Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Vegan In China: Lowlights and Highlights!

Oh My! I had a hell of a time with Blogger not letting me upload any pictures for the last few days... and the whole time I've been dreaming up this big post about the joys and miseries of calorie consumption in China.

Too be honest, I'm not the biggest fan of Chinese food to start with, so I was already at a disadvantage. Plus, it just makes me nervous, never knowing for sure what I'm eating. In a country like Italy, or India, where I know more about the cuisine, I'm more likely to have faith that something is vegetarian - or to know when it's not. But in China, I just had no idea. I'm generally a pretty mellow vegan. I don't mind a slightly circumspect meal here or there... but for days on end, it gets a little fatiguing. The enthusiasm wavers. If you know what I mean.

Here's the problem. We were on a tour. So we didn't get to pick where to eat, or even what to eat. It was a good tour, so I'm not knocking it on that front. But the way it worked, for the most part, was that they would take us to some weird factory/shopping zone/eatery! WEIRD. For example, we would watch a bunch of poor souls making embroidered wall hangings, then go upstairs for lunch, then go to the store to buy as much embroidery as we wanted! Meals were served "family style" so there wasn't even a menu to pick off of. When my tour guide told them I was vegetarian, at one spot, they brought me this meal: a plate of steamed broccoli, a plate of canned corn/carrots/peas, and "soup". That soup was hilarious... LITERALLY hot water with 2 tomato slices and 1 peice of boy choy. Ha! So sweet, but so pathetic. At least I was stoked on the broccoli.

This is actually not the worst meal... we snuck away from the tour one night (actually, more than once) and went to a Chinese place. We were all psyched to order some proper veg items. Even though Musty and my parents are vegetarians, everyone was more than happy to order all veg dishes. Starting from the top left, here you see some garlic scapes, green beans, bell pepper & who-knows-what, and cabbage with wheat gluten. Truly, not my favorite meal ever... but edible and vegetarian. Notice the glistening quality. In general, I found Chinese food to be pretty greasy, which I'm not used to.

Here's a classic meal. Oh, there were some hungry nights. I ate about 2 bars a day - and I could've easily eaten more! (I'll do a Bar Review coming up soon). This meal consists of white rice, cabbage, bok choy, 3 cherry tomatoes, and a greasy item that I rejected upon closer inspection. This was from a giant lunch buffet, but these were the only 2 hot veggie dishes. I ate SO MUCH cabbage and bok choy. Lucky for me, those are two veggies I enjoy. Our tour guide in Beijing told us that when he was a little boy, his mother would buy about 300 lbs of cabbage to last for the whole winter, because there weren't other veggies available then. After "China opened up to the world," they began importing more foods, and today other foods are available all around China. That said, cabbages are still clearly a winter-time favorite!

And you know what, it was so dry there! We had to drink a ton of water to stay hydrated. My oh my. Musty's a real water guzzler. This is his bedside supply for one night. The tap water there isn't safe for drinking, but the good news is that China has recycling bins absolutely everywhere. I was pretty impressed with that. Way ahead of many places in the USA.

"But Amey, what did you eat for breakfast??"

I'm glad you asked! Our tour had us housed up in some pretty nice hotels! Generally they had pretty nice breakfast buffets. The hotel where we stayed in Suzhou had a crazy-great breakfast buffet. I don't think anyone on the tour would dispute that this was the best breakfast of all. Often, my only breakfast items were two pieces of toasted white bread with jam packets (hello? what's wrong with whole wheat?), and a plate of pre-cut melon cubes. Not too bad, but you'd be right if you guessed that I was hungry one hour later. This place in Suzhou had cool stuff though. This is picture of my first pass at the buffet - and here's what I came back to the table with: congee with goji berries, a fresh steamed water chestnut, a fresh steamed jerusalem artichoke, bok choy (nice and dark green), delicately spiced fresh fava beans, some orange slices, canned peache pieces, 1 piece of white toast, and 1 piece of whole wheat toast. I went back for more water chestnuts and jerusalem artichokes. YUM! It was my first time having either one and I loved them both. Of course I've had the canned water chestnut, but these fresh ones were exquisetly beautiful, and had a sweet, simple taste. They look like gorgeous enameled lacquer boxes. So cool.
Here's another snazzy breakfast, this time from the excessively modern Ramada Inn in Hangzhou. Two whole wheat rolls (carboloading!!), two kinds of melon, DELICIOUS sweet sticky black rice treats with cashews, a yummy yam, and scrumptious winter squash cooked to oblivion in orange juice. Very nice. I loved this little meal. My friend and yoga student Claire was also on this trip and I owe her mad props for pointing out these little rice babies to me. I loved 'em! I went back for another one after I tasted the first one. Wish I knew how to make those goodies!

