why not just east tofu in the ways it’s best prepared? Back when I was keeping halal I certainly never sought out fake bacon or chicken-based pork rinds. I did have a bacon cheeseburger in Cairo once where the bacon was corned beef, but that was just because I was curious to see what they did for the bacon.

    • Oh, that’s easily explained. As I see it there are two major reasons:
      1) Sometimes you miss the taste of a particular food (after all, many people are vegetarians for the animals, not because they don’t like the taste), say a hamburger, and then you don’t want a garden burger, or buns with silk tofu wedged between them, you want something that tastes like a hamburger. Fake meat to the rescue!
      2) By making tofu look like, for example, sausage, you know what you can expect. It’ll taste somewhat like sausage. If it’s ‘fake fish’, it’ll taste somewhat like fish. This is nice, because you may use it in the recipes of your pre-vegetarian days, and you know how to handle it, e.g. you know that you can put your fake salami on bread and eat it (instead of looking at a white tofu brick and thinking “WTF am I supposed to do with that?!”).

      I don’t think anybody will shun great tofu dishes which aren’t made to look and taste like meat, but there definitely are some advantages to fake meat products.

    • Profile photo of

      I agree with Max. I’m now a whole lot more carnivore than herbivore, but was a vegetarian for about 8 years and while I love dishes with tofu here in China, back home tofu came in three flavours — soft, firm, extra firm.

      I was a vegetarian largely before the meat look-a-likes came on the market, and being able to get tofu dogs to fake TSP ground beef was a godsend. Admittedly, taste-wise they have nothing on jingjiang rou si wrapped in tofu skin, or a nice plate of spicy mapo dou fu, but they offered a whole level of social integration that vegetarians were previously denied. We could finally re-attend backyard BBQs! Cook shit around a campfire and easily make things like chili and lasagna.

    • These tofu meat dishes have been around before vegetarian products. Meat was a scarce resource for most peasants and most of them had to make due with soybeans and tofu as a protein source. If someone wanted something meaty, it may not have been available so they made tofu taste like meat.

      Incidentally wheat gluten or seitan is also a pretty popular meat substitute. I remember having it in restaurants as a kid.

  7. @Justin: I never actually thought of that before…and here I thought that the increase in vegetarianism in the West, is just for economic reasons.

    @Jay: You will notice Jay that I said “open animal cruelty” and places of slaughter aren’t really “open”, at least not where I go.

    I don’t really see much difference in humane slaughter vs. humane methods, especially since a lot of these supposedly humane methods are routinely ignored in the large factory farms that most North American meat comes from.

    And I totally agree about the frustration when dealing with waiters. I have found it to be better, but maybe that’s just a function of my Chinese ability and patience with things in China I guess.

    @Kellen: Max is absolutely right, it’s not the taste of meat that is a problem, it’s the process. I mean, the faux meat dishes are quite similar to non-alcoholic beer, decaffeinated coffee/tea, and those clove cigarettes. They combine some of the good things without the perceived vices.

    But trust me: Vegetarian Kung-Pao Chicken tastes way better than decaf :)

  8. I try to eat healthy as I can in China. I usually cook for myself, I don’t like to go to restaurants that much unless I’m going with a friend.

  9. I always try to remind people considering going vegetarian that there’s a difference between vegetarian and healthy vegetarian. When you remove meat from your diet, you’re taking out more than just protein, which is pretty much all that tofu provides. You have to replace all sorts of other nutrients which are a little harder to find in vegetable matter. I was a vegetarian for the better part of a decade, no red meat for nearly 12 years (and that includes no meat powder like in ramen noodles or whatever). I look at the choices here and I can’t imagine it being anywhere near as easy to keep up a proper diet. There are some amazing vegetarian dishes here, and I very often order those when I absolutely must eat somewhere that looks a bit dirty. However, I do eat chicken or fish on a daily basis. Nobody seems to bat an eyelash when I go strictly veggie, but I have heard of such things, yeah.

    I’m going to agree with people that there really is much more overt animal cruelty over here. Not that it isn’t a factor in the west, it absolutely is. However, let me give an example of how people see animal cruelty every day here and nobody seems to give a crap: You know those cute little puppies you see in boxes on the sidewalk? Most of them have been IV-pumped full of a cocktail of stimulants and vitamins to make them look healthy and happy. Most of them then die within a week, very often with the Parvo virus. I’ve talked to people who’ve bought those puppies, often knowing full well that within a couple days the poor thing would be coughing blood and vomiting on their carpet. Sorry, I don’t mean to be crude, but this happens way too much. I have one friend that says he spends a good 500 元 each month on these poor babies giving them their last days in a nice environment, hoping that one of them will pull through. This kind of stuff is not by any means unique to China, but I’ve never seen or heard of it being so open and common as here.

    • Meng, just because you’re cutting out meat (or even other animal products) doesn’t mean you’re only replacing them with tofu. Most of the time you’re replacing them with other fruits, vegetables, grains, and whatnot. I doubt this is less healthy than at least an ‘average’ diet. I, for example, have been vegan for 6 years now and before that vegetarian for 2 years, and have been living and eating in China for one year. I’d say I’m healthy by pretty much any standard. I also hit the gym 3 times a week and am much stronger than most of the guys there (not that this is too hard to achieve..) In summary, I don’t really think it’s as hard to be a healthy veg*an as people make it out to be.

