Vegetarians are making a comeback in China, yes, China! While we have lamented the sky rocketing meat consumption in China, the growing popularity of meat-based, fast-food restaurants such as McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken, and have been dismayed by the China’s purchase of the world’s largest pork producer and processor, Smithfield, there is a silver lining to this darkening cloud.
A deepening environmental crisis, marked by growing levels of water pollution on the local level and climate change on the global level, combined with counterfeit food and adulteration scandals of the very worst kind, endangering the health of all and sickening many, has motivated a small but growing number of Chinese to return to a traditional vegetarian diet.
One such person is Long Kuan, an early follower of urban China’s growing vegan trend. “It started when global warming was a big issue, and I looked into a lot of information about food’s impact on the environment,” she said. “I didn’t know anything about it before. I was just loving the animals and didn’t want to eat them.” Four years ago, Long Kuan was a pop singer, pixie-faced, in her late 20s, with little pig tails. A song of hers out at the time, “LOHAS Queen,” was an ode to LOHAS – “lifestyles of health and sustainability.” She decided to switch from just being vegetarian to being vegan, after reading a United Nations report that said that raising, slaughtering and processing livestock produces more greenhouse gases than cars. And these days, she says, it’s a lot easier to be a vegetarian or vegan in China than it used to be.
With this growing trend towards the veg-diet, there has been an upsurge in vegetarian and veg-friendly restaurants. One example is Beijing’s Gingko Tree café with its vegan buffet, and flavorful dishes, offering all the taste but none of the meat that many Chinese love. On the menu at Gingko Tree are lamb kebobs with cumin, fish with black bean sauce, a salad, spring rolls and rice — all vegan. Chinese vegetarian cooks have ingenious ways of making tofu taste like meat. And while some purists may feel that defeats the purpose of giving up meat, Long Kuan celebrates having so many different flavors to choose from, with less harm to animals and the planet.
Another example is Shanghai’s Jen Dow buffet style restaurant offering over 200 different dishes. A rich compliment of meat substitute dishes, such as duck legs made out of mushrooms, are complemented with numerous vegetables just as they are – powerfully adaptable ingredients that make some delicious dishes, with no need for artifice. A selection of colorful skewers of vegetables and tofu for hotpot, and a seemingly endless row of stir-fried vegetables, including white asparagus, bamboo shoots, and burdock, and all sorts of melon, are to be found in this popular vegetarian hot spot.
China once had one of the highest rates of vegetarianism in the world, rivaling even India, having been sparked by the influx of Buddhism over 1,000 years ago. This continued until very recently, and it wasn’t very long ago that T. Colin Campbell was able to document the health advantages of a plant-based diet in his famous book, The China Study. Today, with many Chinese viewing a meat diet as a sign of success, and with a growing middle class, a strong shift away from the more traditional plant-based diet occurred. But with that change towards a western diet, a surge in the incidence of western lifestyle diseases, such as heart disease and diabetes, has taken place.
While statistics on the number of vegetarians in China are hard to come by, one analyst placed the number at around 50 million people. While that’s not much compared to the one and a half billion people in China, many think it is more than enough to spark a renaissance of its once flourishing vegetarian diet.