In January 2019, I switched to a plant-based vegan diet. It’s been transformative to my life and I can hand-on-heart say that I won’t go back to anything else. Last year I wrote a feature all about vegetarianism in a Chinese household and I think it’s about time I penned an update. One of the most commonly asked questions that I get is ‘how do you find being vegan and Chinese? What has changed?’, and it’s a completely valid question. So today I’m going to dig right in to what it’s been like eating vegan in a Chinese household.
Why is veganism in a Chinese household significant?
To begin with, I want to shed some light on why veganism in a Chinese household is significant. This isn’t a way for me to ‘show off’ my eco living credentials or preach to you, but it is significant in that Cantonese cuisine is notoriously meat-heavy. I grew up eating a huge variety of food; from healthy soup broths to the traditional Hong Kong dishes my Granny cooked, and from steamed whole fish and vegetables to dim sum on Sundays.
As such, I am a huge foodie with an always-varied palate.
Looking back, I don’t believe that Cantonese cuisine – or Chinese overall – has to be meat-heavy. I think that’s just a learned habit from the ease of selecting a meat and bumping it up with other ingredients. As tough as I found it originally to ease into a vegetarian diet, going plant-based vegan from there was an absolute doddle (non-UK readers: that means it was really easy!).
A typical Chinese diet
Firstly, let’s break down – no, shatter – the myth that Chinese people solely eat takeaways. Because we certainly don’t and, in case you didn’t already realise, Chinese takeaway menus feature heavily adapted versions of Chinese food, to the point that it might as well be a British one! It’s a very dairy-free cuisine, so the main roadblock was always the meat. Instead, we favour steamed jasmine rice, vegetables – fresh as you can get, fish, soup – not the kind you find in cartons, tea, hot pots and balance. It’s all in the balance.
Dishes are simply flavoured. Ingredients like garlic, light soy sauce, oyster sauce, sesame oil, sugar and tomatoes formulate the basis of almost every recipe.
Moreover, we eat in a way that naturally controls portions and introduces plenty of variety to the diet. For our family of four (technically five, but my brother has moved out), we typically have three or four dishes in the centre of the table, and each of us eat from a ceramic rice bowl. This way we don’t feel forced to finish our plates, but we still get to eat a little of a lot until we feel full.
Roadblocks in vegan Chinese food
In Hong Kong, the famed dishes are roasted meats. Roast duck, char siu, roast pork… The list goes on. And in my foodie Malaysian hometown of Ipoh, the list is even more extensive! Dim sum is a minefield and unfortunately I’ve not been able to go to yum cha with my family in months. (Although there are great vegan options in Hong Kong!) In that respect, it is a little tough to be able to ‘freely’ choose what to eat, however I am more than happy with my new lifestyle and diet. Plus, there is almost always tofu readily available in most Asian cuisines!
The most touchy subject I’ve faced so far in my veganism journey is not offending family when I’m unable to eat the symbolic dishes prepared for occasions like Chinese New Year, birthdays (where usually we eat two red-dyed eggs to symbolise harmony for the year ahead), wedding banquets, baby one-hundred day celebrations, etc.
For each of these occasions, symbolic dishes are created; each with purpose and meaning behind them, that my siblings and I have always had instilled in us from a young age. My cousin was recently incredibly offended that I wouldn’t eat pigs’ feet, nutritious chicken broth and other non-vegan dishes, when we were celebrating his son’s one-hundred days. To counter this, I ordered a separate tofu dish and explained that I was still celebrating, I just didn’t personally find it appropriate given that I’m vegan for animal rights, ethical and environmental reasons.
On the other hand, when we flew to Hong Kong to celebrate another cousin’s wedding, the venue thoughtfully prepared a wholly plant-based vegan 10-course banquet for me. It was delicious! And the more I think about it, the more I’m at odds with the fact that a huge 488 million people in the world are Buddhist and, supposedly, would be vegetarian?
Where I’m at now with a vegan, Chinese-centric diet
As I write this post, I’m 9 months in to my plant-based vegan lifestyle. It’s surprisingly easy to eat vegan and eat Chinese meals and I’m hoping to share some of my favourite recipes soon. Dad is a chef – published in a British-Chinese newspaper! – and we’re passionate about inventing delicious, nouveau-authentic Cantonese dishes.
I’ve learned that Chinese cuisine really doesn’t have to be meat-heavy or meat-centric. I’m slowly coming to terms with the fact that I’m no longer eating traditional dishes anymore. And that’s fine, because we’re in a new pace of life now and I’d rather live in alignment to my own values and beliefs.
Throughout the week, I probably eat 3-4 Chinese dinners, with the rest being ‘general other vegan recipes’ and leftover lunches. It’s proportionate to what I’ve eaten growing up as a British-Chinese kid and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Eating such a varied diet has almost certainly contributed to how much I enjoy going out to eat, but also how much I enjoy cooking at home.
My go-to meals are dishes like braised tofu in a stone pot, minced mock meat and aubergine, flash-fried green beans with homemade chilli sauce, Hainanese tofu rice and Dad’s delicious vegan curries. (Watch this space for our original vegan Chinese recipes!)
I hope you found this post interesting or even inspiring.
Would you like to learn more about the symbolism of food in Chinese culture? And if you’re a fellow Chinese or Asian, let me know your thoughts on how our cuisines are changing with new values.