Vegans’ Quest in China: A Spicy Affair and an Ounce of Courage

china-veg1Call it a spicy affair, if you will. India and China, two of the oldest civilizations in the world, are culturally welded in many respects; one of them is surely the love of spices. Walking through a tiny grocery store in a northern Chinese town, I was struck by the mind-boggling array of spices. With all the ingredients written in Chinese characters, I had to rely upon the images on the cartons or in some cases the smell and texture of the spice to find out that they were the Chinese variations of the standard Indian masalas, like the garam masala, turmeric powder, cumin, dhaniya powder, a range of red chilly powders —  basically all the household Indian spices are used in China as well. I couldn’t help but feel a bit nostalgic and excited to see the spices I grew up with, readily available in a small shop in China.

Nonetheless, a pure Indian vegetarian in China, who, often for religious reasons, does not even eat something partially cooked in animal fat, may feel a bit appalled at the foods available here. The sight of the variety of meats cooked and eaten, even if those meats are sprinkled with a combination of garam masala and cumin powder, may be slightly offending. Watching a turtle being sliced, belly up, and served or simply added to boiling water, may also come as a surprise and shock to an Indian vegetarian. As would a snake stretched, diced and served. While the list of exotic animals served is a long one, getting vegetarian food is a quest of sorts, albeit it’s of a slightly different kind.

Chinese restaurants are filled with delectable and heavily spiced vegetarian options. Sometimes it may be necessary to reconfirm with the wait staff that just as shown in the picture, the vegetarian dish actually comes with no meat, not even as an additional seasoning. Chinese restaurant staff are almost always patient with their foreign guests and would be willing to work with even the staunchest vegetarian. Strongly communicating, wo bu yao ro, or “I don’t want meat,” can go a long way in having a palatable relationship with Chinese cuisine. And for those who do not wish to take the risk, there are the hot pot options, where everything can potentially be vegetarian, or the international restaurants where the wait staff understands food preference in English.

china-vegIrrespective of a person’s food habits, China can provide a fascinating culinary experience. It’s common to find people sitting around small plastic tables, munching on some spiced crunchy grasshoppers or locusts while drinking Tsingtao Beer. It’s also common to find meats like beef, pork, donkey, chicken fetus, pigeon, silk worms, or any other common animal being doused with oils and spices and grilled at the chuar or barbeque stand. It’s hard to tell a chicken fetus when it’s being browned on the grill with some string beans, or bread alongside. But with its awkward size and tiny chick beak still intact, it certainly does not resemble chicken wings. It’s a hairless chick that still belongs inside the shell but it’s pulled out way too soon and arranged on the grill. It makes for a popular snack on a stick. Chicken fetus or eggs that are just about to hatch are also available for purchase at the local grocery store, still in their shells; they can be bought by weight. But it’s easy enough to stay away from those options if they’re not appetising.

Then there are those unexpected surprises found in some corner of an aisle in a market – the Chinese version of aam papad or the flattened, sun-dried mango pulp; chiki made with peanuts or sesame seeds and tasting almost the same as those found in India. Or, an even bigger surprise was to find the thick sweetened yogurt drink, lassi, being sold in small clay pots as a very popular summer drink in Beijing. These tiny surprises immediately make this foreign country feel more familiar.

china-veg2Indian cuisine is pretty popular in China. However, similar to other international cuisines, like German, Thai, American or Italian, Indian cuisine is also seen as somewhat of a luxury food intended for foreigners who can pay the high prices for the curries and naan. Located in the upscale neighborhoods of the city, Indian restaurants attract guests from India, Europe, America, Canada and others.

The cooks that work at these restaurants are brought from India and they are paid an above average salary for working in China. Even in a smaller Chinese city, it’s common to find an Indian restaurant. While the food at Indian restaurants in smaller Chinese cities may not be comparable to that which is found in Shanghai or Beijing, the option is still there. Sometimes it’s even possible to talk to the cook directly and he can prepare the food as per an Indian person’s palate. So for an Indian vegetarian in China, there’s always the option of visiting the Indian restaurant and indulging in some naan and curry and also finishing up with some chai and gulab jamun.

So when I asked my Chinese students what they knew about India, the unanimous answer, besides the popular Bollywood song, was that they knew about “the flying biscuit”, as they called it. Or the naan, as people in India call it. Almost all the students also knew the flying gesture with a little twist to make the naan a little thinner and longer. They had all seen it on TV or Indian restaurants somewhere in China and were fascinated by “the flying biscuit.”

(Neha Sharma is a writer and an educator currently living in Dalian, China and working at Dalian University of Technology.)