As a vegetarian, you never expect to write an ode to food in China. And yet, here I am trying my best not to break into poetry as I describe the two weeks I spent in the country. Which is proving difficult, as my experience feels like all puppies and butterflies — and surprisingly, not in the literal sense.
We were 4 hours outside of Beijing, driving through small villages and towns, which mean something very different in China. In a country pushing 1 billion, a modest village can include 460,000 people. We had just come from spending a night at the Great Wall — a lesser-populated/lesser-known (if that’s possible) area with very limited tourists. Our morning jaunt up the wall to catch the sunrise involved seeing 8 other people, all from other parts of China, and most wanting to take their pictures with us as we were the first foreigners they’d ever seen. I was actually quite surprised that I stood out. After spending two weeks in Japan with all the super hot girls in fancy clothing and fake eyelashes, I was like a sore thumb in my travel attire (which had become strangely similar to my non travel attire) of hiking boots, unflattering jeans and an over-sized sweatshirt. But in China I felt quite at home in my style. Daniel had taken up the habit of pointing out middle-aged Chinese women who shared my fashion sense, and I had (many times) made a promise to start dressing cooler when I got home. But for now, from the back you couldn’t necessarily tell that I wasn’t from the country.
It was around 8am when our driver, Pei, pulled the car over to a psuedo strip mall parking lot on the side of the road. The lot was dirty and dotted only with one or two broken down cars, a bicycle, a pullcart, and (as per usual) a handful of stray chickens. I wasnt that hungry and considering I was in China where, you know, they eat dog and all, I wasnt feeling too optimistic about what we would find here. But Pei insisted that it was a good, quick place to stop on our long drive home. He thought he had been there once before.
We pulled in the driveway and right up to a rusty, old card table staffed by two women who seemed to be around my age and of likeminded fashion sense. On the uncovered (and not totally clean) table sat a tower of trays stacked a foot and a half high. Each layer was encased in its own corresponding cloud of steam that, combined as a whole, drifted into the air almost covering the line of working men standing anxiously by. I watched as one of the men approached and was welcomed by the taller of the two women as she struggled with the cover of the top tray. It finally opened releasing billowing, warm steam — and the strong smell of meat and deliciousness — into the chilly air. The perfumed haze dissipated just in time to expose beautiful, soft white dumplings stuffed delicately into the tin platter. The man said something I didn’t understand, and the woman removed 5 dumplings and brusquely placed them — one by one — into a plastic bag for her morning customer.
At that moment, as I watched each perfectly packaged lump of steaming meat move from its incubator to its temporary new home, I hated that I was a vegetarian. This was sure to turn out like most of our experiences in Japan (where we had spent the previous two weeks). I would anxiously and hopefully watch as the waiter, street stall cook or market maid unveiled the most incredible-looking item of food, and then only after I had salivated profusely, would be told they didn’t have anything for me. Now, standing on the side of the road in middle of nowhere China, I was brought back to my reality. And just as I was kicking myself for not packing more granola bars (as my dad had insisted) our guide chimed in and asked how many dumplings I wanted. “They’ve got vegetarian options.”
For a second, I thought I was hallucinating from the intense smell of roasting pork juice. But before my eyes, a streaming light from the heavens came down and the second steaming tray was opened to reveal cabbage-stuffed dumplings. So to recap: We were standing in a parking lot on the side of the street next to a makeshift food stall with chickens, buffalos and stray cats running around, and grown men hocking loogies like it was their job… and I was presented with a vegetarian option. This was not the China I had heard about.
When I’d told friends or family members about my impending month in Asia (2 weeks in Japan and 2 weeks in China), as a vegetarian I always got the same response: Japan will be awesome, but good luck in China. Meaning, there’s no way a vegetarian would survive there. And how could I? In the place where they eat most things other cultures dont (you know, puppies and butterflies) it didn’t seem the best place for a person of my culinary preference. But as I soon learned, my experience was quite the opposite. It was in Japan that I had the most difficult time finding sustenance, and China where I was able to traipse around the country with ease. And here’s why: the difference between the two countries is in the Yin/Yang.
That circle dot swirly symbol that was a very popular tram stamp in the 90s was my saving grace when it came to travel in China. The philosophy of yin/yang balance is an extremely respected virtue that transcends all areas of Chinese culture. Most importantly (for my immediate concerns), it also applies to the food. All ingredients are placed into either the Yin or the Yang category. Yin is designated to items that reduce the body’s temperature; Yang is reserved for items that increase the temperature. Most vegetables are designated as Yin items, and most meats as Yang items. Though Donkey Meat (yes, that’s what I said) and garlic are the major crossovers (“which is why we love donkey meat so much!”, one guide explained). It’s essential to have a balance of both items which is why, surprisingly, it was no trouble finding delicious things for me to eat.
My first morning in China opened to a street stall plastic table which was topped with steamed buns, tea eggs, fried dough and tofu soup. This was then followed up by a lunch of Jian Bing (that Chinese crepe thingy stuffed with egg, scallions and crispy cracker that you can see being assembled at the beginning of our “Travelers Republic of Tofu” video). This balance of all things gestational continued during our travels through the mainland. Some may even say my culinary experience through the Peoples Republic was nothing short of a miracle.
Now, for full disclosure, I cannot swear by the vegetarian-ness of any of these items. Though it wouldn’t be my preference, I was not able to make sure that these veggie delights on the side of the road, down a street alley or in the tiny kitchen of a village home were not cooked in a vat full of pork broth or simmered in onions and beef jus. I did not question why the vegetable dumplings were so rich and complex, nor why the tofu had so much flavor. And I know there are a number of fully vegetarian restaurants that you can find in any large city in Japan or China. But on these trips around the world, I want to (as much as possible, and within my moral standards) try the real food of the country — not the vegan attempt. In China, I was happily surprised and humbled by all the non-meat options that are actually eaten by the locals every day.
So, with great confidence, I will say that I loved China. I embraced the toilets, the spitting on the streets, the waves of Chinese tourists in matching yellow hats, the bustling markets full of crazy food and innards I had never seen (and never particularly wanted to see), the crowded sidewalks, the stinky tofu, the public dancing (there’s a lot of it), and the staff at the Beijing airport who treated me like I had just insulted their mother (I swear, I had no clue that was their mother). And though I didn’t love them, I tolerated the donkey meat sandwiches, because next to them sat the vegetarian dumplings.