Most of my friends know I am a vegetarian. However, most of them do not know why I am a vegetarian. It’s something I like to keep to myself, especially as I see no merit in arguing with a meat-lover over the potential benefits of chewing on a cow’s behind or a carrot’s top. To each their own, right?
The first thing that most people ask me about China is : So how do you manage being a vegetarian? I have heard they eat everything there! These questions are inevitably from people who have never been to China, and who are invariably influenced by media reports. Having spent more than 2.5 years here, I can safely say that vegetarianism is a difficult concept to explain to the Chinese, but it is not an alien one. The country has a centuries-old tradition of vegetarianism. Most restaurants have vegetable dishes (note, I am not saying these are vegetarian dishes). Yet, after a miserable poverty-stricken existence for most of the previous century, citizens from the world’s fastest growing economy find that they can afford the meat that their parents or grandparents couldn’t buy. I have had many veg-adventures in China, but I have never starved here, and if you know the language, there is no problem really in ordering non-meat dishes. I am not particularly picky though – I do not ask if they cook the vegetables in the same wok they use for cooking meat dishes. I do not ask if they use animal oil. These are things you have to learn to adjust.
Last week, Xiang Jin, our personal tutor, took us to her university, Sichuan University. Xiang Jin reminds me one of my very good friends – she has the same vivacious personality, a similar sort of bubbly warmth, and we instantly ‘clicked.’ Here in this university, we had struggled to find vegetable dumplings, so when we told Xiang Jin of our desperate desire to have dumplings, she immediately thought of taking us to Sichuan University where she assured us that we would find vegetable dumplings. So, just after her class, we took Bus 19 from the bus station nearby. It was a long journey to the sprawling campus. In between, Xiang Jin shows us photos of her boyfriend, who is currently in Ohio. We show our whatever pictures there are on my camera, and she finds most of my friends either handsome or beautiful, wink wink. The campus has a leafy feel to it – there are lots of cafes, a gigantic gym that resembles Forum Mall, apartments for the teachers and dorms for the students. We didn’t explore any of these, heading for the dumplings restaurant. We sit down, and order chives, tomatoes and eggs dumplings. I sit there, mixing garlic, hot chilli sauce, soy sauce, a little bit of MSG, and some other spices into my little bowl. You create your own dip, and when the dumplings arrive, you dunk each dumpling into the dip before gobbling it up. The restaurant was one of those typical hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurants. Just around 6 tables.
Xiang Jin loves teaching, and she never stops. As the dumplings arrive and we tuck in, she always corrects our extremely faulty grammar. “Where is zai? Where is shi?” she asks, and we laugh. The dumplings are delicious, and I even have the tomato and eggs combination, rather rare from me since I hate the taste of eggs. Yes, I am a picky vegetarian too sometimes just to make life more fun! Not satisfied, we order another plate. This time, we choose the mushroom dumplings. They duly arrive, and amidst more grammar corrections, we tuck in again. I slather more garlic sauce. Pour more soy sauce. Liberally dole out the red chilly sauce. These mushroom dumplings have a strange tangy taste to them, I think. There are just 2 dumplings left when I finally get this sinking feeling – as I am munching, my taste buds start sending drastic signals. Wait a moment, this doesn’t taste like anything I have had before. There is a different taste to meat – I know, I have had many kinds of meat unknowingly. I swallow the one dumpling I was chewing on and ask Birdy if she noticed anything. “It’s just mushroom,” she says confidently. I ask her to have one more, and she does, and the verdict is unchanged. Xiang Jin tells me not to have any more. I am not sure. I decide to take the last dumpling. I dip it in the sauce mixture, bite into it, but somehow, my chopsticks slip. The entire filling crumbles out. I eat the outer shell, and look at the filling which is resting in the mixture. I feel a mixture of shock and spice myself. What I am staring at doesn’t look like mushrooms. We call the waitress, and ask her if this was vegetarian dumplings. “No, these are pork dumplings,” she says. “But we said mushroom,” Xiang Jin protests. “Yes, these are mushroom and pork dumplings,” she replies. Both Birdy and I look at each other, conflicting emotions and tastes passing through our digestive system at that time. Xiang Jin is understandably embarassed, she pays for the dumplings. Birdy and I glug as much as water as we can. Anything to get that mushroom pork taste out of our mouths. I use SprayMint. I reach home and brush, feeling fresh flouride like never before.
And then we laugh. No one can ever accuse me of being a vegetarian who never tried the glories of meat. I have had beef, shrimps, blood, and now pork. And beef broth is still my favorite, although I think Birdy had a fondness for bones soup as well. But you know what? The next day was normal service – somehow, I know that I will always be a vegetarian. Carrots or cows? I choose carrots!
Postscript: Today, we went to Sichuan University again, to the same restaurant, and ordered the same dumplings. Err, no pork though. And it was even more delicious without it!