Every other day I happen to speak to a colleague, acquaintance, long lost friend and when I tell them that I work in China the reaction invariably is “China; are you vegetarian? – it must be terrible for you there” or worse still “Are you eating cockroaches and lizards every day?” And this comment is invariably from people who have never visited China. For one to think that everyone in China eats lizards and cockroaches is akin to someone who would watch Slumdog Millionaire and think every Indian lives in a slum and has to beg for a living! I am writing this merely to highlight the reality in China today in terms of food. For most of the world and more so for India (in spite of being a neighbour), China remains an unravelled mystery.
When I visited China for the first time on a short trip, I came here with an open mind, not expecting anything but not carrying the notions that some of my friends/ acquaintances in India have about China. Born to a Brahmin mother and Jain father, I am vegetarian by birth and now by choice – and not because of religious reasons. I don’t mind sharing my table with people eating meat or having my food made in same utensils used for cooking meat and I don’t eat meat simply because I don’t like the taste. And it’s not that I have to eat only Indian vegetarian – I like all cuisines, as long as its non meat dishes.
When I came to live in Shanghai, It took me all of 2 weeks, speaking to some Indian acquaintances and some googling to figure out the following about Shanghai:
• There are more than 30 Indian restaurants in Shanghai and growing by the day (the Indian consulate website also provides details of Indian restaurants in China)
• There are hazaar American, Italian, Mexican restaurants with some good vegetarian options on their menu
• Most Chinese restaurants make vegetable fried rice, stir fried broccoli, Chinese cabbage, stir fried vegetable with mushroom, braised eggplant, spinach etc (In fact the Chinese also make spring onion chapatti and call it “congyoubing”)
• In Shanghai, there are more than 3 (that I know of) independent Indian chefs – who provide a dabbawala kind of service depending on which area one lives/ works in (Jain food also available)
• There are Indian grocery stores wherein one gets everything from basmati rice to all kinds of pulses, spices to desi daru
• There are Buddhist vegetarian restaurants where people who don’t eat meat but like the taste get mushroom/ soybean dishes cooked to taste like meat
Other cities like Beijing, Hangzhou, Suzhou have Indian restaurants; in fact Yiwu (frequented by lot of Indian businessmen) has a pure vegetarian Indian restaurant.
So one may think what about all those emails floating around showing pictures of lizards, cockroaches, and various insects sold as street food in China. Well, yes, those do exist but very rarely have I seen any of my Chinese friends or colleagues eating that and it surely is not available everywhere – I can’t find a single such place anywhere near my office or house in Shanghai. I know of the food stalls near Wanfujing walking street in Beijing and that is the only place in China where I have seen the insects being sold. Also, I am told that in interiors of China, rural China, especially in the south, people eat more “exotic” stuff including monkey, cat and dog. But in Shanghai; KFC, McDonald’s are surely more frequented than the roadside food stalls.
Let us understand why some people in China eat this “exotic” or “weird” or “unusual” stuff in the first place. It is said that because of food shortage in the past, the people ate anything and everything to fill their stomach – it was a question of survival! Also when it comes to normal food like chicken, it’s the Chinese style of preparation which is very different. For example, Chicken feet are eaten and the chicken is normally not skinned – which may not be acceptable to most Indian meat eaters. However, this still does not warrant the 5 kg basmati rice and other food stuff most Indians carry along with them when they arrive in China – almost as if there is no food available here!
So if you are an Indian vegetarian or meat eater looking to visit China, please do so just as you would visit any other country in the world – without having notions about the food – as global cuisine is available in most of the big cities here.