Things We’ve Learned About Going Meatless in China From Our Chinese Families

Eating dinner at the family table at my Chinese wedding ceremony -- while I dine on the veggies, my husband goes for the pork.

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.

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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.

Eating dinner at my in-laws home with my Chinese family
A dinner at my in-laws' home during Chinese New Year 2005 with a cousin, my elder sister-in-law and my husband

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. 😉

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17 thoughts on “Things We’ve Learned About Going Meatless in China From Our Chinese Families

  • March 26, 2012 at 4:59 am
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    I am not a vegetarian nor a vegan and I still wonder how to live on such a bland diet as veges only. Braised red pork is nice but I am also not a fan of pork. In fact I hardly eat pork for a long time now and in fact do not like its “porky” taste. Don’t you feel hungry on just vegetarian diet? Don’t you feel that you are missing something? Have you ever been tempted to eat meat sometimes? Just wondering. On another level I do sometimes feel that eating meat is like eating life. Very cruel. Makes us no different from the carnivores. Only difference is that we do not directly kill the food we eat.

    Reply
  • March 26, 2012 at 7:57 am
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    My Chinese in-laws have stopped trying to convince me to eat things I wouldn’t – I think the run in with the black “ear” fungus that left me halucinating was enough for them.

    I won’t eat river fish here, or filter feeders such as crabs and the like, as most of the coastline’s an open sewer. We won’t go into why organ meats are off limits, and my wife’s very, very picky about where she’ll buy the meat we do eat from.

    When I do prepare things, I used to get criticised for carefully removing meat from the bones, and trimming away the fat – “We paid for that, it costs money, eat it!” was the mantra… until I started to use different cooking techniques to bring out the flavour of the meat.

    And not the flavour of the fat.

    We did once get dragged to a vegan restaurant, where everything was made out of processed soy into the shape and texture of meat, prawns, etc – but what’s the point of that? I know it was a method to attract followers to a certain sect of Buddhism… but realistically, if you’re going to that much effort to make food that to mimic existing food, you might as well eat the original.

    I think the biggest “vegetarian” eye opener we’ve had here in China was the Australian Lesbian Vegetarian who’d sneak steaks from our barbecue when she thought we weren’t looking…

    Reply
  • March 26, 2012 at 2:03 pm
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    I enjoy eating meat, chicken and beef in particular. Pork will be sometimes but most days I don’t like it. Thanks for advice. It does get tiring explaining my food preferences and all. On Saturdays and Fridays and any Jewish holidays, I and my family don’t eat pork, while other days its okay. Then I would also have to explain or repeat the story that we are assimilated Jews and that we grew up in Russia where Jewish culture was forbidden. Too much explaining…

    Reply
  • March 26, 2012 at 2:55 pm
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    Sveta, I totally know where you’re coming from. My family is assimilated, too, and eats pork. My former in-laws (and ex-husband) had never met a Jewish person before they met me and knew nothing of the Jewish dietary laws. I was afraid to introduce yet another cultural difference, so felt like it would be too confusing if I used the Jewish custom as an excuse not to eat pork.

    Reply
  • March 26, 2012 at 6:20 pm
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    I have a strong need to stop eating meat because I think its its cruel and not necessary, well actually , perhaps the reason more is that I just don’t feel comfortable eating meat when I can imagine it came from the animal, so I am pretty sure one day I can eat a pretty vegetarian diet. To answer OM’s question, I agree with you that these are the questions people generally have who haven’t tried a vegetarian diet, but let me tell you something!!!!

    I spent several weeks in a Buddhist Monastery, and every day we would have a vegetarian feast!. It was made of all types of noodles, soups, buns, vegetables, nuts, fruits… cooked in different ways, textures, consistency etc. And you know what? It was the best cuisine I had for a long long time! It gave me the perfect energy, It kept my body feeling light and guilty free, and every day I was eating like a wolf because it was SO friggen tasty!

    I think the trick is here, not whether you eat meat to be full, but what are the type of variety and texture you are eating, that can easily replace meat. The key is really variety, a varied diet, a vegetarian especially could get some time getting used to cook but at least now after this experience I know being a vegetarian is TOTALLY do able, and not only that, it can be OMG so taaasty!!!! I wish I could cook like them!

    Often we like the meat because of the taste, and and how the texture is when we chew in our mouth. If you take interest, you can find vegetarian food that equals to those tastes and then you will see meat is just a mindtrick.

    Further more dear oM, a vegetarian diet can not only make you full, but its also HEALTHIER, if you know what you need for which vitamins. If somebody was really interested, they could find out how to make up protein without having to eat meat. There are these rice type things you can cook that is full protein, anyway, you can find anything you need that is vegetarian and eat like a king. 🙂

    I miss the temple where I had these banquets every single day!

