Under my byline

More than Mandarin

Posted in Diet by Rrishi on 3 August 2008

Food, for the vegetarian traveller in China, is a landscape to be negotiated with care

“I did not like it one bit,” says Archana Basu of the food she encountered during a recent business sojourn in China. A brands analyst for an American company, NuVista Strategies, she is a determined vegetarian and married into a Bengali family which is passionate about its food.

In China, apart from culture shock Basu faced food stress. Every menu bore on it “atrocious-looking things like lamb cooked in its own blood”. A delight to non-vegetarians, perhaps, but purgatory to the others. So she had to hunt around for items that would suit her tastes and her budget.

Certainly our athletes in China for the Olympics will have been primed and prepared for the food challenge, and will take along some of their own food and their own dieticians. But what is the ordinary vegetarian traveller to do?

It is not just that many Chinese can happily eat meat thrice a day, and that eatery menus reflect that. There are several systems of cooking, of which the best-known are, of course, Mandarin and Cantonese, and all are foreign to the Indian tongue. (Mandarin rules in Beijing, with its strong odours and spicy sauces.)

“I enjoyed the concept of ‘hot pot’,” says Basu. “It’s a huge wok-like thing with boiling water — essentially a clear soup with a side tray of things that could be added,” a varying list of local ingredients that can include tofu, mushrooms, herbs, sprouts and so on. “It is ubiquitous and on all menus, so it was the only thing I could have.” Vegetable dimsums, although not available everywhere, are a possibility.

A more exotic option for permissive vegetarians is “century egg”, also known as preserved egg. It’s a great delicacy. Eggs of various birds are packed in a special preservative mixture, which varies by locality and may include such things as clay, lime, ash and various flowers. After several months, the eggs turn green and flavourful — although the strong flavours may not agree with the Indian palate.

Street-food vendors are a necessary recourse. At streetside stalls, the hungry vegetarian can purchase simple dishes like boiled hot vegetables with a little butter. Sweet potatoes, corn and sprouts are popular options. There are also Cantonese-style small buns with sweet syrup for dessert. And tea is available everywhere, but of course it’s Chinese tea, and nothing like our hearty dhaba chai.


3 Responses

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  1. Wendy M. Ames said, on 9 May 2009 at 12:55 am

    Dear Archana,
    I’d love to hear more about your work and travels with NuVista. I’m a Cultural Anthropologist and Corporate Ethnographer.

    Would you be interested in giving 15 minutes to chat next week?


  2. D said, on 15 May 2009 at 4:53 pm

    I’m never going to China after having read this. I had always heard of thier weird cusine, I certainly din’t know finding something vegetarian would be a pain.

    It is true that many vegetarians have similar problems. There is no solution to this other than to just start eating meat. I live in France and I find myself in awkward situations during some lab retreats, barbecues, dinners etc. I generally end up ordering stuff that is supposed have meat and say ‘sans viande, s’il vous plait’.

  3. Rrishi said, on 16 May 2009 at 12:15 am

    I hope you’re joking! Surely a visit to China is worth a little (well, perhaps not so little) food stress? With globalisation quite probably food choices are becoming easier now for the vegetarian traveller. If you get the opportunity, I say go for it!

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