A taste of Chinese vegetarianism

As non-meat restaurants proliferate in China, diners are flocking to them for many reasons: flavour, nutrition, ethics, faith, culture, fashion, food safety and environmental concerns. Zhou Wei reports.

The roast imitation meat is all gone, but the waitress points at our leftovers. “Coriander’s tasty and nutritious — you should finish it too. Waste not, want not.” Embarrassed, I follow her instructions. Along with food, the Vegan Hut restaurant in Beijing’s trendy Jianwai Soho apartment complex — a small but upscale restaurant — also provides reading material on the environment and health and sells organic foodstuffs. (I even found a copy of chinadialogue’s Chinese-language journal on the bookshelf.)

“I’m surprised there’s somewhere so quiet and cultured at Jianwai Soho,” observed my fiancé, who works nearby.

Quiet, cultured — and the food’s good too. These seem to be the characteristics of vegetarian restaurants. On the city’s North Third Ring Road, for example, sits Xiangyang Xiaozhu, which has become increasingly popular in the seven years it’s been open. Proprietor Liu Yuefan tells us that “with the dishes I make, the most important thing is taste”. People often misunderstand, she says, thinking that vegetarian food won’t be tasty or nutritious – but it can be both. It’s just that many mainstream restaurants don’t put any effort in to making it so.

Tasty food doesn’t have to be oily or have strong flavours, either. Gourmet cook and vegetarian Gao Yan recounted the recipes and flavours of a whole list of her dishes. She uses only a little salt and oil and brings out the flavour of the ingredients. Mild does not need to mean bland; it has its own flavour.

Yu Li — boss of the Vegan Hut and a vegan nutritionist who has been meat-free for 20 years — stresses that the restaurant advocates a vegan above a vegetarian diet. Using only plants, veganism explicitly rules out eggs and dairy products. But even so, he says, it is still possible to make delicious – and nutritious — Chinese dishes and even authentic western ones.

Awareness of vegetarianism has been rising in China, says Yu Li; there are more customers now, and more restaurants for them to go to. In Beijing alone there are around 100, whereas seven to 10 years ago you could number them on your fingers. In southern China, vegetarian restaurants are more plentiful than in the north.

Liu Yuefan says that only 10% of her customers actually are vegetarian. The rest come for many reasons – taste, food safety, concern for the environment and the restaurant’s atmosphere. At Xiangyang Xiaozhu, the fragrance of incense lingers, calligraphy and paintings hang for sale by the entrance, a tall bookcase stands full of works on Buddhism, health and vegetarianism, and in one corner there is a niche for a statue of Buddha. It’s more like a cultural venue than a restaurant, and many people have started to learn about Buddhism here.

A significant proportion of China’s vegetarian restaurants have a Buddhist atmosphere like Xiangyang Xiaozhu. Many of those in Beijing were started by lay Buddhists or monks. For many vegetarian restaurants, cultural propagation and exchange are important aspects of the business. Liu Yuefan says she opened the restaurant so she could make and spend money doing something that makes her happy, sharing the food, culture and lifestyle that she enjoys.

The Vegan Hut represents a different type of restaurant. There, 70% of customers are female, 30% to 40% are foreigners, and 30% to 40% are strict vegetarians. The Vegan Hut advocates healthy and organic eating, and strives to use organic and non-GMO ingredients – and that attracts many customers concerned about food safety and health. Yu Li says he wants to sign up 500 members to a vegan club, with group-buying of organic foods and tailored vegetarian diets for each member.

In terms of pricing, vegetarian restaurants are often at the mid-to-high end of the range. There’s no abalone or sea cucumber or expensive alcohol, but the carefully prepared and flavoursome dishes, costly organic ingredients and cultural atmosphere are all selling points. Eating vegetarian has become a fashion choice for many Chinese.

Vegetarianism is, in fact, closely tied to China’s small-scale farming culture. At the Chinese New Year in February, Sanlian Life Weekly published a special edition on vegetarian eating, looking at the growing, processing, cooking, history and culture of traditional Chinese ingredients such as bamboo shoots, mushrooms, leafy greens, grains, sweet potatoes and tofu. According to the magazine: “Chinese people live in a nation with a longer history of agricultural cultivation than any other, and the love of plant-based foods is almost rooted in our souls, an instinct.”

The increase in the number of vegetarians in China was explained thus: “It is no coincidence that vegetarianism is flourishing at the same time that everything else is flourishing. People are looking for finer and more graceful lifestyles, and vegetarianism is one of these.”

And more are turning vegetarian for another reason: food safety. There are more toxins in meat than people ever imagined, and vegetarianism may be a safer option. (Yu Li contends that even eating vegetables contaminated with pesticides or fertiliser is safer and healthier than eating meat.) Livestock breeding is shifting from small-scale farmers to factory farms, with output and profits both up – but a series of food-safety issues also has arisen, with no quick solutions for many of them.

Many urban residents, seeing reports of additives, hormones and contaminants in animal feed, are opting to avoid meat. While eating at a vegetarian restaurant might be a popular choice when meeting up with friends or when just enjoying a change, many people also are eating vegetarian meals regularly at home.

For some, there also are reasons of ethics, faith and culture in choosing vegetarianism.

Jing Meng, a local culture educator with a civil-society group, described her experiences with vegetarianism. Once when her mother was ill, she was sent to the market in her place; she saw a fish-seller stun and gut a live fish – and from then on she avoided meat as much as possible. That was the first time she’d seen the brutality involved in a live animal becoming food in a shopping basket, Jing Meng said.  

Her family objected to her becoming vegetarian, and her mother deliberately prepared plenty of meat dishes to try and “cure” her problem. Jing Meng said she did what she could in response. If she could eat only the vegetables from a dish, she would; if there wasn’t anything else to eat, she wouldn’t refuse the meat. Now her family have come to accept her vegetarianism.

Zhao Kun, a student and practitioner of Chinese traditional culture, said that when studying Chinese medicine and culture she gradually realised the benefits of not eating meat and started to avoid it. Modern people are too concerned with delicious flavours, she believes, and those desires bring unnecessary problems. Sometimes, Zhao Kun says, she holds back her own appetites, exercising restraint as a kind of spiritual practice.

In early-Qing dynasty dramatist Li Yu’s Occasional Notes With Leisure Motions, he tells us to avoid rich and greasy food and to be content without meat. This is no longer a simple culinary choice, but a way for man and nature to live together in harmony.

Yu Li says that he decided to open a vegan restaurant in 2006 after reading the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation’s report Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options. He says he’s come to realise veganism is at the root of solutions to many of the world’s food, environmental, economic and greenhouse-gas problems. In comparison, eating meat is the resource-hungry choice: 36% of food crops go to animal fodder, and only 47% used to feed people. The felling of forests, consumption and pillaging of resources, poverty, the food crisis – all of these are linked to the way we eat.

He hopes his restaurant will persuade more people to adopt veganism, and says he really has seen awareness increase over the years. Yu Li emphasises that vegetarians should not be seen as strange, and that vegetarianism does not have to be absolute. People can reduce the amount of meat they eat as they feel willing. If more people choose to eat less meat, there is more hope that our environment will improve.

Zhou Wei is associate editor in chinadialogue’s Beijing office.

Homepage image by Zhou Wei