Out of China: A city of dog-lovers sets traps for inexperienced eaters: True loneliness awaits the vegetarian traveller to Canton and the south in coping with Shredded Mud-Puppy and Steamed Cat

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The Independent Online
CANTON - If there was a turning- point, it probably came in Zhaoqing, a pleasant city east of Canton famous for its Seven Star Crags. Away from the tourist sites, innocently dawdling through the food market, it was all too easy for the unwary to wander into the butchers' section.

And there they lay. Whole, but completely skinned, eyes bright, flat on their backs with their death-stiffened legs pointing straight to the ceiling. Except for one poor animal which had been sawn in half, and the back end sold. An ignominious end for man's best friend.

The scene was not to be forgotten. Never again would one feel confident about what exactly was in those Spring Rolls. Nor could one trust that Guangdong Hot Pot. It was obvious what had to be done. But, fellow-traveller, be warned: few will have experienced the true loneliness of the vegetarian in Canton.

Like the Bangkok traffic, Cantonese eating habits represent one of those guide-book cliches for which reality exceeds reputation. It is said, especially by the northern Chinese, that the Cantonese and other southerners will eat everything with legs, except the table and chairs. This seems a fair approximation to the truth.

Most visitors to Canton make their way to Qingping market, just opposite Shamian Island where the old colonial foreign concessions once dominated the riverfront. At the end of the lane selling Chinese medicines is the main street of the animal market. The inexperienced could be forgiven for thinking it is a Chinese pet shop.

As well as the normal crates of tortoises and snakes, the crowded cages offer wild guinea pigs, raccoons, fluffy-haired wild cats and their frail kittens, rabbits, frogs threaded on string so that their legs can more easily be cut off, foxes and wild boars. The larger animals are usually whimpering as they lick at snapped limbs which had been caught in the traps. There were no dogs last month, my interpreter said, because dog is eaten in winter as it helps one keep warm.

In the good old days, said the locals, one could usually buy such delicacies as monkeys but now the more exotic species have to be specially ordered. It is an animal rights activist's nightmare. A Hong Kong television station a few months ago set out to film an expose about the smuggling of rare animals from Guangdong to the banquet tables of the colony. The journalistic tables were rather abruptly turned when it was revealed that, once the Western reporter was out of sight, the Hong Kong Chinese television crew had themselves cooked and wolfed down the rare species they had just filmed.

For true gluttons for punishment, Canton has its specialist dinner venues, the snake restaurant and the rat restaurant. But the middle-priced Zhenbao restaurant ('specialising in game'), full only with locals, probably gives a better idea of an average good Cantonese night out.

Delicacies included Braised Guinea Pig (Whole) with Mashed Shrimp, Steamed Cat, Shredded Wildcat Thick Soup, Dog Meat Ready to Be Cooked Earthen Pot Over Charcoal Stove at Table, and Stewed Fried Noodles with Shredded Mud-Puppy.

Faced with this smorgasbord, the born-again vegetarian has some difficulty in explaining to the average Cantonese why one would prefer not to eat meat. The Chinese view is that rice and soy sauce is 'farmers' food'. They want meat, and preferably some fairly strange bits. Invited to order what he wanted for lunch, my interpreter's first choice was pig's stomach. At a company lunch on another visit to China, of five dishes on the table, one was the roof of a pig's mouth and another the pig's Achilles tendon.

The second challenge for the vegetarian is agreeing on what counts as meat. The Chinese view is that only large pieces are really meat. So when most of the vegetable dishes come with minced pork, no one understands the problem.

Some restaurants try their best, but after the initial pot of Chinese tea, discretion proves the better part of valour. The Victory restaurant on Shamiam Island is a friendly place, one of the newly efficient quasi-private establishments in town. But it's a pig's hell; the menu includes everything from pig's ear to smoked pig's feet. And for the more adventurous: sauted sliced peacock, masked civet, sauted muntjac or just plain deer's tail. I made my excuses and left.

My visit to Canton this month coincided with the opening of the city's first Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet. Like all things Western, it will probably prove a success, but the menu seems a bit tame for the local palate.

(Photograph omitted)