In a country where food is so ingrained into the culture, it’s no wonder that a common greeting in China is 吃饭了吗? (Chi fan le ma?) which literally translates to ‘have you eaten?’ but is used as more of a ‘what’s up?’. There is a huge social emphasis placed on food. People usually eat communally and when ordering food, it is commonplace to order various dishes which are set on the table and shared by everyone. I prefer this style of eating, rather than the usual western way of ordering just one dish for yourself as I am so indecisive, and there’s nothing worse than food envy when the orders arrive for you to discover you’ve made an awful mistake. One thing that does make this more difficult though, is being a vegetarian. Meat is a central part of the Chinese diet and it can feel awkward at times, restricting other people who may feel as if they need to take your dietary requirements into consideration and pick a certain restaurant or order based on this.
The kind of meat dishes they offer here could intimidate even the most adventurous carnivore. We’re talking frogs, eels, duck blood, cow tongue, chicken feet and sometimes they have live animals in a restaurant ready for your choosing. Side note: no, it’s not common for Chinese people to eat dogs. That is a myth. Yes, there is an annual festival in Yulin, but the other provinces criticise it, just like the international community does. The festival itself only actually began in 2009, and is not representative of Chinese culture at all. I also don’t really understand why people are so horrified at the prospect of people eating dogs, but not other animals? Just because we’ve decided to domesticate some, their lives are now worth more than other more commonly eaten animals like cows, pigs, etc? Excuse me while my eyes roll into the back of my head.
I became a vegetarian – or technically, a pescetarian as I still ate fish – when I was about thirteen years old. It admittedly took me a long time to eventually transition to become a ‘full’ vegetarian, which I only really managed a year ago after doing so on and off. This is why coming to Shanghai about six months after that transition was so testing, and eventually (six weeks in) led me to decide to allow myself to eat fish if I felt I needed to for the duration of my stay. When I leave China this summer, it won’t be an issue to revert back, but it’s just been too much of a struggle while I’m here.
To get an idea of how ingrained meat is into Chinese culture, there goes a saying in China which roughly translates to: If it has four legs and it’s not a table, we eat it. If it has wings and is not an airplane, we eat it. My teacher demonstrated the extent of this when she relayed an incident when her friend had told her about a new animal, and her first response was: can we eat it? In some guidebooks, on the section in which they give advice for vegetarians, they (in jest) suggest to just give up. Of course, it’s not impossible to sustain a vegetarian diet here, especially in the larger cities like Shanghai and Beijing where there is a multitude of restaurants to choose from. However, it isn’t simply a lack of vegetarian dishes that are available, but the understanding of the lifestyle itself.
It’s not even a simple case of language barriers. Even whilst out for dinner with Chinese friends, there have been occasions where they have had to stress several times to the waiter that there can’t be any meat in a certain dish and are met with a confused look. My friend took me for soup dumplings and even when I could see there was pork in the broth, she insisted it was fine as it wasn’t inside the actual dumplings. I’ve found this quite common when I have told street food sellers that I’m a vegetarian and ask if their product has any meat. They try to reassure me with the reply, 一点 (yi dian) which means ‘only a little’ as if this would make it acceptable for a veggie to consume. Imagine my despair when my Chinese friend told me that most of the time dim sum contains meat, or when we were dividing up a moon-cake for the mid-Autumn festival and SURPRISE SURPRISE I can’t have any because it contains meat.
This issue can sometimes make it an issue to order even the most basic vegetable dishes. This is because they are often cooked in the same animal stock or fat as other dishes. It’s also not uncommon to use meat to garnish dishes of vegetables. I have found that pork is the most common meat to randomly pop up in dishes that I have ordered. For this reason, I personally find it easier to stick to a vegetarian diet most of the time, but to consume fish if there are no other viable options in a restaurant. I feel horrifically guilty about it, but I’ve come to the conclusion that for now this is the best way for me. Don’t judge me, alas, I am weak.
If you are new to Shanghai or China, then navigating as a veggie can be tough. Memorise or write down this phrase so that you can show waiters or food sellers when you are ordering:
To get 100% vegetarian food, your best bet is to go to an eatery in a Buddhist temple. Some of my favourite vegetarian restaurants in Shanghai include:
Godly (which has been around since 1922)
Pure and Whole
Vegetarian Lifestyle (the Luwan branch)
Of course, there aren’t even a fraction of the amount of vegetarian restaurants that exist in London. I really took it for granted just how easy it is back home to sustain this kind of lifestyle and is one of the things that I’m actually looking forward to going back home to. For now though, the answer is tofu (who knew it could come in so many different forms?!) and too many steamed buns.