      Also, I don’t think your friend is doing the puppies a service by creating more demand. Even more so when, I guess, the animal shelters here must be overflowing of healthy but lonely animals.

      • Max–That’s very true, I didn’t mean to imply that everybody is only replacing meat with tofu. However, those fruits, vegetables, grains, etc that you mention are harder to come by here in the varieties that provide the necessary nutrients. They are definitely here. For instance, sunflower seeds give a small protein boost as well as a few other nutrients. 菠菜 is decent for an iron boost. I’m sure it’s quite possible to be a healthy vegetarian here, just harder. There are various markets even in the smallest towns in the west devoted to vegans and whatnot. Also, I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again–my kingdom for a proper salad! I’m going back to the US for a couple months and I’m planning on bringing back a crate of Bolthouse Farms Green Goodness vegetable smoothies. Maybe it’s easier in the big cities, I’m in Xi’an, but I’ll be moving to Shanghai or Suzhou within a year or so. I’ve heard that Shanghai has some great vegetarian options.

        I teach weightlifting and yoga here on top of the English classes, and I can’t imagine feeding the furnace, as my old trainer used to say, quite as easily here. And no, it really isn’t that hard to be stronger than guys here. I mean, I’m not a huge guy, but even when I’m just doing my own workout, guys stop what they’re doing to watch. There’s quite a few men here who play basketball but don’t do much else so have huge shouldercaps, maybe widened pecs, but the rest is skin and bone. I emphasize total fitness–functionality. When I lift, most of the time it’s full body workouts. On rare occasions I do upper body and then lower the next day.

        My friend isn’t creating demand, they’re selling millions of these dogs every day with or without him. The ones that aren’t sold are drowned or left on the curb. They get sold or they don’t. You can’t fault him for giving these poor pups a few days of hospice. As far as the animal shelters, I’m planning on picking one up from there myself, once I get more informed about such places.

      • I see what you mean; I suppose I read more “you can’t be a healthy vegan!” in your post than there was – I’m sorry for that! I’ve heard these kinds of things too often, I guess ;) Yes, it’s definitely easier to be a vegan in the US, with its vegan burgers, quinoa, all sorts of exotic seeds and nuts and berries all year round, vegan protein shakes, soy yoghurt, and so on and so forth. (MY kingdom for shakes and yoghurt! I really miss soy yoghurt :( ). However, my point was just that you can still live here very decently and healthily as a vegan. And since I’m located in Beijing I even have the luxury of some *good* soy milk once in a while (the kind that doesn’t taste like bean juice) :) But yeah, it’s takes a little more thought than it might take in America.

        As for strength training, I’m doing pretty much the same as you :) Heavy compounds for the win! :D That’s quite possible as a vegan, but it’s a bit harder for us to bulk without getting fat, due to the somewhat higher carb intake that we can’t get around ;) And it’s a bit harder still in China since it’s apparently not possible to find some supplements (esp. protein powder) which are vegan.

        Where I disagree with you is with the puppies. I’m the last one to blame your friend for trying to do good. I’m a very soft-hearted person myself. But the “it’s being done whether I’m doing it or not” is the same argument that meat eaters use (“the cow gets killed whether I buy a steak or not”) and the answer is the same in both cases: Demand is demand, and it might very well be that your purchase (especially if it’s’ repeated purchase!) that decides if yet another cow gets killed or another puppy litter gets that horrible treatment, and then it’s on your conscience. Which, at least for me, means that creating any such kind of demand is unacceptable.

        Karma to you for helping a dog from an animal shelter! Really, it’s a very good thing!

  10. Also, don’t eat the crabs here. They’re pumped full of hormones so that they grow to full size within 5-6 months instead of 2 years. Those hormones, of course, make them fairly toxic. I’m not sure about just regular crab meat, but if you order a full crab in the shell, chances are it’s not safe to eat.

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    I guess it really depends on what kind of vegetarian you are. I find it very difficult to get truly vegetarian meals outside of Beijing. Most vegetable dishes are topped with either shrimp sauce or oyster sauce. With oyster sauce being the base of a lot of Chinese cooking, it can be very difficult to be a vegetarian in China.

  12. Great comments. I meet a chunk of people that became vegetarians in China. And another chunk of people who stopped being veggie when they came here. Do you think this trends more one way or the other?

  13. i became veggie while living in china, so i don’t have all that much to compare it to, except the few times i’ve gone back to the states for visits. but i feel like (and i’ve compared notes with other friends who’ve been transnational vegetarians, so i don’t think it’s just me) that there’s a disproportionate number of vegetarians in chengdu. i know both foreign and chinese vegetarians here, and it seems like every few months a new veggie restaurant opens up. definitely very easy to be vegetarian here in my opinion, but i could see how if one didn’t speak much chinese and/or was shy about being firm in his/her requests, that it could be difficult.

  14. Hi, I am currently living in Taiwan and will be moving to Changchun soon. I am a raw vegan and as you can imagine-I prepare all of my own foods. No, I don’t eat bread, rice, noodles or tofu :) I’m curious how easy it is to get raw nuts and seeds. Quinoa, buckwheat, millet, sunflower seeds, almonds, cashews, and other nuts and seeds are my staples besides, obviously, fruits and vegetables. Any info would be appreciated.

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