Is China ready to go vegetarian?

Despite recent food safety scares, only a foolish foreigner would underestimate the hearty attachment of the Chinese to their meat.

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China’s recent meat scandals are making horse burgers look like exotic treats. In cities like Shanghai, poultry markets have closed and most residents still steer well clear of not only chicken but also pork - thanks to the lingering images of 16,000 diseased pig carcasses bopping along the Huangpu river.

“I’ve been eating like a Buddhist!” exclaims Zhu Yan, a Shanghai local who has spent the last week exclusively eating vegetables within the confines of her own home, “I just don’t know what’s safe anymore.” It seems she’s not the only one; H797 bird flu has seen poultry sales drop dramatically in the last two weeks, especially in the urban areas on China’s east coast. Bird flu is currently one of the most talked about topics on Weibo (China's Twitter) and even KFC, the country’s biggest foreign fast-food chain, is reporting its sales have dropped significantly.

There are other signs that also point to a new embrace of vegetables. Following China’s ex-Premier Wen Jiaobao’s recent campaign for ‘one day vegetarian every week’, there is undoubtedly a growing awareness of the health benefits associated with eating vegetables, and young people talk enthusiastically about weight loss and increased vitamin intake. The popularity of vegetarian restaurants scattered across China’s cities is flourishing, and whereas these used to be exclusively frequented by monks, now only around 10 per cent of their customers are actually vegetarian.

Despite this, it’s important not to downplay just how highly the Chinese regard their meat. Even these vegetarian haunts are best known for their huge array of ‘fake’ meat dishes; smoked sausage cunningly moulded out of beans and konjac flour, kong pao chicken replaced with compressed tofu, and deep-fried shitake mushrooms standing in as crispy pork strips. Although these are the only Chinese eateries where you’re guaranteed 100 per cent meat-free dishes, it’s telling that the emphasis is still on recreating the impression of meat.

“I come here now and again and especially recently because I worry about the quality of meat,” says Li Yu, whose sitting with his business colleagues in Gongdelin Vegetarian Restaurant, Shanghai. “But it would be ridiculous to only eat vegetarian food. Meat cooked Chinese style is irresistible - much better than the meat you Westerners eat,” Li grins.

Whether you agree with him or not, it’s impossible to deny the immense range of meat and cooking techniques in China, with each of it’s 33 regions taking immense pride in their characteristic food styles. Texture alone has five primary categories (tender, crunchy, crisp, smooth, soft). Providing an assortment of these is crucial to the charm of any meal and tricky to achieve without meat.

The Chinese also believe that what you eat directly influences your health, and that balancing meat with vegetables is one steadfast way to harmonise your yin with your yang.

This balance has been distorted in recent years, and has taken a sharp turn around from just a few decades ago. During the Great Famine of the 1950s and 60s, meat was so scarce that cannibalism was practiced on an unprecedented scale. Now that the city-dwelling Chinese can afford to eat meat by the tonne, in general they do. It’s hard to exaggerate the immense impact this still very raw history has on social pressure to eat meat, and the consequent association it bears with wealth and health.

Beyond wanting to feed their one and only child the best array of food possible, guest culture is also crucial to maintaining face. In normal circumstances, it would be considered rather embarrassing to host a flesh-free meal.

Besides, the animal rights line that drives many Westerners to ditch the bacon is less common in China. The Chinese word for animal ‘dongwu’ literally means ‘moving thing’, which might partly explain why there just isn’t that same attachment felt for what Westerners might think of as living, breathing, feeling creatures.

Given the recent food scares, alternative meat sources are already being hunted out. Jeroen Koldenhof, CEO of China Agri Corp., points to the growing market for chilled and frozen meat, as well as imports. But overall, Koldenhof insists that “The switch from meat to vegetables is just temporary due to hiccups in the supply chain.” He also reminds us that it’s not just meat that is at risk in China; “Sooner or later you will see problems with vegetables too”. In fact, just last week American scientists reported dangerous levels of lead found in Chinese rice.

In a country where food safety is never a guarantee, an explosion of tree-hugging vegan hippies is unlikely. Hard-hitting meat scandals are making the concept of vegetarianism more digestible than before, but that doesn’t mean meat is on its way out. The desire to eat meat is deeply ingrained in Chinese culture and given the struggle it’s taken to get here, they’re not about to give it up. The best we might hope for, for the sake of our health and environment, is a rebalancing of the elements, and a move to better regulated, higher quality meat - with just a touch less of excess.

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