The Vegan Experience in China

Aubrey Gates King from the USA talks about her two years of living in a Chinese village and how she managed to stick to a vegan diet all the time in a country where it seems impossible.

“Yunnan is China’s most southwestern province, bordering Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam. Within the country, the province is known as a paradise for adventurers and backpackers. Rich in ethnic minority culture, famous for rice terraces, stone forests and snow-capped mountains, Yunnan was a real gift to me.

I was brought to China by a non-profit teaching community called Teach For China. I lived at the school with 500 students and 25 other teachers. During the first meeting with the principal of the school, I explained to him that I do not eat meat or even eggs. There is no word for “vegan” in Chinese, they call them vegans. Milk and dairy products are not commonly used in Chinese cuisine, instead soy milk is used for breakfast. The director informed me that, unfortunately, the school cafeteria cooks mostly with lard rather than vegetable oil. “It’s okay, I’ll cook for myself,” I answered then. As a result, everything turned out not quite the way I thought at the time. However, the teachers easily agreed to use canola oil for vegetable dishes. Sometimes the chef would prepare a separate, all-vegetable portion for me. She often shared with me her portion of boiled green vegetables, because she knew that I really liked them.

Southern Chinese cuisine is sour and spicy and at first I just hated all these pickled vegetables. They also liked to serve bitter eggplant, which I really disliked. Ironically, at the end of the first semester, I was already asking for more of those same pickled vegetables. At the end of the internship, a plate of noodles seemed unthinkable without a good helping of vinegar. Now that I’m back in the US, a handful of pickled vegetables are added to all my meals! Local crops in Yunnan ranged from canola, rice and persimmon to tobacco. I loved walking to the market, which was located along the main road every 5 days. Anything could be found there: fresh fruit, vegetables, tea, and knick-knacks. My favorites in particular were pitahaya, oolong tea, dried green papaya, and local mushrooms.

Outside of school, the choice of dishes for lunch caused certain difficulties. It’s not like they haven’t heard of vegetarians: people would often say to me, “Oh, my grandma does that too” or “Oh, I don’t eat meat for one month of the year.” In China, a significant part of the population are Buddhists, who eat mainly veganism. However, in most restaurants there is a mentality that the most delicious dishes are meat. The most difficult thing was to convince the chefs that I really wanted just vegetables. Fortunately, the cheaper the restaurant, the less problems there were. In these small authentic places, my favorite dishes were pinto beans fried with pickled vegetables, eggplant, smoked cabbage, spicy lotus root and, as I said above, bitter eggplant.

I lived in a city known for a pea pudding called wang dou fen (), a vegan dish. It is made by mashing peeled peas in a puree and adding water until the mass becomes thick. It is served either in solid “blocks” or in the form of hot porridge. I believe that plant-based eating is possible anywhere in the world, especially in the Eastern Hemisphere, because no one consumes as much meat and cheese as in the West. And as my omnivorous friends said.

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