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Meatless dining in Beijing

By Steve Hubrecht (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-04-07 10:12
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Meatless dining in Beijing

Great food is a hallmark of a great civilization and China is no exception. The many fine restaurants in Beijing are testament to the broad array of culinary pleasures on offer in the country. Hungry Beijingers can happily feast on juicy lamb kebabs, spicy kongpao chicken, beef noodles, Peking roast duck, fresh seafood and an endless variety of pork dishes. Eating in Beijing is an adventure for the taste buds.

Vegetarians, or those who date them or are related to them or otherwise spend a lot of time with them, are also in for an adventure when dining out in Beijing - in ways both good and bad.

Foreigners who like to venture beyond the expatriate bubbles of Sanlitun and Houhai to try authentically local fare, particularly those whose grasp of Chinese is limited at best, soon learn that many Beijingers' understanding of being vegetarian is much different to theirs.

What seems a simple catch-all phrase - women bu chi rou (we don't eat meat) - is not always so simple and can result in anything from a genuinely meat-free meal to a dish including fish, pork, chicken or even, once, slices of pumpkin buried under a mountainous pile of minced beef. These are delicious, no doubt, but unfortunately not so appealing to a vegetarian.

Meatless dining in Beijing

Having the Chinese vocabulary of a 4-year-old doesn't help and often makes it unclear where exactly the confusion arises from - does the cook think that minced beef doesn't count as meat? Or did the foreigner's bumbling sentences (with the tones probably badly mangled) confuse the waitress? Or both?

Sometimes a request for a dish with no meat is met with enough confusion on behalf of both the waiter or waitress and the foreigners that the foreigners are invited to troop back into the kitchen and point to exactly which items they do want to eat. Although it amounts to the foreigners admitting defeat in their feeble efforts to communicate, this method often results in some of the best vegetarian food.

And, to be sure, there are plenty of excellent vegetable dishes to be had in the capital. When attempting to get a vegetarian meal in China goes wrong, it can really go wrong, in a beef-smothered pumpkin kind of way. But when it goes right, it can really go right.

Simple broccoli dishes explode with flavor on unsuspecting Western taste buds. The way Chinese people mix spinach with garlic is a revelation. And Yunnan chefs have elevated the act of cooking mushrooms to an art form.

Beijing does have a number of vegetarian restaurants (some of which seem to be associated with Buddhists temples) that have "fake meat" dishes, in which tofu or some other sort of soy or vegetable matter is used to make imitation meat. Meatless kebabs? No problem. Peking roast duck without any real duck? It's available - and tasty.

Some Western vegetarians say they find such restaurants unappealing. They say there is not much tempting in a dish made to closely resemble something they find repulsive.

But others say this is a silly line of reasoning - after all vegetable burgers (in which lentils, beans and mushrooms are unnaturally reshaped specifically to resemble a meat patty) are popular in the West - and say most vegetarians who try the "fake meat" restaurant will probably enjoy them.

Foreign vegetarians in Beijing are spoiled for choice when they cook for themselves, since local markets are filled with all sorts of fresh produce and herbs - peppers, tomatoes, spinach, celery, onions, broccoli, cucumbers, mint, basil, rosemary, leeks, cabbage, carrots and mushrooms.

The prices are better than those in supermarkets, the list of different potential ingredients is endless and there is always something in season.

So although there are bound to be a few meaty missteps here and there, foreign vegetarians shouldn't hesitate to have a bite out in Beijing.

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