The vegetarian persuasion

Updated: 2012-06-03 07:54

By Han Bingbin (China Daily)

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 The vegetarian persuasion

Han Bingbin /  China Daily

An American-born chef tells Han Bingbin how she's turning on local Beijingers to a meatless menu.

The moment Laura Fanelli came up with the idea of making a vegan pizza, she knew that this cheese-free notion would sound crazy to some and disappoint many.

But while not everyone thinks the result can be called "pizza", to the chef's surprise, lots of people have called it "great". Her pie features sun-dried tomatoes as the base and a toping of smoked eggplant, sauteed mushrooms and onions. A sort of "fermenting process" in the sun gives the concentrated tomatoes an almost cheesy flavor, which melds with the earthy eggplant for a savory finish, or in Fanelli's words, "mummy taste".

It's become a recommended specialty at the Veggie Table, the vegetarian restaurant she opened in Beijing a year ago. Before that, Fanelli traveled worldwide for a whole year studying food. From Southeast Asia to the Middle East and then to Europe, she took cooking classes and, more beneficially, ate widely to train her taste.

 The vegetarian persuasion

Georgian beet salad. Photos Provided to China Daily

She's learned to detect processed food (and gauge ingredients' proportions) by taste. She can fake the flavors meat-lovers crave, too, which is why her restaurant offers an array of globally sourced vegan dishes such as vegan "goose liver" pate, mushroom burger, beetroot salad and hummus.

Is it limiting to cook with only vegetables? Fanelli thinks it's just the other way round. Eating meat is sometimes limiting, she says, because "you are putting meat on the center stage of your food and everything else is on the side as decorations that you don't really explore".

And while having access to a growing number of foreign food resources, China itself provides tons of greens and bean products. She can't even find a proper translation for many of them because they are unknown in the West. That makes her job as a vegetarian chef "very creative" as she's still exploring how to use unfamiliar vegetables like xiangchun, the edible shoots and sprouts of the Chinese toon tree.

In and out of China since 2003, Fanelli has found that for the Chinese, being a pure vegetarian is still mostly a religious choice.

Except for older people who have health concern, she says, it will take more education to get young Chinese to see the advantages of a vegetarian lifestyle.

Before Fanelli turned 14, the age she turned vegetarian, she thought the food that her vegetarian cousin ate was strange.

Later, as she started to read about the ethics behind the choice, the animal-loving Ohio girl suddenly found it an unacceptable fact that the things often in her plates were living creatures "that have eyes, feelings and mothers".

She gave up meat in stages over the next five years. After completely cutting it from her diet, she sometimes became edgy as if craving blood. Her naughty friends would tempt her, for example, by recommending a perfect place for steak.

Then eight years after being a vegetarian, she had steak. But none of the things she thought would happen have happened.

"I didn't think it's disgusting or bloody. I didn't feel guilty. And now I'm done, I just don't want to have it."

Taste as a kind of sensual entertainment, she says, doesn't win against the advantages of being a vegetarian.

The most convincing of them: environmental concern. She believes raising meat is generally non-efficient. She learned at 14 that to eat one kilogram of beef took several thousand gallons of water, plus many slaughterhouses produce a lot of waste that pollutes water.

Then there is also health benefit. Though Fanelli admitted that she regularly takes vitamin B12, one thing she can't get from vegetables, she generally feels "a lot better".

In 2008 as suggested by her vegan (strictest vegetarian) friends, she gave up eggs and all dairy products. After a while, she became so physically active and energetic that she was skating around the city all day. Though friends would fret that she was too skinny at 35, Fanelli says that's genetic heritage and she always enjoys being complimented for looking younger than she is.

"Cutting out eggs and dairy, I avoided eating a lot of processed food and junk food like ice-cream," she says. "I was cooking whole food and eating healthier."

But it's not always easy to get along with a society that loves meat.

The vegetarian persuasion

Back in the US, where people order food separately, Fanelli can always find something to eat - even if only mashed potatoes and salads.

But in China where every offering at a family-style meal could contain meat, it's more challenging. So when she is politely offered the best meat at a Chinese banquet dinner, she'll just leave it on the plate, saying "sorry" to the food that she can't eat.

One compromise she sometimes makes: Eating vegetables that are prepared with meat.

"This is about being able to deal with the real world. You have to make a compromise," she said.

"You are doing something you think is right. But you can't treat it as if it's a religion. For me, it's not that kind of crazy."

Contact the writer at hanbingbin@chinadaily.com.cn.

The vegetarian persuasion

(China Daily 06/03/2012 page13)