Wednesday, 7 December 2011

eight treasures rice and vegan compromises

sticky rice on a stick

Being a vegan in China can be hard, and sometimes you try your hardest and you still can't be sure. I've been having a lot of problems lately, judging myself and worrying about being judged. I went to a Greenpeace event a few weeks back, where a (white, British) vegan scolded me for going to non-vego restaurants with my non-vego friends. The first vegan I met here, on my first day, came with us all to a restaurant and then didn't eat a thing. She told me she never eats at non-vego restaurants, and I thought at first, that's a bit hardcore. But having been here five weeks now, I realise it's what she has to do to be totally confident that she's living animal-free.

The only time I'm confident that my meal has no animal products is when I'm in my house and I'm cooking for myself, and when I visit the vegan restaurant down the road (and most of the time I'm confident about the vego restaurants, too, if I ask the right questions). The term vegetarian food (素菜) here is generally understood as 'there's no meat as a main ingredient', and it sometimes means I get a bit of a mince garnish on my beans, a little pork in my eggplant. Today at lunch I asked 'does this have meat?' The chef looked at me and was like 'why?', as if it was a ridiculous question to ask. I once asked 'does this have egg?' and got the answer, 'it doesn't have egg, it's sweet!'; but I'm pretty sure it had an egg-wash. I giggled and ate it anyway, because it was a friend's grandmother and she'd gone to so much effort to get vego treats for me.

I'm making these compromises or having these questions at least a couple of days a week. I try my hardest to stay vegan, but even speaking Mandarin I can never be quite sure, and I worry about what people would think, if they knew that today I picked the egg out of my meal and kept eating rather than having to miss lunch.

This is part of the reason why reviews have dropped off. I've eaten a lot of amazing meals since I've arrived here, and my friends in Beijing, every one of them a meat eater, let me pick almost every dish when we go out for food. I've discovered some delicious local dishes, filled with unexpected combinations (cabbage + glass noodles, I don't know how to describe this wonder). I'm for the most part content with the decisions I'm making, but I feel like I cannot with confidence recommend these places to people, for fear that I'm wrong. I've made my peace with knowing I lose my vegan powers intermittently during my time here, but I don't want to put other vegos and vegans unknowingly at risk. I'm thinking about starting to review the places I go to, but adding caveats about how hard it was to be confident it was vegan and other things like that.

Anyway, this eight treasures pudding on a stick. I thought it was vegan but in hindsight I don't think it was, which pisses me off because it was delicious and in a way serves me right for being too intimidated by the Jinan accent to ask. Steamed in a bamboo stem and served on a stick and filled with fruits, what genius! Also genius: the eggs on a stick. Cracked into moulds and fried on to the stick. Obviously not vegan but interesting to look at.


K said...

I totally get it, I imagine Hong Kong is much easier to get vegan dshes, but even there with Toby speaking cantonese can't be sure if dishes are vegan. Hope eating issues aside you are having an amazing experience!

Cindy said...

This is a really useful reflection. I'm glad you've at least made peace with yourself over it!

FWIW, I think your idea of adding a note about likelihood-of-veganness would be an excellent way to proceed. Readers can decide for themselves whether it's "vegan enough" to visit, and we can all enjoy looking at what you're eating. :-)

Keira said...

You're not in any way alone on this - its not even 100% that the food I get in non-capital-city Australia is vegan, where I have the same language and accent as the wait staff. Still things have egg wash, or margarine, or chicken stock powder.

As soon as you add cultural and language differences to the mix, things get pretty unsure.

I'm with Cindy- blog what you have time and inclination to, and let people decide for themselves. Besides, you might find out for-sure what isn't vegan via the comments :)

Johanna GGG said...

I think this sort of reflection is refreshing because I am sure that there are many of us (myself included) who find that the lovely veg meal wasn't quite as veg as we thought and it gets tiring to be constantly alert. I think it is important to be open to non-veg friendships but to also find your vegan-safe-spaces. Good luck with navigating your way through the food maze.

Yaz said...

As a long time vegetarian, I still wonder why we tie ourselves in knots about this. I'm quite sure the Vegan Secret Police haven't locked anyone up in years.
I appreciate your reflections on this, and living in HK I have similar issues but at some point we also have to consider our relationships with others, and how these are shaped by our food choices.

Eloise said...

I never sweat the small stuff. I just do my best to eat animal-free without becoming a total recluse! I'm lucky enough to have no allergies or intolerances (or religious reason) to need 100% perfect avoidance, and hell, we all know that accidentally eating the wrong thing here and there isn
t the end of the world if your reasons are purely political and in the interests of animals rather than impressing your mates.

The vegan who paid you out for not being "vegan enough" is a dick.

steph said...

@K thanks, I am! Well, mostly. Moving and getting settled has been very stressful, and I am not dealing well with the cold. I am missing summer! But it's okay, at the very least.

@Cindy yes, I've started whipping out my camera now too so hopefully I'll start blogging some restaurants soon!

@Keira - yeah, those things are certainly issues even without other barriers! I've always been pretty accepting about 'things just happen,' but it's just that they seem to happen so much more here. :o/

@Johanna - thanks! I'm trying. :o) and hopefully I'll be more successul than not.

@Yaz yeah I'm just trying to be comfortable and do my best. I guess that's all any of us can really do (unless we only eat at home). And I do wonder why we continue to beat ourselves up - for me I honestly think it's the fear of what others will think.

@Eloise my problem is if I get dairy-ed I get sick! But yeah I know what you mean, aside from that my motivations are political and about making the effort, and if I'm making the effort then that's what's important. I'm still making a difference, even with the impurities. :o)

nixwilliams said...

thanks for this great post, steph. there've been a couple of times recently when visiting people where i've let things slide (gelatine in the cream sort of thing). they've made an effort to be vegetarian and i didn't warn them to read the labels, so... *shrug*

vaguely related, in a "being veg*n in another country" way, i've noticed a couple of restaurants here in the uk are strict enough with their "vegetarian" label to not list things as vegetarian if they use cheese made with animal rennet. as you know, my vegetarianism does a bit of a swerve around cheese, but having non-animal-rennet cheese visible on the menu makes it so much easier for me to choose it! SORRY FOR TALKING ABOUT CHEESE SO MUCH ON YOUR VEGAN BLOG.