Vegan in China

Article by Natalya Benjamin

For most people, the idea of veganism seems an extreme and unthinkable lifestyle. For others it’s a curious challenge. For me, it’s an option I take each day because I think it can better our planet.

Too much? Sorry, we vegans can get a bit emotional sometimes.

10-2I just want to calm those of you who’re apprehensive now, thinking that I’m about to preach to you about joining the VEGAN MOVEMENT! Relax, that’s not what I’m about. As much as I strongly believe in veganism, I don’t believe in being a tyrant on people or myself. This is more of an insight in to how I maintain my way of life whilst living in a country so opposed to everything it goes against. Let me start from the very beginning…

I first decided to become a vegan back in 2012, before I came to China. Although it was tricky at first trying to get over my meat and dairy cravings, the vegetarian and dairy-free options were plentiful, which helped a lot. I really miss soy yoghurt and being able to order vegan options in restaurants or find good vegan products in the supermarket.

Alas, when I ventured to China at the end of that same year I was faced with a never-ending meat supply hidden in every vegetable dish, exciting new cakes I’d never experienced before and the lure of weird and wonderful snacks found in the labyrinth of street food markets.

Part gluttony, part intrigue, there was so much food I hadn’t tried before that I succumbed to my inner demons and lost my way on the vegan path. Two years later and 10kg heavier I felt awful, both inside and out. Not only had I abused my stomach and my toilet to the most horrendous extremes, but I’d thrown aside my beliefs about animal consumption to make way for my greedy desires for food, and that felt even worse. I hadn’t just slipped up, I’d completely abandoned my principles and that made me feel really ashamed considering I’m so open about my love for animals.

So, about six months ago I decided enough was enough and that I was going to start moving towards a cruelty-free life again. I decided that although it’s really hard to find anything vegan in China, I would do my best to reduce my contribution to the meat and dairy industry.

For one thing, I had to cook more. When I say “more” I mean like at least once a day for five days out of the week. Vegan or not, it’s much better to make your own food in general as you can control what goes into your meals and therefore into your body. Once I got into the habit of finding time to prepare and cook, I really noticed a difference in my mood and health. I tend to cook on weekends and make very big portions that will last for a few meals to save me time during the week. It also saves a ton of cash.

Avoiding meat was my first step and the one I found the easiest, especially in China where eating it can be a huge gamble. Admittedly I have had a few slip ups – especially when going to one of my favourite restaurants that does this amazing fried chicken – but that’s totally normal and expected at first. I don’t beat myself up if I really want to eat something and that takes the pressure off. Telling myself that I can eat meat if I really want to makes me want to eat it less than when I forbid myself to eat it.

10-1What I do when I eat out now is say I don’t eat meat (我不吃肉 “wo bu chi rou”) and that I’m allergic to dairy and eggs (我对奶制品和鸡蛋过敏 “wo dui nai zhi pin he ji dan guo min”). I got odd looks at first, but my regular spots know me well now and I’ve been able to find some really good vegan friendly dishes. Some of my favourite dishes include Zucchini with Wood Ear, which are like a vegetarian version of Calamari, Zucchini with Wood Ear (Xi Hu Lu Mu Er) served with rice and peppers, and this potato starch jelly thing (Chao Liang Fen), which is served either in chunks with pieces of bread or turned into noodles. For those of you mashed potato lovers, there’s a dish called “green vegetable mixed with tofu” (Xiao Bai Cai Ban Doufu) that is unbelievably tasty.

Another problem that’s harder to cope with is avoiding hidden ingredients. Foods such as jiaozi (vegetable jiaozi usually has eggs), pancakes and soups are easy to overlook when ticking off foods to avoid so I try to cook them at home instead. If I do have a weak moment or accidentally eat a piece of meat disguised as a mushroom, I don’t break down over it and cry on the bathroom floor. The majority of the time I take it easy as I believe any small change is better than nothing so if you’re not the perfect vegan it’s not going to cause the apocalypse. Being too hard on myself will only make me resent this choice I’ve made.

Being a vegan, especially in China, is not about restricting yourself to the point of despair, it’s more about responsible choices and trying to do your best in reducing your contribution to animal cruelty and environmental destruction. I enjoy the food I eat now more than I did before and the less I eat animal products the more I never want to again.