Growing appeal
By Wu Chong (China Daily)
Updated: 2006-09-14 07:16

Every two or three years, vegetarians around the world flock to a special gala event, which celebrates and promotes their meat-free ideology. Vegetarianism, they say, is not only a healthy lifestyle but also environmentally friendly.

This year, the vegetarian festival happens again in Goa, India, but for the first time, a delegation from China is joining the party. China is maybe a newcomer to the festival but it's not a newcomer to the art of making vegetarian food.

"China has a history of more than 10 years in modern vegetarianism development," said Chen Haoran, vice-chairman of the China Dietary Culture Institute, who attended the week-long World Vegetarian Congress last Sunday.

"But if you look back further, this is a country with a much older vegetarian culture."

China will, in fact, bid to host the 39th congress in 2010.

Long history

In ancient China, people stuck to a diet of only vegetables and fruits before significant sacrifice ceremonies. It was said to purify the body and spirit in respect to the gods. Vegetarianism was also practised on the first day and the middle of each month by ancient Chinese in some regions to remind themselves of the merit of frugality.

Significant development of China's vegetarian food happened around 2,000 years ago, when Buddhism was introduced to the country, bringing along vegan cuisine, which strictly inhibits consumption of meat, fish, egg, and any dairy products as well as garlic, onion, leek and Chinese chives. Even today, many temples are still topping the list of ideal places for vegan food, attracting not only Buddhist disciples.

Then in Sui and Tang dynasties (AD 581-907), vegetarian food was included into the royal menu, according to Li Shijing, a prestigious food expert who is now a member of the Beijing Olympics food security panel.

"Different from Buddhist dishes, which are bland and simple, imperial vegetarian food emphasized the rarity and novelty of materials, original cooking skills, and charming looks," Li said.

Before Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 24), vegetarian menu in China was as simple as including only vegetables and fruits, with monotonous cooking.

Legend had it that in the early part of the dynasty, Liu An, a duke, invented tofu (bean curd), which has since then become an important and unique ingredient of China's vegetarian food.

Especially in modern days, bean products are widely used to simulate shapes and flavours of animals to add varieties to dishes as well as to meet the needs of ordinary consumers, according to Sun Chuanxing, a local cook.

Sun has worked in Jing Si Fang, a Beijing-based vegetarian restaurant, for about three years. Like all the other similar restaurants, many of Jing Si Fang's prime dishes, such as Fu Ru Dong Hai (Boundless Happiness) and Zi Qi Dong Lai (Good Luck), are all made of tofu.

New taste

Zhou Wei, owner of Jing Si Fang, said the majority of its customers were young people who wanted to try something new. "They are not real vegetarians. So they prefer dishes with the flavour of meat," he said.

This is the modern trend of Chinese vegetarian food: Made without meat, but with a meaty taste. "A good taste" is the ultimate goal they pursue.

"Some vegetarian restaurants even use egg white for a change of flavour, though we do not," said Zhou, who was advised by his wife, a regular vegan, to open the restaurant nearby the National Art Museum of China in 2003.

"Gourmet powder is seldom added in the food. But nowadays, we have to put in substitute condiments, such as mushroom-flavour powder, to refine the taste."

Jing Si Fang is a small restaurant, which can accommodate only 50 people, but it is famous for its good value and old age. "Mine is the sixth vegetarian restaurant in Beijing," the owner said. But, it took about a year of trading before profits began to increase, thanks to more awareness about healthy eating.

Last year, he set up a larger branch at Xizhimen, with a capacity of 150 people. The restaurant near the art museum has an average daily sales volume of 2,000 yuan (US$250). That is a mediocre performance for a restaurant, but in Zhou's opinion, "it is good enough to strike a balance."

Being a follower of Buddhism for six years, Xu often frequents vegetarian restaurants. "The quality and taste of vegetarian food in Beijing is more or less the same for me. But to find a cheaper one is not that easy," he said.

The capital has about 30 vegetarian restaurants, with prices ranging from 30 to 300 yuan (US$3.8-38) per capita and the peak season for the business is summer. In contrast, the colder month of November was slack, according to Zhou.

There is no accurate figure about the number of vegetarians in China, but a report from Taiwan may provide reference.

Wen Xuezhen, chairwoman of the world vegetarian culture promotion society, said in Taiwan, about 3 million people about 10 per cent of the population follow a vegetarian diet. "And the figure is rising," she said.

Both Chen of the China Dietary Culture Institute and Li, the food expert, agree the ongoing World Vegetarian Congress is a precious opportunity for China to expedite the growth of its modern vegetarian food industry. It had a splendid history: In Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279), there emerged vegetarian restaurants; and in Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), vegetarian food enjoyed the same high reputation as other cuisines.

Now it is time for a revamp.

(China Daily 09/14/2006 page14)