Meat and greet

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 July, 2012, 12:00am


Are you a vegetarian? I used to be. It started when I arrived in China, in 1988, and saw how much wonderful stuff can be made with just vegetables, oil, spices and a great cooking heritage.

Before that, 'vegetables' to me meant 'boiled-to-death cabbage', 'cauliflower soup', 'cucumber in a pate sandwich' or 'slices of tomato on a pizza'. (I have since learned that the tomato is, in fact, a fruit.)

So when I started travelling regularly in China, with increasing Putonghua and Cantonese vocabularies, adventurously saying, 'Cook me something good,' when ordering food, I was always puzzled when my request for 'but with no meat' inevitably resulted in me being served beef, chicken feet or duck heads.

It took me years - years! - to realise that in Chinese, 'meat' means only 'pork'. Goose, chicken wings, dog meat, cow's stomach - none of this is considered meat. It's a bit like how beer is not really considered an alcoholic drink on the mainland. 'No, thank you, I don't drink' is usually met with a soothing: 'That's OK, no one's forcing you. Have a beer.'

Fortunately, I'm not a recovering alcoholic, yet. If I were, I'd be falling off the wagon more times than I've had a hot duck's head dinner.

If you're a vegetarian, or worse, vegan, and you see something on the menu like 'double-fried imperial vegetables' or 'seasonal vegetable', don't think you're off the hook. With the mainland's relatively newfound wealth, it's de rigueur to eat pork at all meals, including breakfast.

Vegetables just don't taste the same without a sprinkling of pork, and neither does a vast array of biscuits. Even tofu comes proudly to the table dressed handsomely in a cloak of minced pork, and the stock for any sauce is based on boiled pig and chicken bones. (Good) food equals pork - that's just the way it is.

The time I officially left vegetarianism came when I lived in Sichuan for a month, working as a volunteer English teacher at a village school. When a succulent dish of one of China's most famous culinary exports, gong bao (also irritatingly known as 'kung pao') chicken was served, it was all over between me and the 'only eat what you are prepared to kill' mindset.

Since then, I have been dipping into duck (the meat, not the head; I still draw the line at my food staring at me), chewing on chicken and, on occasion, bearing down on beef. Strangely, the one thing I'm not very fond of is 'meat' itself. By this, of course, I mean pork - unless it's hidden inside a dumpling, but even then I prefer it to be of the 'seasonal vegetable' kind.

Cows, pigs and chickens were put on Earth for a reason, I reason. It's not as if they're endangered species or anything, is it?