There is Vegetarian Chinese Food

2015-10-05 18.05.15I’ve said this before: there is hope for vegetarians in China, but nobody believed me. So when I was in China last week, I took photos of completely vegetarian food that appeared for one dinner. This is not food that is available next to every Buddhist temple in China, although that is definitely a good option for vegetarians. No, this is every-day food, your garden variety veggies. The photo above is of two vegetarian dishes: sauteed Chinese cabbage, served in a soya gravy, and bread with a molasses dip. Both are wonderful dishes.

2015-10-05 18.07.13The next thing is not gobi Manchurian. That is about as authentic as Jain Bombay Duck. This is a stir fried cauliflower with Szechuan chilis. Nice and warm on the tongue. I love cauliflower made Indian style, and I loved it Chinese style. This is definitely something you can find every day.

2015-10-08 18.11.42This is one hell of an exotic dish: boiled celery and red peppers with cashew. Everything in this dish has a terrific crunch. It was a dish that I helped myself to every time it came around. I haven’t even mentioned the various things called pancakes in China: these are what would be called stuffed parathas in India.

2015-10-05 17.32.33Those were four dishes clicked during one single dinner! There’s also rice, and other great stuff like lotus stem: pickled in brine and chilis, or stir fried, or even made into a soup. The soup may be a little suspect, because you do not know what stock has gone into it. But there is always this ultimate in vegetarian delights: the red wine. The Great Wall which we had was not super smooth, like some of the new Indian wines, but it is quite palatable.

A couple of months ago I invited a staunch vegetarian for a beer, and I was surprised when he refused. "Beer has yeast", he told me by way of explanation. I reminded him of various breads, including naan, which I’ve seen him eat. He refused to believe me. I told him that yeast does not belong to the animal kingdom. That did not cut ice, either. So, if you are one of those who do not drink fermented alcohol, then take heart: the Chinese love distilled liquor. Say the magic word baijiu (白酒, meaning white alcohol) and you get a bottle of grain distilled alcohol immediately.

2015-10-05 18.09.02Be warned that some dishes are suspect. During the meal where I took the other photos, I also got the noodle soup whose photo is just above. I love the floury taste of this kind of plain noodle soup, but I’m certain that this is not vegetarian. These noodles have certainly been boiled in a meat stock.

With a little bit of common sense, and a picturre menu, a vegetarian can live very well in China. I talked about this to my fellow learners of Mandarin. There are many vegetarians in the class, and some have been to China. They all agree.

Don’t worry (too much) about eating in China

While we were planning our trip to China, we were inundated with suggestions about how to eat in China. Most Indians have a horror of the kind of food they will find in China. Most of this turns out to be untrue. The Family had never been to China, and did not trust my suggestion that she will not dislike Chinese food: I’ve been labelled as a person who will enjoy the strangest kind of food. So a fair fraction of our baggage allowance was long-lasting Indian food.

But now, as we near the end of our trip, a large weight of food is left over, because we enjoyed the food and ate a lot. And, of course, we have put on a few kilos each. We will have to work hard to shed them when we get back to Mumbai. One of my colleagues from India, who is also here on work, is a strict vegetarian, and has never gone hungry in China. So The Family and I thought we would put together some advise for Indians eating in China.

Rule Zero: You will begin to miss Indian food if you travel in China (or any other country) for a while. So carry snacks, and decide how you are going to deal with the sudden urge to eat dal. Will you carry some heat-and-eat packets, or use the Indian embassy’s list of Indian restaurant?

Vegetarians: Do not go to fast food places, they are mainly meat based, and it is unlikely that someone will speak enough English to be able to help you. Restaurants inside malls are reasonably priced, there are lots of choices, and the picture menus (subtitles in English and Chinese) help you to decide whether or not something is vegetarian. You can eat calmly (or qualm-lessly) in these place. There are many vegetarian dishes: cabbage, cauliflower, eggplant, bhindi, pumpkin, lotus, yams, mushrooms, tofu. Point and order. Plain boiled rice is called mifan, and can be ordered separately even if it is not on the menu. The Chinese make a thing like a stuffed paratha, but their translation into English is pancakes. We had a wonderful pumpkin filled paratha/pancake. If the paratha has a meat filling, then the menu will say it.

Cautious non-vegetarian: Again, avoid fast food places and go to malls. The picture menus with English and Chinese subtitles are useful. Mutton is called yang rou, chicken is called ji rou. Fish is good. Eggs can be strange. Pancakes can taste very Indian. Beef is called niu rou, pork is zhu rou, no is mei you (so, no beef becomes mei you niu rou). There are many Muslim restaurants which will give you things which are like kababs. Muslim restaurants serve mostly mutton. Just memorize the names of the meats.

2015-05-29 21.16.12Bakeries and cafes: There are many western style bakeries and cafe chains. They all have completely recognizable food: breads, cakes, sandwiches, waffles. If you cannot survive on green tea, then you can get coffees and teas at these cafes. Be warned two cups of coffee may cost you as much as your dinner.

Typically our dinners are three dishes: a vegetable dish, a meat, and a fish, along with two bowls of plain boiled rice. This costs us RMB 120 to 200. Purely vegetarian meals can be a little cheaper. In malls you can expect to be able to get knives and forks if you want. Hot water is free, every other drink comes at a cost.

Do not panic, as the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy says.

Yin and Yang

2015-05-12 20.29.58It is a mysterious fact that in China beer can be had warm or cold. Once The Family found that her beer was cool but not cold. She asked the waiter to give her a colder beer. A long confused interval later the waiter went away with the offending bottle and brought back a warm beer. Now when The Family insisted that she did not want this but a cold beer, there was utter consternation. Other waiters were called in to resolve the issue. A few of the patrons got involved and eventually we got back the cool beer and a jug of ice. Now I have learnt to write and say cold (lerng in Mandarin) and live with luke-cold beer.

There is a similar cultural confusion about water. Plain water in restaurants is always served piping hot. When you ask for water (shui in Mandarin) it comes steaming in glasses. Tea is not always served freshly infused and hot. In fast food places (read lunch-time noodle restaurants) tea will be sweet and canned. If you think you can get away by asking for it hot (tang in Mandarin), prepare to be surprised: you will get the same can at room temperature.

2015-05-19 19.48.51I realized this one afternoon when we went out for a quick lunch with one of our hosts. We ordered tea and got cans of sweet and cold green tea. Our hosts said she wanted a warm can because this is not good for us. My colleague, also a foreigner, said he’s had it without facing problems. Then our host said "This is because you are male. Males are yang, and they have heat. For a woman it is not good to have cold, because women are Yin". None of us had an appropriate reply for this.

Beliefs in traditional ways of thinking about health and medicines runs deep, and is strongly tied to how you eat and drink. We were offered medicines which would keep our liver from getting "fatty". I asked whether diet would help, but I was told that for liver there is no diet. It will take us long to understand this aspect of Chinese living.