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Vegetarians… to be or not to be.
Being the closest living human relative to the great carnivorous beasts that roamed our planet many millions of years ago, the vast array of dishes containing members of the animal kingdom was a personal delight on arriving in Beijing.
From conventional dishes like Kung Pao Chicken to tripe and more exotic treats, Chinese cuisine is full of enjoyment for the meat eater.
Hot pot is a particular favorite, which can easily turn into a mini-festival to cooked animal sustenance.
As you can imagine, until recently the plight of the vegetarian in Beijing had gone totally unnoticed by me, being too ensconced in animal parts heaven to realize it could be a hardship to eat to personal specification.
Vegetarians are social creatures too though, so it was only a matter of time before our paths crossed. Discovering a vegetarian at dinner last weekend illustrated just how challenging eating out can be in Beijing for the meat-adverse.
It was politely and clearly conveyed to those ordering that the man in question would be unable to eat any meat-containing items on the menu and therefore if they could please order a vegetable dish or two to consider his culinary preference it would be much appreciated.
Naturally, the request was duly honored, but this is where the struggle began – how to fully identify which dishes contained meat or not?
Vegetarianism was something seemingly incomprehensible to the waiting staff who frequently gave contradictory information about the ingredients of the food in front of us.
Whilst over-analysis could be considered unfair, it seems not unreasonable to enquire whether something contains delicious meat or has vegetable-munching security without being overly-picky.
A typical exchange, in Chinese of course, would consist of asking whether an item was made from vegetables (it often was), but then double-checking as to whether it contained meat, it invariably did. However many times vegetarianism was explained, it seemed beyond the comprehension of the serving staff at this particular restaurant.
Granted, the food industry in all countries is geared toward the majority’s tastes, but it’s usual to see some dishes marked up with vegetarian-friendly symbols so the herbivores among us can graze in relative ease.
In Beijing, it’s almost as if vegetarians are considered genetically engineered to eat side-dishes as they’re condemned to picking at these portions rather than cracking on with the main plates like the rest of us.
Avoiding meat isn’t really a popular lifestyle choice in Beijing – I’m yet to meet a Chinese person who’s very particular on food, unless they’re religiously inclined.
Vegetarianism is becoming quite a popular lifestyle choice in the West though, so it’s likely just a matter of time before it catches on here.
The environmentalists are also particularly keen on vegetarianism gaining popularity in Asia.
Not a day seems to go by without meat-eating being linked to every world problem, whether it’s global warming or finite resources, eating animals is high up on the list.
As I have been somewhat critical of Beijing’s awareness when it comes to vegetarians though, there is evidence to remind us of Beijing’s slowly growing reputation as one of the most culturally diverse and tolerant of Chinese cities.
Indeed, there are a growing number of restaurants offering largely vegetarian fare: 32 are listed among popular English-language directory listings as catering purely for the plant-eating types amongst us, located all across the city.
If such a way of life appeals to you, perhaps eating at these establishments is one sure-fire way to avoid the potentially troublesome situation in a standard restaurant, although I wouldn’t recommend eating there too often if you wish to continue to socialize with your carnivorous friends.
(By Edward Mills)