Being a vegetarian in China was particularly difficult for me on my first visit. I should have known I was in for a hard time when on the plane, my choices for a meal were beef, chicken and fish. Oh dear. Well, maybe the actual country of China will be different, I thought. I armed myself with phrases like, “No meat” and “I don’t eat any meat” in Mandarin before my trip, thinking I would avoid any misunderstandings. Not quite…
Once I arrived at my hotel (I met a group that I was teaching with and we all stayed at the hotel together), this was our dinner – very elaborate and beautiful but not very veggie-friendly.
For a long time, I lived off of steamed white rice. When I felt like splurging, I’d find a Pizza Hut (Pizza Hut is among one of the many food chains that can be found in Asia), otherwise, I found these great “digestive cookies” that tasted just like graham crackers with about 300% more fiber. They were tasty.
Later on in my trip, I learned that a good way to communicate vegetarianism is to tell people you’re Buddhist or that you want “Buddhist food” or “monk’s food” since most Buddhist monks are vegetarian and do not eat meat. This trick only worked about half of the time. I think the Chinese were more confused as to why a white person would say she is Buddhist…. just another culture speed bump.
Other food oddities I found in China:
These were beside the fish tanks at a seafood restaurant. I suppose you select the frog you want to dine on and they’ll sauté it right up for you! Never seen anything like this before.
One night in Tianjin, my teaching group went out to eat at a Korean restaurant. I’m not familiar with Korean food or Korean culture – I’ve only had layovers at the Korean airport – but from what I understand, this was the Korean version of Chinese hot pot. Yes, that’s tofu in there… along with just about any kind of meat you can think of. I wasn’t a fan of this dish but it made for some interesting pictures. My fellow teacher friends really enjoyed it!
It doesn’t take much to know that authentic Chinese food is nothing like the Americanized version of it. Many vegetable dishes I came across in China were served in a clear, gelatinous “glaze” – salty and very slimy. You won’t find this at Panda Express.
I enjoyed exploring the local markets so I could better understand the culture of Chinese food. There were some very strange things I found at the markets, things I was not used to seeing as an American or as a vegetarian.
The red bricks on the left, I thought, were some sort of veggie-infused tofu. It had a similar texture and looked like it was a soybean relative. After asking a vendor, we found out that the “red tofu” was actually curdled pig blood.
Then there were things like this in China:
And one of our favorite local hot spots in Tianjin was this place – Yummy Food.
Yummy Food served things like veggie pizza…
and chocolate-covered banana pancakes!
Some things came across felt just like home. (Although, I’m totally a Jiff girl.)
While other things made me more ill than I have ever been in my life.
My first visit to Shanghai was a disaster, on many levels. I’m convinced everything went downhill when my peanut butter was confiscated at the airport. We met up with a friend of a friend and he graciously gave us a tour of the city. He raved about this little restaurant that served noodle dishes and told me I would surely find a vegetarian dish on the menu. I had read things and heard from other travelers, DO NOT EAT THE STREET FOOD, which usually goes for any country. But, I was not in a position to be picky or high maintenance for our lovely host, so I sucked it up and crossed my fingers there wouldn’t be any “aftermath.”
In hindsight, this sign is hysterical and seems to foreshadow ….
This was the dish that, morning after, made me wish I was dead. I had the worst food poisoning of my life – vomiting + diarrhea + dirty squat toilets = most miserable time of my life. The morning after I ate this, I boarded a bus with some friends to go to Hangzhou for the day. My stomach gurgled and bubbled, my intestines rumbled and my throat hurt from puking so much. At one of the bus stations, I broke down and cried in the bathroom (again over a squat toilet) – wishing that I could teleport back to America into my cozy bed at home.
Luckily, by the time we arrived in Hangzhou, my “illness” had subsided and I was feeling better. There were more odd foods along the way but this time, I had a new appreciation for Chinese food. And sometimes (for me anyway), it’s better to just observe the foods and appreciate their uniqueness. Like these:
I will always enjoy my overseas adventures with food – particularly as a vegetarian. When we take our trip around the world, we’ll likely modify our diets to include meat or at the very least, fish. Not only will it make traveling easier but it will allow us to enjoy more of the local cultures if we can experience their cuisines. I’m sure one can circumnavigate the globe as a vegetarian but I’m not sure I’m the vegetarian to try it. If you have any tips, advice or suggestions on either foods to try or places for foodies like us to visit, please let us know! We’re up for [just about] anything!
Here’s to never-ending adventures with food. Happy eating!