TW: This post openly discusses eating, restricted eating and other themes that relate to food and diet.
Without a doubt, vegetarianism and veganism is having a moment and I am all for it. Far from being a passing trend, it’s clear that cutting out meat is becoming more and more popular whether that’s for ethical reasons, environmental reasons, personal health reasons or something else. During this year’s Veganuary and, in fact, the last quarter of 2017, an estimated 29% of evening meals in the UK were meat-free, according to research published by the BBC. Many of the UK’s prominent supermarkets are increasing their meat-free and dairy-free selections and it’s incredibly encouraging.
When I first dabbled in vegetarianism at the start of 2016, the thing that I struggled with the most was easily not being able to eat traditional Cantonese cuisine. And it’s something that I’ve struggled with up until today. I then transitioned completely to vegetarianism in the summer of 2016 and, essentially, gave up a huge part of my cultural background. Chinese culture is rooted firmly in food: family-style meals where huge batches of each dish are cooked up and placed in the middle of the dining table for sharing, freshly roasted duck and pork is hung up in the windows of restaurants and there are symbolic meanings behind almost every dish. Dim sum is a minefield with every traditional dish containing pork or prawns, and it was all a complete shock to be heading out with my parents for Sunday afternoon yum cha and have to eat almost nothing at all. At home, meals were changed by taking out the meat so I’d eat a few lettuce leaves or some mixed vegetables in oyster sauce (not strictly vegetarian). I felt like a burden to my family (it’s considered rude to cook my own meals when living with your family, who’re providing for you) and I ultimately truly missed my favourite comfort foods that I’d grown up eating.
However, that wasn’t without its’ problems. Cantonese cooking is predominantly meat-based and I found it hard to shut out an entire part of my culture. Is this almost entirely nurture? Yes. Do vegetarian Chinese recipes exist? Of course. Even the most simple of Google searches will lead you to discover that Cantonese cuisine revolves heavily around almost ‘all edible meats’ including chicken feet, offal (especially in soups) and duck’s tongue.
We use almost no herbs, but instead the flavour of Cantonese cooking derives from simple flavourings like sugar, salt, soy sauce, rice wine, garlic, cornstarch, spring onions and sesame oil in varying combinations. This formulates most of Cantonese cooking and even the extremely Westernised versions you’ll find at takeaways. Other notable dishes? Chinese sausage, fermented black beans, preserved salted duck, salted duck eggs, salted fish (my Granny’s favourite!), braised beef brisket (one of my childhood favourites).
These dishes are all so richly flavoured and especially produced to meet the Four Natures (hot, cold, warm and cool — these go further than literal temperature) and the Five Tastes (sweet, sour, bitter, salty and pungent). Additionally, I have never been raised to or known to further flavour my food after it has been cooked, whether with salt, pepper or soy sauce 😉
I can’t sit here and lie to you that the path to vegetarianism as I personally know it today has been an absolute doddle — it’s been a minefield. Yet I can’t expect that the world will progress to eliminate as much as we as humans can from global greenhouse gas emissions, the crisis in providing grains for livestock to be produced, and the health concerns that are evident, without taking a stand and crafting a modern Cantonese diet that’s healthy, nutritious, delicious and relatively in-keeping with traditional and authentic flavours. Today, my parents and I try to replicate authentic dishes (thankfully they’re both restauranteurs!) that are kind to animals and ensure a balanced diet.
If you’re also Chinese or of an ethnic minority and in the same cuisine boat as me, I hope this post has provided a source of comfort, insight and inspiration to you. Papa Daisy and I are currently curating some simple recipes to share on the blog next month in celebration of World Meat-Free Week, so watch this space.