Vegetarian food in China

Buddhism is closely associated with vegetarian eating. However, although Buddhism has been an influential religion in China for centuries, vegetarian restaurant or food products are not that abundantly and overtly available.

A fellow student of mine who has been a vegetarian all his life once returned from a visit to China even skinnier than he already was. He claimed that he regularly had problems in China to find genuinely vegetarian dishes in restaurants as Chinese often use small quantities of meat, in particular pork, to flavour food.

Another reason could be that vegetables have always played a bigger role in Chinese cuisine than in meat-based European cuisines. But Chinese also believe in a well-balanced meal, so a few vegetable-based dishes need to be complemented with some meat or seafood. Leaving out animal protein altogether does not result in a balanced meal. As a result, most Chinese perceive their cuisine as ‘mainly’ vegetarian.

November 25 marks the World Vegetarian Day, which is an excellent excuse to have a look at history of vegetarianism in China.

Not all about Buddhism

Most Chinese people would be familiar with an ancient quotation from their high school textbook: “people who eat meat are shallow minded.” The quote is from the ancient book of Zuo Zhuan, the earliest annals in China. “People who eat meat” refers to the privileged that belong to high class, for only noble people were recorded to have access to eat meat in ancient China for a certain period of time.

According to Book of Rites (Li Ji), a historical record written during the Zhou Dynasty (c.11th century-256 BC), the kind of meat people ate was closely related to their social status. Only emperors could eat beef every day. Hereditary rulers and noblemen often had mutton and could enjoy some beef on the first day of each month of the Chinese lunar calendar. Most of the time, the common people only had meat-free meals. However, the book also recorded that the nobles needed to stay away from meat when they were on a fast. When somebody died in the family, they went without meat during mourning.

When Buddhism first entered China later in the Han Dynasty (202 BC-220 AD), there were no strict rules about monks’ eating habit. However, emperor Xiao Yan from the Southern Dynasty (420-589) changed everything. He strongly promoted vegetarianism in Buddhist temples by issuing an order to force monks to adopt a vegetarian lifestyle, and abstain from alcohol.

Some temples also became well-known for their delicate vegetarian food. In Qing Bai Lei Chao, a book from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), four such famous temples were mentioned: Fa Yuan Temple in Beijing, Ding Hui Temple in Zhenjiang, Bai Yun Temple in Shanghai, and Yan Xia Dong in Hangzhou.

Vegetarian dishes

The Qi Min Yao Shu written in the Southern and Northern Dynasties (420-581), widely recognised as one of the earliest agricultural books in China, recorded 11 vegetarian recipes. The vegetables mentioned in the book included spring onion, leek, wax gourd, mushroom and eggplant. Later vegetarianism became relatively popular in the Tang and Song dynasties (618-1279). According Meng Liang Lu, a book from the Song Dynasty, there were even shops that specialized in vegetarian cakes. The book recorded about 25 kinds of meat-free cakes made from dates and chestnuts.

Vegetarian food not only enjoyed more categories, but also more lovely names since the Song Dynasty. There was a kind of cake, named “cakes make cats drunk”, recorded in a book Qing Yi Lu from the Song Dynasty. The cake was made from peppermint and dill, two plants with a strong odour.

Lifestyle food

Vegetarian food gradually become a more delicate choice for ancient Chinese. Li Yu, an aesthetician who was also good at literature, from the Qing Dynasty, praised the vegetarian food as the most valuable delicacy. “In my opinion, beef, mutton and fish are not as good as meat of wild animals. However, the taste of the latter ones cannot compete with vegetables,” Li said in his Xian Qing Ou Ji, a book about his opinions on drama, dance, costume, makeup, architecture and food. Having said that, a typical feature of Chinese vegetarian cuisine is that it aims to perfectly imitate meat. Vegetarian duck looks like duck, tastes like duck and has a texture like duck. The picture shows an example with beancurd sheet (doupi) to imitate the skin.

Chinese people had less eye for vegetarian food during hard years of the republican era and the early decades of the People’s Republic of China, the increase of the living standard of ordinary people increased so much, that they were too happy with the new access to meat, that vegetarian was part of another universe. It was during the post 80s, 90s and even 00s, Chinese consumer interest shifted for subsistence to personal health and body care.

On Douban, a popular Chinese social media platform, there are more than 50 groups on vegetarianism. Users discuss the vegetarian lifestyle or share vegetarian recipes in such groups. Many vegetarians also write blogs to share their daily meals with readers, among which, some even publish their own recipes.

Benniao and Tudouni, two vegetarians based in Beijing and Chengdu, came to know each other on the internet through sharing vegetarian recipes. They set up a blog, Creative Kitchen of Two Vegetarians, on Sina Blog in 2006. Since then, they have been posting their recipes for vegetarians. In 2008, their first cook book Creative Kitchen of Two Vegetarians was published. The book provides about 200 vegetarian recipes according to the vegetables sold in four seasons. Its sequel about another 180 vegetarian dishes came out in 2010. Xiao Bai, a post-1980s vegetarian cook, attracts 30,000 followers on Douban and around 40,000 followers on Sina Weibo. From 2011, she began sharing on Douban the photos of the meat-free dishes she made. The food was aesthetically featured in the pictures, which soon attracted a lot of attention. One year later, her first cook book, Record of Vegetarian Xiao Bai, was published.

Industrially manufactured vegetarian dishes have also become a lucrative market. This picture shows industrially produced vegetarian duck bites.

Ingredients: soy beans, salt, cooking wine, chili

Vegetarian restaurants can now be found in all Chinese major cities.

Eurasia Consult Food knows the Chinese food industry since 1985. Follow us on Twitter.

Eurasia Consult Consulting can help you embed your business in Chinese society.

Peter Peverelli is active in and with China since 1975.

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