here's a cool thing. Every breakfast buffet had hot, fresh soy milk. I usually had a cup with breakfast. Very strong beany flavor, which made me realize how de-beaned our commercial soy milk is here in the States. This was like warm edamame juice. But I liked it.

"Amey, did you get to eat anything cool and exotic in China??"

Yes! I was constantly searching through the fruit stalls for cool goodies to try out. My friend Cindy tipped me off to these mangosteens! Check out EatnVegn's cool pictures... I didn't get a chance to take such nice pictures. However, I didn't bother with the knife... I just peeled 'em. They've got these cool, slimy little segments inside that have a delicious, unique flavor. Unlike anything else, so I won't be any good at waxing poetic about it. All I can say, is that if you get a chance to try one, don't hesitate!

I've bought the dehydrated rambutans at Trader Joes, so when I spotted these spiky little babies, I instantly recognized them from the package. Fun! Weird! Crazy looking! Tasty! Crunchy! Eye-ball-y! They have these soft funny red spikes, and a pretty soft skin. You can easily peel them with your fingernails. When you open it up, there's a big white eyeball of a fruit in a little bit of juice. There's a seed inside that I didn't eat, it's pretty sizeable. The texture is very similar to that of a lychee - a little bit of crunch, but a very moist fruit. A neat, mild, sweet, flavorful taste.
How cool is that? I went to a juice bar that had so many great offerings - guavas, dragonfruit, apples, star fruit... how could I pick??

Well, I picked dragonfruit. They peeled 2 giant dragon fruits, and tossed 'em in the blender - turned it into liquid and stuck a straw in it! Yeah! I loved it. I also loved the big fatty straw. This juice bar was on the floor level of the world's 4th tallest building. We went up to the 88th floor on our last night in China and looked out over the view of Shanghai's beautiful city lights.

One neat place we went was a tea growing valley near Hangzhou. It was so beautiful! All these neat little hills and valleys with rows of green tea bushes. It was such a lovely and enchanting spot. We had a neat tour of how they dry the leaves, and how to assess quality... and they gave us each a lovely glass of fresh fresh fresh green tea! I'm not a big tea person, but this was a special experience and a nice cup of tea. Plus, I knew for SURE that it was vegan! ha ha.

Don't we look happy?? My friend Claire purchased an AMAZING yam from a street vendor, and -very- graciously shared it with me. This was the single tastiest thing from the whole trip, and I would practically fly back to China for another one. This guy had a really cool metal oven contraption with many different tube/drawers. Each tube had about 3 yams inside. This yam was insanely great. How many times could I tell you? It was pretty much caramelized all the way through. It must have been cooking at 500 degrees for 2 hours or something. MAN! it was good.

I'll tell you, Claire had quite an eye. Here's another thing she spotted - steamed corn on a stick. It cost about 90 cents. They had yellow or black, so of course I picked black! It was cooked in an odd way... thick and starchy, not as soft or nearly as sweet as we think of cooked corn. Still the black corn had a nice smoky flavor. I got Musty a yellow one, which wasnt' nearly as interesting, so clearly that black corn had a special flavor. I was so happy to be eating a veggie!

