I’m excited to share with you my first-ever collaborative article, which I wrote with Susan Blumberg-Kason. Susan is the author of All the Tea in Chicago and the forthcoming book Good Chinese Wife, a memoir of the five years she spent trying to assimilate into a Chinese family.
This article grew out of stories that Susan and I swapped over the past year about going meatless in China, and especially going meatless in a Chinese family. Hope you enjoy it.
China doesn’t always feel like a meatless nirvana of tofu and soymilk — especially when you end up marrying into a Chinese family that loves their red-braised pork. But sometimes your meat-eating Chinese relatives can teach you more than you imagined about your dietary choices, as author Susan Blumberg-Kason and I learned.
Pork, it’s what’s for dinner
China doesn’t need an advertising campaign to get people chowing down on the country’s number one meat. In fact, the Chinese character for family and home, jia, includes a pig in a house, linguistic proof of China’s longstanding love for pork. Pork is everywhere — and that can make for some difficult moments if it’s not on your menu.
Susan recalls that she “made the mistake early on to put manners ahead of my eating choices. So when I first met my former in-laws, I wanted to show them I could easily adapt to their lifestyle in rural Hubei province. I ate everything they served, including pork, deep fried rice cakes, and many jiaozi. That was during Chinese New Year. But come summer, when I was back for three months, I thought they should get used to my true eating habits. I stopped eating pork. Suddenly, many of their dishes were suddenly off limits because they used pork fat in their vegetable dishes and soups.”
I once attended a banquet at an aunt and uncle’s home, years after they both first met me and my vegan preferences. But while vegetarian dishes made up more than half the food on the table, my aunt made the mistake of doing what she always did in the kitchen — she tossed chunks of pork into the vegetables to make them more “delicious.” It’s one of the few family dinners where I left the table hungry.
The hard history of going meatless in China
We all know about Chairman Mao, the Great Leap Forward, and the Cultural Revolution. But I never realized the impact they had on the Chinese perception of my diet — and anyone choosing to give up meat — until I married into a Chinese family.
And I’m not alone in this. “My in-laws lived through the Great Leap Forward and went without meat for years,” Susan said. “My ex-husband’s family felt that going without meat was too much of a reminder of the years when they didn’t have enough food.”
Chi bu bao — never full — is how my in-laws described the 1960s and 1970s in China, a time when they pretty much never ate meat. I once saw my father-in-law slice a corn cob straight through into medallions and then stir-fry it. I shook my head at the dish, wondering how anyone could even consider gnawing through the inedible inner cob. But during dinner, he confessed that this was the kind of dish his mother used to make when he was a child, meals that consisted of the kind of fibrous, tough and unsavory parts of vegetables that most people just toss away.
It’s a healthy Senior affair
My mother-in-law used to worry I wouldn’t get enough nutrition as a vegan. Yet, she eats mostly vegetarian because of her high blood pressure. So does my father-in-law, except he does it on doctor’s orders to avoid fatty meats.
I’m not surprised because, in China, I’ve found that the biggest vegetarian supporters are the same people wake up early to do morning exercises and Tai Chi, or help care for the grandkids. And they often do it for their health, just like my in-laws.
Sometimes it’s better to just say no (to meat)
I’m not talking about the usual China cliches (yes, you, with the hackneyed dog meat story) or how so many people love to write about dining in China as though it were a Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern show. In fact, my in-laws and family usually serve up pretty tame fare at the dinner table, nothing the average carnivore who doesn’t mind a few bones wouldn’t pass on.
But China still remains a developing country — and depending on where you are and what’s for dinner, you might just want to say no.
Susan has “seen many pigs near or in lavatories, so I feel that refraining from meat in China is just another measure to prevent contracting diseases like trichinosis. My in-laws didn’t refrigerate leftovers with meat, and although I never got sick, it was always a worry.”
My husband’s grandfather, on the other hand, could have used a little caution last summer when an aunt brought over a fresh catch of river snails for lunch. I watched him devour more than half of them, and then the next day discovered he woke up doubled over in so much pain that my family had to take him to the hospital. He didn’t recover for days. I don’t know if the grandfather ever ate snails again, but ever since I told my husband about what happened, he’s sworn off snails.
Don’t hide your true dietary colors
“Knowing what I know now, I should have been upfront from the beginning about not eating pork,” Susan said. “I learned that it’s much easier to explain a custom from the start than to introduce one after new family or friends have gotten to know you. For a while my in-laws convinced me to pick around the pork. I tried that, but I started to feel resentful. If I’d only been more strict about not eating pork from the beginning, I think it would have been easier for them to understand my eating habits. I also shouldn’t have worried so much about fitting in. I was always going to be viewed as an outsider, so I could have taken advantage of this ‘otherness’ and told them from the beginning that I didn’t eat pork.”
It’s easier to go without meat than you think
Look, I’ve left my share of “big fish, big meat” dinners still hungry, or waited in vain while that extra tofu dish never came out during a banquet. But that world falls away every time I sit down for a meal at my in-laws’ home. If only you could see their table at Chinese New Year, at least half vegetarian and enough to feed a whole monastery of Buddhist monks — from smoked tofu with spicy peppers and red-braised tofu to bok choy and pickled radish kimchi.
It’s like the best vegetarian restaurant in China you’ve never heard of. And let’s keep it that way. 😉