    Reply
  • March 26, 2012 at 8:18 pm
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    I’m a vegetarian. The food is not bland as many people made it out to be. It is about how you prepare the food. Prepare it well and the taste is just as great. Sometimes people ask me if I feel tired due to my vegetarian diet and my answer is NO. In fact, I feel more energetic than I’ve ever been. There is this misconception that a vegetarian diet makes you tired, or you get tired easily if you’re on a vegetarian diet.

    Reply
  • March 27, 2012 at 5:21 am
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    Vegetarian… Motivation here is not animal killing at all (sorry ^^), but
    – distrust of meat quality in general
    – loosing pleasure of eating meat over veg. dishes
    – ecology concerns
    – health benefits
    So seeing that for me it was hitting a couple of birds with a single stone, choice was easy. As for the feeling of missing meat : no. Feeling weak, well, I happily run 3×10 km, use bike only, and feel completely ok, mandatory health check for work permit says I’m. China make it quite easy for vegetarians indeed, a lot of choice everywhere and at all prices.

    Reply
  • March 27, 2012 at 8:48 am
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    Healthy eating is eating like your ancestors, which have been proven recently by Hawaiian natives. For human, Eskimo and Mongolians are almost pure carnivores. For these carnivores, their tolerance of carbonhydrates is low and have high risk of diabetes if they switch to grain based diet. The same concept goes to latase intolerance. You can not ignore the genetics when come to eating.

    Women and men difference on meat consumption also reflect our hunter of meat( men) and gatherers of pants(women) ancestors.

    Meat consumption and living space are also true measurement of a nation’s wealth according to some economists. So they believe the USA will remain the richest nations on earth (way above scandinavian countries). Thus they also believe China actually not poor at all based on those criteria. China meat consumption is above a lot east europeans countries only behind developed nations. True, meat as food is quite expensive compared to grain and need more resource to produce.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/datablog/2009/sep/02/meat-consumption-per-capita-climate-change

    When you go through Hong Kong, you should find quite a lot of very good veg restaurants. People practicing zen buddism there have a lot to choose. The food there are delicious. Also India is veg heaven, which is even hard to find meat dish in restaurants.

    Reply
  • March 27, 2012 at 6:03 pm
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    To all those who have responded esp @ Jin Feng and @AG, thanks for your enlightening views. Jin Feng you made being a vegetarian so tempting. But on the occasions I went to vegetarian restaurants for food I always never felt like I had a proper full meal. Perhaps it was all in the mind. For now I will just remain a herbi-carni vore.

    Reply
  • March 27, 2012 at 7:27 pm
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    Thanks Jocelyn and Susan for your collaborative post about going meatless in China. I was a vegetarian on my first trip to Western China. I survived on an egg and tomato dish and lots of spicy noodles (veggies were scarce at the university where I studied). Some of the tastiest food I’ve eaten in China (since then) has been at vegetarian (Buddhist) restaurants–which ironically make the food (tofu, that is) look and taste like meat!

    Reply
  • March 27, 2012 at 10:05 pm
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    When I was young, I don’t eat any meat because of medical condition. But I ate chicken eggs. When I finally grew out of it, my parents made me eat everything. They insist that human brain needs all nutrition to function well. Not sure it was related, but my brain was not fully developed until after college.
    Nowadays my diet is simple: vegetable and chicken. I have tried salad for lunch for a while, but I was starving at end of day … Sorry to say that I am a failed vegetarian.

    Reply
  • March 28, 2012 at 2:01 pm
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    It’s healthier to eat less red meat and processed food. I mainly eat lots of fruits, veggies , chicken , fish and whole grain , oatmeal but once in a while I will eat vegetarian dishes. I exercise alot so I take some supplements. It’s fine to be a vegetarian if you can stick to it.

    Reply
  • March 30, 2012 at 8:12 am
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    Our natural diet should consist of 95% plant matters, with the VERY occasional meat feast (traditionally, animals were slaughtered for special ocassions only). Compare that to the actual modern diet, and you’ll understand why cardiovascular diseases are the #1 killers throughout much of the world.
    Mongols and Tibetans are a different breed, their meat and dairy diet will kill most of us.
    Vegetarians are usually well respected in China, because they’re assumed to be devout Buddhists.

    Reply
  • March 31, 2012 at 5:13 am
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    I thought you only eat kosher food. Well, I stopped eating meat since 1994. So make a variety vegetables your food.

    Reply
  • March 31, 2012 at 8:35 pm
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    I agree that it’s so important to disclose any dietary concerns you may have beforehand! I visited a really good friend in China a few months ago. She knew that abstain from pork for religious reasons, so she made sure to inform her family before I arrived. They went above and beyond to make sure that I had plenty of variety (and informed me that they didn’t use pork fat in the cooking) and I can honestly say that I never left a meal feeling hungry.

    Reply
  • April 23, 2012 at 5:30 am
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    I went vegetarian in 2007 while I was living in China. I ate fish and dairy but no pork, beef or chicken. One day at lunch with my colleagues asked me, “Do you eat frog?” I had to think about that for a second, I didn’t really have a frog policy… 🙂

    Reply

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