Postcard from Beijing… no 8
Will Beijing’s veggie bunnies bite back?
Make no mistake: it’s not easy being a vegetarian in Beijing. Despite the fact that vegetarianism in China can be traced back over 1000 years – the Tang dynasty physician, Sun Simiao, extolled the virtues of vegetarianism in his 60 volume classic, Prescriptions Worth More Than Gold – in Beijing 2011 vegetarianism is a foreign concept to most Chinese, as I discovered during the recent Tomb Sweeping Holiday.
Invited out to dinner by Chinese friends and colleagues I learned, to my dismay, that chefs simply aren’t interested in their non carnivore diners. No matter the location there were very few truly meat free items on the menu meaning that much of the time I was forced to get stuck into the bread bowl, while my friends salivated over their meaty mains. The result? While the carnivores left clutching their bellies, the veggies left still feeling hungry.
If they aren’t ignored, then veggies in Beijing tend to be treated with indifference. Many seemingly innocuous tofu and celery offerings sold in 7/11 and the like have actually been cooked in a meat stock. Meanwhile I’ve lost count of how many times I have ordered so called ‘vegetarian dishes’ only to find, as I poke my chopsticks around, some meat in the middle of my mi fan or asparagus is swimming in a duck based sauce.
Sure Beijing does have a few designated veggie eateries but, while they serve up some of the most delicious dishes (sans meat) imaginable, they’re also pretty pricey – Pure Lotus anyone? There are a few mid-range restaurants but, in my experience, they tend to specialise in mock meat mains: Baihe Vegetarian Restaurant – where tofu, wheat gluten and vegetables are sculpted to look like spare ribs or fried chicken – springs to mind. I appreciate the lengths the chefs have gone to with their fantastical creations, really I do. However as someone who has chosen not to eat meat, I don’t want to eat dishes – even if they are completely vegetarian – that remind me of meat!
Before you all start panicking, I’m not wasting away – I’m still size XL at the Silk Market – having developed a few strategies to cope (aside from hiding at home) that I thought I’d share. One) commit to memory the phrase wo chi su (I am a vegetarian) and, in case your pronunciation lets you down, have it written in Chinese characters on a card that you can flash before your waiter’s eyes. Two) always ask for meat free dishes and don’t be afraid to send them back should they come sprinkled with pork. Three) if the fuyuan doesn’t get what green gourmet is about, say you’re a Buddhist. It might not be true but it will result in a meat free meal. Three) when you don’t feel like going through this charade, make a beeline for a Buddhist temple. Many often have their own vegetarian restaurants where you can fill up cheaply without any complications.
Essentially then, it is possible to survive as a vegetarian in Beijing, but to thrive? Well that’s an entirely different story. In a city renowned for its exciting eating out scene – there are over 60,000 restaurants in the capital and countless food stalls – veggies are left feeling short changed. It’s a situation that needs to be addressed. The demand is here – Beijing has more veggies that people think – and perhaps the Year of the Rabbit will see them bite back….