For our one day in Shanghai, my parents and Musty and I broke off from the tour group and cruised around the city on a little tour that my dad had designed for us. It included a stop at a famous dim sum spot near the Yu Gardens. These veggie dumplings were stuffed with greens and I actually quite liked them. Good, fresh, flavorful and fun. To be honest, I don't really know if that dumpling dough is vegan. At a certain point, I decided to be psyched just knowing it was vegetarian! And the waitress wasn't speaking good enough English for me to bother clarifying. I can hardly blame her though, it's not like I'm speaking very good Chinese either! :)

This was a nice little meal. One day in Beijing we took a "Hutong Tour" through the old, traditional neighborhoods. It included a home cooked meal in a family home. Mrs. Wong made a lovely little meal with a couple veggie dishes. Pretty much everyone agreed that this was one of the best meals of the whole trip. The dish on the bottom is some sort of tomatoey cauliflower concoction that was light and flavorful. The one on top is a light vegetable salad. I think it was room temp, but that some of the root veggies were lightly cooked while others maintained their crunch. Either way, I recall liking it! The power and superiority of a loving homecooked meal is universal!

And finally, our last meal in Shanghai. Dinner at the JinMao tower, on the 87th floor. We ordered a few dishes that didn't make it to the blog, but pictured here are our seasonal vegetables (the colorful one on top), herbed fava beans (i love favas), and these very cool little tiny fresh herb/greens rolled in very thin bean curd sheets. Those little guys were tiny, flavorful, and adorable. I think they were my favorite part of that fancy meal.

So! I can't believe you made it to the end of this monster post! I've been cooking up a storm since being home - SO happy to be back in the kitchen. I promise more posts coming soon, and shorts ones, darnit!



  1. Anonymous4:25 AM

    Ah man, looks like a great time! Considering the fact that I pretty much survived on rice, veggies, and luna bars when I went to China, you managed really very well. And now I seriously regret not trying dragon fruit- That smoothie looks wonderful!

  2. What a culinary adventure! Your meals ranged from downright scary to delicious looking! At least you had decent breakfasts to keep you going, and trying all the exotics fruits sounds exciting!

  3. wow! I love reading about your food adventures, it all sounds so interesting (and frustrating, and exciting, and um.. hungry). And that yam *does* sound like the best thing in the whole world!

  4. I'm surprised that there weren't plentiful veggie options at the restaurants, but I guess that's me being jaded with the chinese restaurants here in the US where you can always count on a decent veg meal.

    I'm glad you survived! How sad that I am part Chinese and have yet to go to China- my grandparents go all the time and they are insisting that I go with them on a tour- after reading your post, I am almost certain that I do not want to do a tour!

    Welcome home!

  5. Whoa, that was a monster post!! Sounds like China was quite a culinary experience. I am like you in that I don't even really like Chinese food (which as a vegan in a place with few restaurant choices, this narrows it down even more!), but sounds like you did okay. Glad you had bars to supplement with, I'd imagine steamed cabbage wouldn't quite fill you up. Your dragonfruit smoothie looks so cool! Are you gonna post some non-food pictures of your tour in China? I hope so! :-)

  6. Wow, this was such a great post, thank you for sharing!

  7. Wow... As much as I would love to visit China to experience the culture, I don't think I'd last a day. I'd starve! The fruit certainly looks yummy, but I'd need a whole lot more than that! Major kudos to you for surviving the not-so-vegan-friendly adventure. :)

    Glad to see you are back and looking forward to more cooking posts! :-D

  8. Amey, you brave little vegan traveller! I'm glad you survived, I think I would have had a breakdown, haha. I was nervous on my flight to the UK, so I can only imagine what you dealt with. At least the fruits look lovely!

  9. What a fun adventure! I bought rambutan from a farmers' market in Hawaii when I went there for a J-Term class last year. They are SO GOOD! I wish they grew/sold them around here!

  10. Wow, you are so lucky to be able to go on such an excursion! I don't know if I could eat that much cabbage and bok choy though...

  11. So cool you got to go somewhere exotic! Sorry about the periods of hunger, though. I think we can all empathize with that aspect of travel. We bought some mangosteens in France, too (big mistake) - they had gone bad when we opened them!

  12. Yams are worth getting exited about!! :)

  13. Anonymous11:46 AM

    So I just found this post after I posted my own experience with trying to find vegan food in China! Oh my gosh, I am obsessed with mangosteens! I so wish you could get them in the states - of course there are the dried ones at TJ's but it's not the same. And let me tell ya, I felt your pain with the food - let's talk about the one time I ordered what looked like tofu and was actually tofu - stuffed with pork. Awesome.


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